Production director Daisy Evans welcomes her audience to Così fan tutte set in October 1943 in Sicily. The set (designed by Katharine Heath) is intriguing, with three propellers along the back wall of the performance space and a small stage at the side set up for an Ensa troupe. However, concerns about the pitfalls of “concept” productions were confirmed from the start. Back-projections of Second World War film footage accompanied the overture; the first of many incongruities and distractions. Later the backdrop to the stage was flipped over, to reveal first a poster containing a boot, a swastika and the words “step on it”, then an apparent theatre poster with the words “Girls will be Girls”. Several numbers were performed largely on the stage, raising the possibility that these were intended as “performances”.

The original setting of the opera is Naples (a faraway sea port) with the opening scene simply a café. The deliberate vagueness allows the audience to enter into the ridiculous plot with relish and concentrate on the relationships. By pinning the action down to this specific wartime setting there was, for me, continuous muddle, confusion and irritation. Despina in a gasmask was incomprehensible; why was there an “audience” of chorus members with torches in the Act II quartet? And jiving to Mozart in the Act I finale simply didn’t work. The direction was also over-fussy – the sublime “Soave il vento” was diminished by unnecessary stage busyness. On a more positive note, though, this production did bring out the joylessness of the final nuptials, and there was an effective freeze-frame as the characters seemed to escape their original partners and lunge towards their “false” ones, with whom they had genuinely fallen in love.

As we have come to expect from Hampstead Garden Opera productions, there was a strong cast, all of whom inhabited their characters convincingly. Nick Pritchard as Ferrando was particularly moving in his Act I aria, with an easy top to his tenor voice and elegant Mozartian phrasing; Jake Daichi Gill as Guglielmo delighted with his beautifully rounded tone and engaged the audience directly in his second aria. Barnaby Beer’s Don Alfonso was somewhat earnest but made up in clarity of diction what he lacked in vocal focus and purity of line. Maud Millar as Fiordiligi stood in for the indisposed Faustine de Mones. She was technically assured throughout and brought poise, command and exquisite high notes to this demanding role. Katie Slater caught Dorabella’s sense of fun and showed good comic timing. Vocally she shone particularly in her Act II aria and in the sisters’ duet “Prenderò quel brunettino”, in which she sparkled infectiously. Alice Rose Privett was a delightful Despina who impressed in her crystal-clear recitatives. Her diction suffered a little in the arias but it was there she showed the fullness of her soprano voice.

With only five string players, the wind section of the Musica Poetica of London seemed to dominate the orchestral sound somewhat. Occasionally there was some ragged ensemble with the singers, but for the most part the awkwardness of the sightlines between conductor and singers was overcome. Guest Music Director/Conductor Dorian Komanoff Bandy conducted with both sensitivity and energy. His accompaniment of the secco recitatives on fortepiano rather than the usual harpsichord made a welcome change.