Così fan tutte is a gloriously tangled test of love and fidelity but can leave an awkward misogynistic taste for some modern audiences. Director Nicolette Molnar suggests Lorenzo da Ponte’s tale is equally hard on both the sexes and therefore a lesson to us that our most cherished relationships may be fragile and vulnerable as people simply change over time. Her production at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland brought out the passionate intensity of new love set against the agony and guilt of broken hearts as allegiances shifted to and fro and was a finely judged study of human relationships, challenging any complacency lurking in the audience.

Khanyiso Gwenxane (Ferrando) and Grace Durham (Dorabella) © Ken Dundas
Khanyiso Gwenxane (Ferrando) and Grace Durham (Dorabella)
© Ken Dundas
We are continuing to look back to 100 years ago as the commemoration of the First World War runs its course. Although mannequins in splendidly elegant period dress of Mozart’s time peopled Nicky Shaw’s smart wooden fixed set of Escher-like platforms and stairs, Ferrando and Guglielmo appeared in khaki battledress with Don Alfonso in tweedy plus fours and a silver-topped swagger stick. When we first meet Fiordiligi and Dorabella they are Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, so the opera was firmly brought forward to sharpen the focus on more recent history. An amusing mischievous twist to this Glasgow production was to dress up the foreign strangers in dark green military kilts, and we almost got the bagpipes at one point, but luckily Don Alfonso removed them just in time!

The plot is well known and has a neat symmetry: the two men persuaded by Don Alfonso to bet on whether their fiancées would remain faithful, the plot to test this out, the shifting attentions of the ladies, the bitter-sweet consequences. In a completely double cast production, on opening night Colin Murray’s lightly sung Alfonso and Klaudia Korzeniewska’s bright, all-knowing Despina made an entertaining couple of fixers, while Christopher Nairn’s Guglielmo and Khanyiso Gwenxane’s Ferrando were an excellently matched pair of soldiers, and ardent foreigners. The ladies tried so hard to remain faithful, but Nairn’s gorgeous baritone caused Grace Durham’s Dorabella to melt, while Charlie Drummond’s delightfully sung Fiordiligi, full of nuance, held out much longer. The shift from pleasure to pain as each of the men in turn was betrayed by their lovers was particularly well done, Gwenxane’s light tenor simply wretched in his misery.  

Charlie Drummond (Fiordiligi) © Ken Dundas
Charlie Drummond (Fiordiligi)
© Ken Dundas
In contrast to other Mozart operas, much of the singing here is for more than a single voice, and one of the strengths of this production was the successful balance and blending of the singers producing lovely ensembles, the multi-level set allowing the director a fluidity of groupings reflecting shifting loyalties with some dance steps thrown in strengthening the newly discovered partners and adding an elegance. Sung in Italian, diction was generally very clear and there was some deft and clever timing in the recitatives giving space for sideways glances and raised eyebrows to say the unsaid, all accompanied with a sensitive and intelligent light touch by Marija Struckova on the fortepiano.

In the pit, Timothy Dean drew some beautiful phrasing from his players, and kept things lively, holding the singers and musicians together well with his clear lead. Natural brass is notoriously difficult to play and is always a thrill to hear its particular bite and growl, but there were odd moments when it sounded just a little bit of a struggle. There were a few opening night uncertainties on stage too which should iron themselves out for later performances. Occasionally the singers sang so quietly it was difficult to hear them, although to be fair they were competing with a theatre heating system clearly working full tilt to keep a very cold and snowy Glasgow night at bay.

The four lovers with Colin Murray (Don Alfonso) © Ken Dundas
The four lovers with Colin Murray (Don Alfonso)
© Ken Dundas

Così fan tutte is an ambitious choice for a Conservatoire, but this production was very enjoyable, showcasing Mozart’s glorious tunes, and generating a real sense of fun while tackling the serious subject of human frailty. In this production it is very clear that if all women do it, so do all men.      

***11