Così fan tutte (ROH, 22 September 2016)
It was a very curious night. It contained curiosity, boredom, amusement, frustration, appreciation… The biggest culprit was Bychkov. Per pieta, Mr., LET’S.MOVE.ON! You know I normally like my Mozart not too fast but Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, Per pietà was excrutiating. It felt like it lasted about 2 months longer than it should. I know it’s supposed to be slow but I’m sure not THAT slow. The last time I got bored during Mozart was when Villazon sang Mio bel tesoro. It wasn’t Winters’ fault. She is a good singer and worked with what Maestro gave her, which was cruel and unusual. That being said, the versions on youtube vary quite alarmingly in length, so perhaps Bychkov isn’t the only one who likes to roast his Fiordiligis.
Fiordiligi: Corinne Winters
Dorabella: Angela Brower
Ferrando: Daniel Behle
Guglielmo: Alessio Arduini
Despina: Sabina Puértolas
Don Alfonso: Johannes Martin Kränzle
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov | Orchestra and Choir of the ROH
Director: Jan Philipp Gloger
His tempi were super slow throughout. We were forewarned by the early start time (6:45pm). His conducting, in my opinion, wasn’t necessary heavy (which I feared) – though it wasn’t light either, so if he decides to conduct Tito we might still get heavier voices – so not necessary heavy as much as lacking in that quicksilver touch necessary for Mozart. It felt somewhat middle-aged, as if reacting a second (or two) too late to the joke.
Now I know that a very important thing about Così is it’s not simply a comedy. There is a surprising amount of pshychology being explored. There is darkness and moments of realisation that make us pause. But not THAT long. So in Bychkov’s defense, yes, we did pause and we did think of the implications of what was happening. But it would’ve been nice to have some tunes with that as well, because – perhaps in a clumsy effort at presenting detail – we had, here and there, a random instrument stick out for no apparent purpose, sometimes after pregnant silences.
But since there will be much ranting ahead, let me first talk about the best bit, vocally. It was Ferrando’s Un’aura amorosa. I had never heard Behle before, but I can see why ROH has booked him quite a bit. He sang most of it softly and carried on from p to ppp outstandingly. Bychkov eventually had him throw in some marked contrast, which I thought was unnecessary and broke the atmosphere. It felt like going from pppp to FF within the same aria, which is something I doubt Mozart wrote. But those ppps were exemplary, hands down the best singing of the evening. Also, a lovely voice.
A word to the now reoccuring booers at Mozart productions: do you realise how difficult it is to get Così right? Very. Just check the recent Aix production and weep in horror. The ROH production did very well with the tricky makebelieve issue. There’s a lot to it, but I will give you just one example: Fiordiligi sings that exhausting Per pieta on a stage within the opera which Don Alfonso has concocted for the purpose of seducing the ladies. It’s a typical 18th century bucolic tableau (woods, stream etc.) – though the production is set nowadays. Whilst she realises she’s not exactly a one night stand kinda girl, all the bucolic elements start to disappear. Later on, after having found out about Dorabella’s betrayal, Ferrando sings of his sorrow on the now deserted stage within the opera. All this is ace. There’s a lot of pretense but there are also real feelings seeping through the pretense.
Another thing seeing it in the house made me realise is that it’s not just love and sex being discussed here. It’s also friendship, with the lovely warmth and easy camaraderie as well as its pitfalls of peer pressure, competition, losing face, feeling like a stick-in-the-mud. This was well carried over by the singers/production.
But although I was pleased with the general idea of the production, certain details didn’t pan out very well. For instance, I felt all of Dorabella’s scenes were misses. I don’t know why it’s so difficult. The woman is a ditz and she’s simple. Really, there isn’t much more to it. Fiordiligi is the brains of the operation, such as it is (she’s no Harvard material either but at least she has a conscience). Dorabella is lovable in her naivete, you know she doesn’t mean to cause harm; she just can’t help herself.
Well, what do you do with Smanie implacabili!!!? You pretty much have her throw a tantrum. Here it felt like they didn’t know what to do with Brower for most of the aria. The ending, when she gets on the table and finally has everyone’s attention, tries to be sexy and feels a bit self conscious was good. But leading up to that they just had her flail her arms about with no particular purpose in mind. There was also no purpose to the singing as far as I was aware.
My benchmark Smanie is Nikiteanu’s from way back when in Zurich. The woman just knows how to do ditz, tantrums, hormones and comedy in general. She might not be the most suavely detailed singer out there, but you sure can follow purpose in her singing (check it out). With Bower’s I just couldn’t feel any dramatic detail, the lines were just pushed out randomly and if you didn’t know the aria beforehand you probably thought she was just shouting unintelligibly.
I think it’s quite obvious I had a big problem with Brower’s Dorabella through the night. I know this is her debut at the ROH but I think it’s a mistake. She needs to bring another role pronto on this stage and forget all about this one. I don’t want to sound like a(ny more of a) horrible person, but is she really a mezzo? Because between her and Winters, and especially in their duets, I could’ve been fooled by who was the mezzo and who was the soprano. Maybe it’s part of this Così switcheroo thing… My other encounter with her was Annio in that Cirque du Soleil Tito from Munich (2014) and I liked her there. But Annio is a bright, high lying role. Stick with Annio, lady.
Because, what happened to E amore un ladroncello? Sigh. I love that aria; it’s of the same sort as Se l’augellin sen fugge, cute and silly. Who knew cute was difficult to do? Apparently it is and it’s a mystery to Bychkov as well. Check out Ziegler’s fantastic acting under Ponnelle’s guidance (hey, I don’t just bitch about the man!). That’s the essence of Dorabella and there’s the quicksilver non so che I was talking about earlier. Notice I am giving you Harnoncourt conducted Cosis so you can’t fault me for comparing slow with fast. And that’s a mezzo voice.
I don’t care how dark you want to go (and this time it wasn’t that dark), Dorabella is the comic relief, always. She’s more lighthearted than all the others. Another thing I noticed was that the men were a lot more clearly differentiated in their personalities from the getgo. For quite a while both women seemed very similar. I think you can start to have them react in their own way right from the start, have Dorabella a little more interested in what Despina says instead of all of a sudden say she has already made up her mind about the brunet. Like, where did that come from? Dorabella had an independant thought?!
In spite of all this, I did appreciate the last scene here – Dorabella really wants Guglielmo now and they need to pull her off him. That was good and Brower was funny and even a bit clumsy. Too little, too late, though.
Winters as Fiordiligi was consistently good. She has an alluring fullness to her voice, with a good middle and quite a bit of power, well focused, very good range. I don’t know that it’s a Mozart voice, but there is agility for those jumps in Come scoglio. She didn’t wow me like Behle but was possibly more consistent than him. It’s fun that Fiordiligi’s ethos is that of an opera seria primadonna. She’s the one who struggles most with this love/duty dichotomy. I’m not sure that her arc was as well resolved here as Dorabella’s. It’s really difficult to overcome that devotion to duty in world of much looser morals than that of opera seria.
The others were fine. I’m not sure I quite get Puértolas or – for all my love for a good snarkfest – could ever reach Despina levels of cynicism (probably a good thing) but she seemed to enjoy herself a lot. Arduini sounds exactly as you would expect Guglielmo to sound, no more, no less. Kränzle had the level of charisma needed to run the farce and not come off completely detestable. In fact, Don Alfonoso merely appeared reasonable in this production.
Since this is an opera where people interact closely a lot, you might wonder why I didn’t say anything about the ensembles. Well, aside from Soave sia il vento, where Bychkov’s and my sensibility momentarily met – and the singers blended worth the stage they were singing on – the others didn’t particularly stay with me, though I think the Act I finale felt hectic. Did you notice there are a lot of arias/duets/ensembles about the wind in Mozart?
So let me conclude by saying it was a funny evening; I and the rest of the audience laughed often (it helps that it’s a snarky libretto). But a long one, too. Normally I like to take a stroll after the opera but tonight I wanted to go straight home and bitch about it 😉 If you’re not put off by the writeup, the production is still running or you can check it out at the cinema next month. But I’d wait for the more accessible places for a look at the production.