For their mainscale production this year, New Zealand Opera opted for Così fan tutte,, staged by Lindy Hume who sets the work in what appears initially to be the modern age. Fiordiligi and Dorabella compare photos of their lovers on phones and laptops but, as the plot progresses, reality seems to give way and their costumes become those of older times. 

Emma Pearson (Fiordiligi) and Hanna Hipp (Dorabella)
© Jinki Cambronero

The scene in which the seductions take place is a surreal nature nightscape with the chorus as a series of fantastical animals. Tracy Grant Lord's rotating set features the sisters’ lounge, a balcony and the café, apparently staffed by Despina, designed to allow the singers to effortlessly flow from one scene to another. Hume’s direction is refreshingly uncomplicated, focusing on the emotional journeys of the principal characters, as they become more and more psychologically lost and untethered from one another through a series of estranging interactions. The fate of the couples is left ambiguous, despite the growth of understanding that comes through the loss of their naiveté; in the finale, both original and new pairings seem possible but in the end the sisters find solace in each other and in confronting Don Alfonso as the cruel architect of their heartbreak.

Andrew Foster-Williams (Don Alfonso) and Georgia Jamieson Emms (Despina)
© Jinki Cambronero

Despite the symmetry of the plot, Mozart’s music expertly distinguishes the individual characters and one felt that distinction further amplified by the direction and acting. Emma Pearson and Hanna Hipp made for a glorious pair of sisters, both vocally and dramatically. As Dorabella, Hipp’s ample, rich mezzo created an ideal contrast, but also a piquant blend, with Pearson’s light, flickering soprano. She played a character of hilarious extremes, from the exaggerated Metastasio-esque anguish of the first half to the flirtatiousness of the second. Her fascination with Guglielmo begins early and develops bit-by-bit across the scenes. Faced with what she had done, a surprising self-loathing entered into “E amore un ladroncello.” 

Jonathan Abernethy, Hanna Hipp, Emma Pearson and Julien Van Mellaerts
© Jinki Cambronero

At first, Pearson might have seemed light for the role of Fiordiligi, so prettily she sang with Hipp in the opening duet. But the ensuing ensembles showed surprising depth to her tone and by the time she reached “Come scoglio”, the wide-ranging top notes were gleaming and the low notes full and firm with a hint of chest voice. It was, however, the pathos of her performance that was the most entrancing, especially in a deeply conflicted and ravishingly-sung “Per pieta”. Her torment and final surrender to Ferrando won’t be easily forgotten, both vocally and dramatically.

Così fan tutte
© Jinki Cambronero

Julien Van Mellaerts' warm, pithy baritone voice tripped effortlessly through Guglielmo’s patter. At the same time, he brought the required sardonic edge to his lines, especially in the canon quartet within the finale. In disguise, he had a real chemistry with Hipp, which made for a sexier “Il core vi dono” than often seen. As Ferrando, Jonathan Abernethy lacked refinement at times and struggled a bit with the long, exposed lines in “Un’aura amorosa.” He was better suited to the gritty rage of his Act 2 aria. The production also had a sly Don Alfonso in the form of Andrew Foster-Williams, wry and world-weary but with a warmth and grain to his tone that belied the cruelty of his actions. Finally, Georgia Jamieson Emms made a spirited Despina with some interesting ornamentation in her arias, thankfully keeping silly voices to a minimum as doctor and notary.

Natalie Murray Beale conducted with significant feeling, starting with an alert account of the overture featuring beguiling woodwind solos. Particularly remarkable was the pacing of the succession of magnificent ensembles around Ferrando and Guglielmo’s departure for the battlefield. In the complicated finales, Beale kept the voices in perfect balance and maintained an admirable sweep and momentum.