The Royal College of Music’s International Opera School has long been a training ground for some of the world’s most famous opera stars. Dame Joan Sutherland, Sarah Connolly, Gerald Findlay and Sir Thomas Allen all began their careers there, so it is with great excitement that you attend an RCM Opera School performance, wondering if you are about to witness singers at the beginning of a journey to international success. They are currently performing Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte under the baton of Opera School Director Michael Rosewell, and it is a production filled with warmth, humour and of course, wonderful singing.

© Chris Christodoulou
© Chris Christodoulou

Director Lee Blakeley and designer Adrian Linford have grounded the production firmly in the early twentieth century. Cocktail hour and sauna visits took place against a traditional Italian backdrop of frescos and manicured gardens, and as the architect of the romantic ruse, Samuel Evans’ Don Alfonso looked as though he had come to the party dressed as Giacomo Puccini. The looming first world war gave context to Ferrando and Guglielmo’s supposed battle, and added an extra layer of sympathy for Firordiligi and Dorabella, who in this setting would have been well aware of what sort of conflict they were losing their menfolk to.

All of the cast proved to be accomplished singers and very entertaining performers. Emilie Alford as Despina displayed her talent for physical comedy as well as her lovely voice, and Evans brought a weight and gravitas to Don Alfonso- a role most baritones would not expect to sing until later in their career. Anthony Gregory (Ferrando) and Edward Grint (Guglielmo) had great on-stage chemistry and injected a lot of humour into the opera, but it was the two female leads that really shone in this performance.

Recent recipient of the Kathleen Ferrier Award Kitty Whately was a wonderful Dorabella. She has a sweet-toned, perfectly controlled mezzo that seems made for Mozart, and her perfect diction and expressive eyes made her duet with Guglielmo, Il core vi done (‘I give you my heart’), one of the highlights of the opera. Sprawled on Turkish carpets beneath suspended oriental lanterns, the pair made it easy to forget that you were sat in the Britten Theatre and not witnessing a girl slowly losing the ability to resist.

As Fiordiligi, Scottish-born Eleanor Dennis was even more impressive, attracting raucous applause after her first aria, Come Scoglio (‘Like a rock.’) She possesses a rich and creamy toned voice and is able to project it in the most astonishing way. Soaring over the orchestra, it seemed to fill the roof space of the Britten Theatre, never strained or seeming anywhere near its limit. Each note of Per pietà, ben mio, perdona (‘Please, my beloved, forgive’) was more beautiful and more powerful than the last, and it is hard to imagine a voice of this tone and size not moving into more dramatic repertoire in the near future.

Some of the most stunning vocal moments of the opera came in the form of group singing. Dennis and Whately’s voices harmonised beautifully during Soave si il vento (‘May the wind be gentle’) and Prenderò quel brunettino ('I will take the dark one') and towards the end of the second and final act, the richness of the cast’s combined voices was extremely stirring. This wasn’t an all’s well that ends well sort of production, though and as the final confessions were sung, the duped Fiordiligi and Dorabella did not return to the arms of their lovers, or give any indication that they had any joy or peace of mind. Strangely, the thoughtful, modern twist didn’t put a dampner on the incredibly spirited world that the RCM had created during the rest of the production, and I left the theatre feeling incredibly uplifted, with Mozart’s wonderful refrains ringing in my ears.