Weddings bring out the cynic in me. They also bring out the cynic in Don Alfonso and it’s at a wedding breakfast that John Fulljames sets his production of Così fan tutte, which opens Garsington Opera’s new season. There is almost an unwritten rule that “anything goes” at wedding receptions: flirting, teasing, best men hooking up with bridesmaids. Could there be a more natural setting for Don Alfonso to expound his thesis that all women – given the opportunity – will be unfaithful? It makes for an even bitterly more painful Così than usual.

Act I © Mark Douet
Act I
© Mark Douet

A candy-striped marquee forms the basis of Dick Bird’s set. Top-hatted high society guests quaff Champagne and mill around the foyers before the performance, mingling with the audience. Military jackets are de rigueur, as are extravagant, towering wigs for the ladies… birds could nest in them. Despina, a wedding planner, hustles and bustles during the overture, all the characters already in place on-stage.

Don Alfonso picks his argument in full view (and hearing) of Fiordiligi, Dorabella and the wedding guests. This adds an interesting twist to the plot. How don’t the girls realise that they’re being duped? Or perhaps they do and they’re trying to beat their lovers at their own game? Despina is certainly in on the plot and sees straight through the ‘Albanians’ and their hippy disguise. The chorus of guests happily play along with Don Alfonso’s plot, while he observes most of the action unfolding from the side of the stage, oiling the wheels where necessary.

Andreea Soare (Fiordiligi) and Kathryn Rudge (Dorabella) © Mark Douet
Andreea Soare (Fiordiligi) and Kathryn Rudge (Dorabella)
© Mark Douet
Act I is full of fun and frivolity as Alfonso revels in his machinations. It’s in Act II, however, where Mozart and da Ponte plunge the knife in and Fulljames gives it a good turn. The pain, as both Ferrando and Guglielmo realise their girlfriends are not as saintly as they had earlier declared, is palpable. Having agreed to a double wedding, the look on all four lovers’ faces as Don Alfonso pulls his trump card – the arrival of the boys back from the war – is telling. Not expressions of panic, but ones of anger. They know precisely the trick he’s pulled and it leaves them in such torment – who do they really desire? – that the finale is even more ambiguous than usual.

Musical performances were strong. Andreea Soare led the way with a wonderful Fiordiligi, rich toned and heartfelt in “Per pieta”, managing Mozart’s giant leaps in her stoic “Come scoglio” perfectly. Kathryn Rudge was a feisty Dorabella, “Smanie implacabili” especially fine. Dorabella is the first of the sisters to succumb, Guglielmo waving a pair of skimpy pink knickers as his ‘medallion’ from their fumble in the gardens. Ashley Riches’ dark baritone cut through ensembles well and he displayed a sure comic touch in “Non siate ritrosi” as Guglielmo points out his manly attributes to try and tempt the ladies.

Robin Tritschler (Ferrando), Neal Davies (Don Alfonso) and Ashley Riches (Guglielmo) © Mark Douet
Robin Tritschler (Ferrando), Neal Davies (Don Alfonso) and Ashley Riches (Guglielmo)
© Mark Douet
Robin Tritschler was a mellifluous Ferrando, melting hearts in “Un aura amorosa”, the second verse of which was taken at a honeyed pianissimo. The gorgeous dialogue between tenor and woodwinds here came as no surprise. Douglas Boyd was an exceptionally fine oboist before turning to conducting, and he encouraged some beautifully turned woodwind solos from the Garsington Orchestra. Boyd never harried or bullied the score forward. Everything unfolded at a natural pace and there was a sense of an orchestra really enjoying itself.

Lesley Garrett’s poor intonation, even in recitative, made her Despina a trial. She got by on exaggerated comic acting alone. Neal Davies, orchestrating this tough lesson for “School for Lovers” as Don Alfonso, was superb, his firm baritone and precise diction a delight. The lack of a proper aria for Alfonso was especially regrettable in this production: more than ever, I wanted to know what it was that had turned him into such a cynic. When the outcome is such an ambiguous finale, it’s a night that’s going to be difficult to put down to wedding reception madness. A painful lesson indeed.