Extremely short, a little metallic and almost sterile, the first chords of the overture rang out from the pit. Yet those who feared that this was going to be the dominating sound quality that night was soon reassured when the curtain rose to reveal Tom Musch's picture stage, its interior initially veiled by a curtain of black strips. From behind the strips, the girls' hands protruded when Guglielmo (Jongwook Jeon) and Ferrando (Yongkeun Kim) sang of their beloved's virtues in such a warm, adoring fashion that it seemed positively cruel for Don Alfonso to suggest the opposite.

H. Yamazaki, Y. Kim, F. v. Hove, J. Jeon, M. Vieira do Santos & Ensemble Alto e Basso © Thomas Braun | Theater Heilbronn
H. Yamazaki, Y. Kim, F. v. Hove, J. Jeon, M. Vieira do Santos & Ensemble Alto e Basso
© Thomas Braun | Theater Heilbronn

Frank van Hove's clear, slightly steely voice made for an excellent Alfonso with a good amount of mature authority, and it contrasted nicely with the voices of the two heroes. They are two of the four very young artists who, in collaboration with the Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst Stuttgart, sing the roles of the lovers in this year's opera production of the Theatre Heilbronn and the Württembergisches Kammerorchester.

Their bright tenor and soft baritone gave both a very youthful timbre and their voices harmonised beautifully, while in the female roles, Manuela Vieira dos Santos (Fiordiligi) and Haruna Yamazaki (Dorabella) made for a stunning cast. Vieira dos Santos' voice often had a harsh, almost piercing quality, yet it merged very well with Yamazaki's softer mezzo that occasionally sounded more mature than both her role and years. Both were revealed when the black strips finally rose, also giving full view of a simplistic set that matched the colour-coded costumes, period-inspired (wigs and all), with a distinct modern touch.

Axel Vornam's production is straightforward, has hardly any distractions from set and props (the neon lights on the ceiling of the picture box started to get rather uncomfortable to the eye at the end of act I), and entirely focuses on his personenregie. In facial expressions and gestures, it paints a detailled and colourful picture of trust and affection, betrayal, pain and anger, and the singers delivered it very well: emotion flowed during the parting scene, and Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio", gently subverted by Dorabella and Guglielmo making first contact at the back of the stage, was perfectly credible. Vieira dos Santos mastered the giant leaps with great security in both intonation and shape. In all her arias, she shone with precise coloratura, and despite initial instability, later presented solid high notes as well as an impressively strong lower range.

Ferrando's and Guglielmo's boisterous, almost naive trust in their fiancées was transformed when the re-entered in disguise with military coat, sunglasses and keffiyehs around their heads, much to the amusement of the audience. They lounged on the chairs with the disinterested expression of the overly confident, prematurely triumphed gangnam style, while Kim's following "Un'aura amorosa" was absolutely beautiful, sung with his trademark clarity, and yet with a tender softness that infused it with a genuine, slightly melancholy yearning for his beloved. When Guglielmo succeeded in seducing Dorabella, however, his sadness, his pity for his friend and a hint of shame were mirrored in both posture and voice and quite palpable, so were Ferrando's hurt rage at the news and Fiordiligi's continuing inner struggle with her conscience.

M. Vieira do Santos, H.Yamazaki, F. van Hove, I. Froncala, J. Jeon & Y. Kim © Thomas Braun | Theater Heilbronn
M. Vieira do Santos, H.Yamazaki, F. van Hove, I. Froncala, J. Jeon & Y. Kim
© Thomas Braun | Theater Heilbronn

The driving and particularly acting force besides Don Alfonso in a stripy, revealing petticoat dress that could be located somewhere between gothic and Western saloon girl, was Isabella Forcala's extraordinary Despina. A little disillusioned with love and very sassy, she looked and sounded quite the part, her high soprano now chirping, now conjuring, now a hilarious pressed, nasal imitation of the notary, and always a superb duo infernale with the Don.

All excellent singing and acting was brilliantly supported by the Württembergisches Kammerorchester, whose initially lean sound appeared to grow in the course of the evening into the acoustic body of a symphony orchestra, and precisely coordinated by Ruben Gazarian. With simple yet effective gestures, he pulled the strings between stage and pit. The instrumentalists played accurately, with full-bodied tone, and worked with plenty of dynamic nuances, yet the orchestra never overpowered the singers. There were a number of issues with ensemble, particularly in the great accellerando at the end of Act I, but everything was quickly brought back to synch and to a spectacular close.

It was a delightful evening with a simple yet entertaining production that has much to offer, and the young singers in particular were positively stunning in their professionalism, their excellent and already polished singing and their convincing, natural acting. During the final tutti, the walls were lifted away as if in reference to Brecht, the floor was gradually lowered to stage level, and the picture box' frame tilted backwards to release the cast from the staged prank as well as the production into reality and the standing ovations the musicians both on stage and in the pit clearly deserved.