If we were to single out the few lines which close the libretto of Così fan tutte, Da Ponte’s staunch praise of human reason could certainly sound like wise, optimistic advice in a period so prone to irrationality such as ours – certainly a most fitting and auspicious way for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino to start their new season after the difficulties and uncertainties of the past year. However, context is indeed key: the opera’s positive moral closure famously has a hard time counterweighting the underlying bitterness of the rest of its plot. Such a peculiar type of cynicism is fuelled by the realisation of the frailty of self-imposed morals, as opposed to the indomitable strength of natural instincts. But as Mozart and Da Ponte make the very-much-cultural notion of faithfulness crumble before our eyes, we are also shown that maybe, just maybe, strictly natural pleasures aren’t all that bad.

Matthew Swensen (Ferrando), Thomas Hampson (Don Alfonso) and Mattia Olivieri (Guglielmo)
© Michele Monasta

Nature and culture being opponents in a number of philosophical brain-teasers, it is no wonder that Don Alfonso, a self-proclaimed man of wisdom, is so eager to share and test his theories. In his new production, German director Sven-Eric Bechtolf specifically focuses on the pivotal place that Alfonso holds in the plot, while redeeming him from the long-standing tradition which usually centres around his prankish temper. As soon as the overture begins, Alfonso enters surrounded by a bunch of peasants and draws their attention by making a shadow play. Once they all leave, Ferrando and Guglielmo walk in and start rummaging through the bag their friend left behind, just to find a few books whose subjects are revealed by stage projections: matters of the heart and of the body. The short pantomime makes it clear that Alfonso is not only a cynical prankster but also the community’s main source of knowledge. By depicting Alfonso as a (questionable) man of culture, Bechtolf highlights the thoroughness of his schemes and pseudoscientific ambitions.

Così fan tutte
© Michele Monasta

If science gone screwball is the main recurring theme, set designer Julian Crouch picks up on it. At first the scenery only consists of a round wooden structure with a staircase on each side which takes up most of the space; but soon enough the circle opens, revealing on the inside a floor decoration in the form of a wind rose. This, together with the round walls, make the stage look like a huge compass with no needle. This works on two levels: a literal one, consistent with the opera’s many references to winds and sailing; and a metaphorical one, since the needle is missing — or rather is replaced by several different characters. But as events unfold this idea turns out to be limiting: not much changes throughout the evening. As a result, the staging feels altogether a little too static and unimaginative.

Kate Lindsay (Dorabella) and Valentina Naforniţă (Fiordiligi)
© Niccolò Landi

Despite the limiting stage direction, the cast generally did well. Lyrical, tranquil moments seemed to be the optimum for Valentina Naforniţa’s Fiordiligi, whose soprano was pleasant, albeit at times slightly hollow in the lower register. What was maybe more critical was a certain lack of vigour and charisma in her arias: her “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” was a little underwhelming and out of focus. Kate Lindsey did a more convincing job as her sister Dorabella, her firm and warm voice very fitting for the role especially in “Smanie implacabili”. As for the two young men, in spite of his not particularly alluring timbre, Matthew Swensen displayed some commendable breath control and a steady technique which allowed him to be a sensitive and emotional Ferrando. Mattia Olivieri was an appropriate counterpart as Guglielmo. His baritone was well-projected and he played the role with a fair deal of stage presence.

Matthew Swensen (Ferrando) and Valentina Naforniţă (Fiordiligi)
© Michele Monasta

His character being central to Bechtolf’s interpretation, Thomas Hampson endowed his portrayal of Don Alfonso with seasoned acting experience and natural charisma. Yet his voice proved to be sometimes too light for the role, and on several occasions he resorted to a parlato which hardly concealed some troubles staying on pitch. Benedetta Torre completed the cast as Despina, giving an enjoyable and lively performance with her charming soprano.

Adam Fischer
© Niccolò Landi

The real highlight of the evening was however Adam Fischer’s conducting. His tempi were brisk but the orchestra never felt rushed or blurred, thanks to his masterful skills as a concertatore; and his ability to lead his musicians through a wide, nuanced range of dynamics was remarkable. It was a vibrant interpretation, which certainly showed how incredible Così fan tutte is as a theatrical device.