“I think I like it because it's so profoundly sad, and the older I get the sadder I find it. This is my third production and this is by far the saddest. I'm now Don Alfonso's age so now I'm looking at it from his perspective. But it's ultimately about the loss of innocence, and like all really good opera comedies, there's nothing intrinsically funny about it.”

Andrew Jones (Guglielmo) and David Portillo (Ferrando) © Prudence Upton
Andrew Jones (Guglielmo) and David Portillo (Ferrando)
© Prudence Upton

Sir David McVicar's thoughts (in Limelight) on Così fan tutte (which Mozart gave the alternative title The School for Lovers) may well amaze those who think of it as a jolly romp through the inconstancies of the heart. But it's not only his third go at the opera but the third in his Da Ponte trilogy for Opera Australia, all involving the same three female singers. third time lucky!

And that darkness is set up from a start in which Romantic excess is thrust upon us as David Portillo's passionate Ferrando draws his sword for a duel with Richard Anderson's saturnine Don Alfonso, followed by the excessive protestations of both men and their 'lovers' Fiordiligi (Nicole Car) and Dorabella (Anna Dowsley) as the boys pretend to go away to war as part of the bet they have with Don Alfonso that their women are not “like all the others” (così fan tutte). Clearly all four are role-playing with their emotions, so that embraces last laughably for ever.

At this stage, Moritz Junge's set is a bare-walled villa on the shores of a glittering Bay of Naples – what could go wrong? But with the brilliant use of flown in walls, and the bare necessities of furniture, life gets tighter and darker even as the Bay continues to glitter. Mozart is not so helpful, continuing with the unctuous trio, “Soave sia il vento” to delight and soothe our ears, and then throwing in the classic Molièrean maid, Despina (Taryn Fiebig) with a chattering, devil-may-care music that offers the sisterly songbirds a choice between hot chocolate and suicide.

Anna Dowsley (Dorabella), Nicole Car (Fiordiligi) and Richard Anderson (Don Alfonso) © Prudence Upton
Anna Dowsley (Dorabella), Nicole Car (Fiordiligi) and Richard Anderson (Don Alfonso)
© Prudence Upton

But we're not in an all-will-be-well Molière; we're closer to Les Liaisons dangereuses and the cruel seduction of Madame de Tourvel, with the 'Albanian' boys now coming back time and time again, physically threatening the unprotected sisters, egged on by Don Alfonso each time they think they've proved their positive point, and by a Despina who brings class and race, an equality of the sexes and the sheer pleasures of sexual congress into the equation. A brilliant trick is to place an under-clothed Dorabella in front of a mirror to appreciate her own finer points. No wonder she both notes the Albanians' “interesting faces” as they madly pretend to have poisoned themselves, rejects the possibility of damaged reputation, and falls first for the kisses of Andrew Jones' Guglielmo.

Could this tendency towards farce reflect a fear by McVicar that he's taking his audience too far down the Don Giovanni path, with Don Alfonso as a Mephistophelian reincarnation of the Don? There certainly seemed occasions when Mozart was being undermined by excessive motion, though fortunately not in Fiordligi's heartfelt, “You'd rob me of my peace” even as she's quite clearly falling in love with Ferrando. It's obviously difficult to resist the pull of Mozart's mellifluous wind band music which, in Jonathan Darlington's collaborative hands, acts as the main accompaniment to arias such as Fiordiligi's “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” – translated in the director-responsive surtitles as apologising for her “sin” not “madness”.

As McVicar put, “Mozart tells us that in the radiant Act II duet for Ferrando and Fiordiligi (that) those people are falling deeply and truly in love. On the other hand, you know Dorabella has had sex with Guglielmo because that is absolutely clear from the sexually allusive language of her duet, which is full of phallic imagery. It's a very saucy libretto actually.”

Andrew Jones (Guglielmo) Nicole Car (Fiordiligi) Anna Dowsley (Dorabella), David Portillo (Ferrando) © Prudence Upton
Andrew Jones (Guglielmo) Nicole Car (Fiordiligi) Anna Dowsley (Dorabella), David Portillo (Ferrando)
© Prudence Upton

What we don't know, is who ends up with whom in the final wash-up when the boys come back from 'war' to wonder whether they were in a relationship with the wrong fiancée! But with the director's many cross-references to Shakespeare, may I suggest that The Taming of the Shrew has relevance to the subdued mood of shame and confusion suffusing these proceedings.

Clearly, McVicar's experience of working over the past two winters with Mesdames Car, Dowsley and Fiebig gave them trust in his interpretation; and the men bought into their darker characterisations as well. For not one whit of the music suffered on this mellifluous evening of beautifully balanced singing. Pacing, too was perfect, apart from an overture which – perhaps justifiably – suggested the conductor's desire to get on to the main course.