Director Jan Philipp Gloger says “it does love good to be sent back to school” and sets about proving his point in his knowing production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, currently enjoying its first revival at Covent Garden. He maintains that it is simply impossible for close friends and lovers not to recognise each other when in disguise – the central premise of the opera – and that they must know exactly who is who... and go along with it in order to learn more about human nature and themselves. “I have an alarmingly positive view of this piece,” he says, an opinion not widely shared for more than a century after its creation when it was condemned as cruelly cynical, vulgar and frankly unbelievable.

Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Sir Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso) and Paolo Fanale (Ferrando) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Gyula Orendt (Guglielmo), Sir Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso) and Paolo Fanale (Ferrando)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

To achieve his aim, Gloger has his four lovers drawn into Don Alfonso’s School for Lovers directly from the audience. The singers step onto the stage and into his challenge. He will prove that, for all their protestations, the men will find their lovers, will be unfaithful to them and, wider still, that everyone, especially those sitting out in the audience, is capable of duplicity and deceit. Così fan tutti, not tutte is the message, spelt out in glittering lights as the devastated lovers are sent back to their seats, a whole lot wiser than when they arrived.

This entire conceit relies on the conventions of theatre to underline its fundamental superficiality. Each scene is played in a series of proscenium-arch sets designed by Ben Baur that swing wildly from glitzy cocktail bar to smoky railway station to bucolic rural idyll, each assembled and struck in an instant by a team of beefy stagehands. We are in an opera within an opera. Nothing is at it seems.

Serena Malfi (Dorabella) © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Serena Malfi (Dorabella)
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

Which is all very well until you hit the hard reality of Da Ponte’s libretto, which so often runs counter to the action. Here, good acting skills are essential. In this production, the singer has to convey that she-knows-that-he-knows-that-she-knows. Best at conveying this in the small cast is the Italian mezzo soprano Serena Malfi, whose Dorabella has a sophistication to match her glorious voice. In our recent interview, she revealed that thyroid cancer had nearly robbed her of her voice; her surgeon deserves a standing ovation for saving such a golden, burnished instrument. It has Bartoli-like texture and depth and a wonderfully natural musicality, evident from the start in “Smarnie implacabili”.

Georgian soprano Salome Jicia, as Dorabella’s sister Fiordiligi, was a little more wooden but sang with real style and grace and made a scintillating pairing with Malfi. Mozart makes huge vocal demands on Fiordiligi, which Jicia more than met, her dark, lower register particularly impressive in the punishing “Come scoglio”.

<i>Così fan tutte</i> © ROH | Stephen Cummiskey
Così fan tutte
© ROH | Stephen Cummiskey

The sisters’ lovers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, were not so well matched. Italian tenor Paolo Fanale, while captivating in “Un’ aura amorosa”, seemed underpowered against the baritone of Hungarian-Romanian Gyula Orendt, who has a personality as large as his voice. Scheming away as the impresario Don Alfonso is Sir Thomas Allen, as elegant and suave as ever. The voice may not be as solid as it once was, but the presence is still magical. Serena Gamberoni is a terrifically vivacious Despina, revelling in her multiple disguises.

When first seen in 2016, conductor Semyon Bychkov was criticised for his dirge-like tempi. No such problem this time with Stefano Montanari making his debut in the pit, driving the nimble Royal Opera orchestra along with verve and vigour while playing the most witty, eccentric and diverting fortepiano continuo I’ve heard in a long time. It alone is worth the price of admission.


****1