There is always something rather jarring about an opera with extraordinarily beautiful, sumptuous music and a plot with malice at its heart. Così fan tutte premiered in 1790 and had a troubled performance history. After five successful performances, the Emperor Joseph II, normally quite considerate to Mozart, did him the disservice of incoveniently dying, prompting the immediate closure of the Viennese theatres in mourning and after they reopened, the five further performances given seemed out of touch with the new Zeitgeist of Leopold II’s reign and a general dislike of the ‘immorality’ of the work ensued; Così struggled with obscurity until the 20th century, when it took off in the interbellum – perhaps due to a renewed enthusiasm for the farcical, perhaps due to a desire for more Mozart.

Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi) © Matthew Williams Ellis
Kiandra Howarth (Fiordiligi)
© Matthew Williams Ellis

It is interestingly unusual to be sitting through an opera chuckling away, but being aware of an underlying feeling of guilt at one’s own appreciation of the plot. The story – an experiment by Don Alfonso, friend of Ferrando and Guglielmo to test the fidelity of their respective lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, by falsifying their call-up to war, disguising them as visiting Albanians and having them seduce the other’s betrothed with the help of their maid, Despina – was given an added little twist of cruelty. Victoria Newlyn updates the opera to the Second World War, recent enough for us all to be aware of the tremendous scale of bereavement and injury it caused and shining a rather more unpleasant light on Don Alfonso’s character. Newlyn’s production appeared to retain the basic set from West Green House’s previous production of La traviata, here painted a lurid green, with period posters, including the “Keep Mum – She’s Not So Dumb” classic, on women popped up here and there. Don Alfonso was, it was implied, the male duo’s commanding officer, proposing his experiment in a mess room, rather than Mozart’s coffee house, and the ‘Albanians’ came in Lawrence of Arabia style gear with rather impressive moustaches. Newlyn’s other little inspiration was to have another officer arrive at the end with real call-up papers, giving the production an air of An Inspector Calls.

The highlight for me was Soraya Mafi’s Despina, who acted her socks off and delivered some excellent singing with a voice and stage presence that constantly charmed. A silver clarity at the top of her voice and perky sense of line made the voice easy to listen to, and her enthusiastic assumption of Despina’s fake notary and doctor, complete with ‘disguised’ voice, suggests she has a fine career ahead in opera buffa. The regular glint of fun in her eyes and her boisterous bustling about stage brought Despina to life.

Steven Page (Don Alfonso) and Soraya Mafi (Despina) © Matthew Williams Ellis
Steven Page (Don Alfonso) and Soraya Mafi (Despina)
© Matthew Williams Ellis

Our male duo, Ferrando and Guglielmo, sung by tenor Richard Dowling and baritone Ben McAteer, also seemed to relish their comic moments, twisting and flailing in numerous ‘dying’ contortions after imbibing their ‘poison’ in Act I, and waving their scarves in such cheery flirtation that I’ve now made a note to incorporate it into any future courtships of my own! McAteer sang with a soft-grained baritone that was rarely forced and a well-honed tone. Dowling’s tenor seemed an easy fit for Mozart: bright and smooth with clear diction, he powered through the orchestra with easy lyricism.

Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the victims of temptation, regularly calling for death for one reason or another were sung by Kiandra Howarth and Martha Jones. Howarth has the slightly bigger voice of the pair: she brought a credible sense of dismay to an unbelievable role, and her Fiordiligi had an inherently noble aspect to her which made the turmoil all the more upsetting. Howarth’s voice is generous at the top with notes that are steadily sustained, but there’s a slight huskiness to the lower register which could have caused difficulties in a larger house. Jones captured Dorabella’s playfulness and sense of fun well with a face that readily opens into a mirthy beam. She brought a Baroque-tinged voice that was deployed precisely, with somewhat metallic top notes, but she risked being overwhelmed in ensemble moments.

Steven Page’s Don Alfonso veered from genial to sinister with a face that creased easily in satisfied smirks. His baritone had plenty of colour to it, but sounded a touch strained at times. His technique was strong though; delivery was well-timed and he has a clear appreciation of the manipulation of diction for comic effect.

Tim Murray drew some plush playing from the string section of the West Green House Opera Sinfonia, but Mozart writes some agonisingly difficult music for the brass and there was some obvious discomfort there. Overall though, the artistic standards at West Green House are very reasonable and it’s worth considering when planning next year’s opera-going calendar.