The Metta Theatre & Oxford Philomusica performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte took place at Oxford’s New Theatre last week. The critically-acclaimed orchestra and renowned singers promised an uplifting and refreshing performance, and the show certainly delivered this.
Set in Britain in the midst of the Second World War, the opera’s comic libretto was transformed from its original archaic setting to a more modern one, offering greater scope to explore the nuances of the female characters, and examine the way in which war changes our notions of correct social behaviour. Poppy Burton-Morgan suggests in her Director’s Note that ‘transposing the setting to WW2 […] allows us to explore Mozart’s surprisingly progressive examination of gender politics in a way that really resonates for contemporary audiences.’ Fiordiligi and Dorabella were transformed from ladies of leisure to land girls, faced with the uncertainty of life during the war, and tempted by the thought of attractive American soldiers. It is as much the prospect of losing their lovers in battle, as being seduced by the idea of attractive foreign soldiers, and manipulated by Despina and Don Alfonso, that pushes the sisters into ‘new’ relationships. In this setting, which gave the sisters a much greater depth, it was much easier to understand their motivations for straying from Guglielmo and Ferrando. Fully embracing its Second World War setting, the stage became a living, breathing ‘Dig for Victory’ poster, with accurate costumes from the era and a real sense of the wartime British countryside created through the arrival onstage of a gate, a washing line and, in the final scene, a street party wedding. The setting added comic touches, such as Despina’s arrival on a bicycle, and the absurd yet strangely attractive vision of Guglielmo and Ferrando as swaggering, sexy American GI’s in aviator sunglasses.
The vocal performances of the artists were wonderfully strong, with wit injected into every syllable. Particular praise must be given to Thomas Hobbs, whose lyrical voice suited the role of Ferrando perfectly, and was well showcased in ‘Un’aura amorosa’ in the first act. The leads and the chorus created a clear sound, something which can often be difficult in performances with a raised orchestra pit. Expecting great things from such a cast, the audience was not disappointed by the famous ‘Soave sia il vento’, which was beautifully handled, and the voices of Fiordiligi (Julia Kogan), Dorabella (Martha Jones, who stepped into the role at short notice), and Don Alfonso (Donald Maxwell) merged perfectly.
A highlight of this performance must be the humour injected by the characters of Despina (Danae Eleni) and Don Alfonso. Making a witty pairing, it was clear that the characters controlled much of the action taking place through their suggestive comments and subtle ridiculing of the two couples. Despina’s position of a farm maid places her socially below Fiordiligi and Dorabella, yet her character possesses the most wit and, arguably, charm. The two sisters (reluctantly) accept the seductive advice of the worldly-wise farm girl, which was rendered metaphorically in a particularly humorous scene in which Despina attempted to teach Dorabella to cycle. Don Alfonso, on the other hand, has a superior social standing, and watches, amused, as the chaotic action unfolds. The comedic elements of the final scene were especially well played, with the two soldiers transforming from their original British characters into their American counterparts, and back again, and with Despina and Don Alfonso managing the proceedings. The performance was infused with vivacity and sparkle, and the wonderful performances of Despina and Don Alfonso played a key role in this. Credit should also be given to Guglielmo and Ferrando’s hilarious performance as American soldiers, whose attempts to impress the sisters had the audience in their doubles.
Burton-Morgan states that her aim ‘has been to tell this story in a way that humanises these six characters so that they become real people rather than archetypes,’ and it is evident that the production succeeded in this goal. The development of the characters was brought to the fore through skillful acting which, coupled with the impressive performance of both the singers and the orchestra, created a thoroughly engaging opera.