The last opera of the Mozart/Da Ponte cycle – the second of the composer’s operas to be performed in this Mozart-dominated season at the Royal Opera House – Così fan tutte pivots on two pairs of young lovers whose affection is put to the test by an old ‘philosopher’, Don Alfonso. Women, the old man argues, are all the same: never constant in their love, never loyal to their men. It takes three hours of musical comedy and a long list of artfully arranged expedients to demonstrate the sage’s maxim. Eventually, though, a moral emerges and everybody recites it: let’s take life with philosophy, let’s be reasonable and positive before its hardships. A hymn to pragmatism and resignation.

Castronova as Ferrando and Bystrom as Fiordiligi © ROH 2012 / Johan Persson
Castronova as Ferrando and Bystrom as Fiordiligi
© ROH 2012 / Johan Persson

The present production, a revival – directed by Harry Fehr – of Jonathan Miller’s now ‘classic’ staging from 1995 (it was last seen on the ROH stage in 2010), sets the Mozart-Da Ponte plot in our modern, technological present (mobile phones, cameras and laptops populate it from the very beginning to the end). Miller flaunts a daring economy of set design and movement. One rather bare set – a large white room with cushions piled up at an angle on the floor, a shabby settee at the back and chairs scattered at the sides – serves throughout as the theatre of Mozart’s plot of farcical disguises. A door in fittingly sober neoclassical style forms the focal point from which the comings and goings of the characters (particularly Alfonso, the catalyst of the dramatic action) mark the progression from one scene to another. Immediately in front of the door stands a large mirror, which all the characters – willingly or unwillingly – bump into every time they enter and leave. The mirror’s symbolic meaning is clear: everybody here is too concerned about appearances. Disguise is achieved not only by means of the clothes that all the characters (except for Alfonso) keep changing; it underlies the very nature of Mozart’s characters. Paradoxically, it is only as the opera unfolds – as the young men’s masquerade is gradually played out – that the four lovers achieve some kind of personal (as well as musical) identity. All this is well conveyed in the current production: the kinship in character between the two women (often singing in thirds and sixths) is stressed by their complicity onstage; what is more, as they begin to give in to male advances, the mirror significantly starts throwing back less pleasing images (everybody now has something to feel ashamed of or be enraged about...).

The whole cast did their best to enliven the production further. The sheer energy of the singers’ dramatic presence made it possible to forget the unprepossessing sets and simply enjoy the performances. In fact, the emphasis on the characters – a result, at least in part, of the unchanging backdrop – might usefully remind us of the eighteenth-century nature of opera as a theatrical (rather than musical) genre. Both Charles Castronovo and Nicolay Borchev gave excellent vocal performances as Ferrando and Guglielmo. They were convincing (if, perhaps, at times exaggeratedly comic) presences onstage, and Castronovo interpreted his aria ‘Un’aura amorosa’ in Act I with winning sentiment, showing exceptional control of the full dynamic range. Michèle Losier (Dorabella) and Rosemary Joshua (Despina) sang beautifully throughout. The best performances, however, came from Malin Byström (Fiordiligi) and Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso). The first combined an impeccable control of Mozart’s demanding vocal writing (particularly in her bravura showpiece ‘Come scoglio’ in Act I) with a wonderful, more lyrical legato (as in ‘Per pietà’ in Act II). Allen, celebrating forty years with the ROH this week and presented with a surprise cake after the curtain call, was perfect as Don Alfonso, his faultless diction and witty humour in evidence from beginning to end. The orchestra, under the baton of Sir Colin Davis, provided lightness and continuous energy. The icing on the cake of this sparkling evening came from the pit: when, to the audience’s surprise, the (unusually loud) ringtone of a mobile phone was heard all over the auditorium. No worries: it was, for once, just the harpsichord.