Towards the end of Act I of Così fan tutte, the maidservant Despina, disguised as a doctor, produces the sort of horseshoe magnets which used to be depicted in children's comics, to wave them over Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are disguised as Albanians simulating the supposed effects of arsenic poison. They twitch magnificently, as if hit by taser weapons. It is a pantomimic moment which raises a laugh, as it usually does, a frivolous view of the world of science in the 18th century.

Ellie Laugharne (Despina) © Tristram Kenton
Ellie Laugharne (Despina)
© Tristram Kenton
Veteran Opera North director Tim Albery hit on a really brilliant idea when he squeezed all the action into this world. Tobias Hoheisel's set is one big scientific instrument, related to a camera obscura, first seen as a rosewood flat with a huge lens in the middle. This rises to reveal a chamber in shades of grey, with white lines for doorways – sliding doorways that is, because the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella and their lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo arrive for their amorous confrontations, always dead on time, as if they are being delivered by an oversized dumb waiter in some strange restaurant.

Don Alfonso is less an 'old philosopher', as he is described in the libretto, than an aristocatic scientist from the Age of Reason, dressed in black, with a mildly cynical smile, presiding over an investigation into human frailty and the way in which we are led by our emotions. He is played by baritone William Dazeley, whose relatively sweet voice and acting skill fit the part well, just as they fitted the more colourful part of Don Giovanni here just over three years ago. His laboratory assistant is a versatile Ellie Laugharne as Despina, a cheeky soubrette who at times steals the show as she bustles around as maid, doctor and lawyer. For much of the time she has a faintly Japanese look, with what appear to be red chopsticks in her hair, her soprano is fresh, her diction crystal-sharp. Her Act II aria “A woman at fifteen years old” (Una donna a quindici anni) is truly memorable. The translation of Da Ponte's clever libretto into English is strangely uncredited in the programme, even though it is spot-on and modern in tone – surely not the work of a committee.

William Dazeley (Don Alfonso), Helen Sherman, Gavan Ring, Máire Flavin and Nicholas Watts © Tristram Kenton
William Dazeley (Don Alfonso), Helen Sherman, Gavan Ring, Máire Flavin and Nicholas Watts
© Tristram Kenton

Ferrando and Guglielmo (tenor Nicholas Watts and baritone Gavan Ring) are in prim grey and formal white wigs when they are soldiers in Act I, and their fiancées are similarly costumed, but as the action proceeds, things loosen up, wigs abandoned, colourful, draping clothing adopted – except by the Don. The men, in fact, become quite hippyish with little moustaches and long hair, and the women end up rather like inhabitants of what might have once been thought of as a Turkish harem. The signs are blatant, but this production is carefully nuanced: the lovers are not just marionettes on the end of the Don's strings but creatures who develop subtly under his scrutiny, as if they were in a cage. The pathos – genuinely moving – is well brought out at the end of Act II, which seems to prove the point. Minor comic moments are well-handled, too, as when Guglielmo darts back from an exit to pinch a couple of biscuits from the table. The audience loved that! Gavan Ring is hard to imagine as a villain in future productions – his charisma seems more appropriate for opera buffa. His voice, however, is rich and assertive, appropriately. Nicholas Watts has an impressively limpid voice, particularly as exemplified in his “I see that beautiful soul” (Ah lo veggio) in Act II.

Máire Flavin (Fiordiligi) © Tristram Kenton
Máire Flavin (Fiordiligi)
© Tristram Kenton
Mezzo Helen Sherman brings considerable dramatic charm as well as a remarkably agile yet still velvet voice to the part of Dorabella, and Máire Flavin deals with the more fiendishly difficult stretches of Fiordiligi's part with great skill: her long apology to the absent Guglielmo in Act II (“Per pietà”) is gripping and shiver-inducing.

Jac van Steen steers the orchestra with efficiency: there is precise matching with stage actions most of the time, and close linking with the singers in this larger than life chamber piece. The violins are delightfully skittish when necessary, and the importance of the horns is played up.

This Così fan tutte is a logical choice to follow Opera North's Andrea Chénier, which is about the French Revolution directly, because it dates from about the same period and because there are related influences on Da Ponte's libretto. It is a welcome revival of an intelligent, nuanced production (I first saw it in 2009) which has had a few minor touches added, which I failed to notice. Opera North would be wise to keep this popular classic in the repertory for the foreseeable future.