For its 40th anniversary, the Hong Kong Arts Festival chose Mozart’s Così fan tutte as its main opera offering. Whatever you may call it – opera buffa, comedy of manners, or “dramma giocoso” – Mozart’s lovely music makes Così fan tutte wonderful entertainment. That’s what the Bavarian State Opera delivered on Sunday afternoon to commemorate this important milestone of the Festival.

Così fan tutte, © Wilfried Hösl
Così fan tutte,
© Wilfried Hösl

The last in a trio of works in which Mozart set Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretti to music, Così fan tutte is a tale of two sisters’ entrapment into infidelity by their fiancés on the back of a wager with a cynical self-proclaimed sociologist of the heart. Don Alfonso is an agitator with no compunction about putting Ferrando and Gugliemo through an elaborate scheme of disguise to show that “all women are the same” – or “così fan tutte”. Unlike in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, the other two works in the trio, the men in Così are, for a change, victims rather than perpetrators.

As the title of the opera makes clear, the women are the centre of attention. Of the two sisters, Dorabella is ebullient and fun-loving: “I’ll take the dark one, who seems to me more fun,” she says about their disguised fiancées making advances. Naturally, she is the first to succumb. Instead of going through a guilt-trip, she laments that “Love is a little thief” (“È amore un ladroncello”), as she tries to persuade Fiordiligi to give in. Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower put her jovial and bouncy tone to good use, showing Dorabella to be dreamy, vulnerable and innocent.

Fiordiligi is a harder nut to crack, declaring her fidelity in the aria “Come scoglio” (“Like a rock”). The slightly darker quality of Serena Farnocchia’s voice matched the greater sense of security needed for the role. Her sturdy tone had an edge of tragedy about it in “Per pietà, ben mio” (“In pity's name, my dearest”), the aria in which she finally gives in.

The highlight of the afternoon was Despina, the maid with a chip on her shoulder – “O dearest ladies, you have the substance and I only the smell!” Anna Virovlansky gave the role plenty of comic gestures and inflections to win her sympathy. Her rendering of “Una donna a quindici anni” (“A woman at fifteen”) was tear-jerkingly lyrical in gently bemoaning the premature loss of innocence. Was her hardened attitude towards men – “No woman yet has ever died for love. Die for a man? There's lots more where he came from” – by force of circumstance rather than by choice?

By comparison, the more popular numbers such as “Soave sia il vento” (“Gentle be the breeze”) were pleasant but not magical. Pietro Spagnoli as Don Alfonso, the cynical trouble-maker, was pedestrian. Mathias Hausmann and Emanuele d’Aguanno, respectively in the roles of Gugliemo and Ferrando, sang well but were not that distinguishable.

Bavarian State Opera’s staging had no anachronistic affectations, being faithful to the historical context. The set was simple, consisting of a sloping stage raised in the back against a wall that changed colour with lighting. A few pieces of beaten-up wooden furniture – a table and some chairs – and a makeshift tree were moved about to break the monotony. A proscenium drape with painted arches, windows and chairs provided breadth when needed. The spacious design gave the ensemble of singers plenty of room to move about.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth gets full marks for his precision and flawless rapport with the singers, never missing a beat, and always on cue. There was a lack of balance, though, between the underpowered strings and the hyperactive timpani. The woodwinds tended to wander off in a tangent at times, but provided a good overlay of joviality. All in all, the Bavarian State Opera’s refined performance of Così fan tutte left the 40th Hong Kong Arts Festival humming.

***11