Lovers' Guide 1790

OPERA: Mozart's Cosi fan tutte: Opera North at the Grand Theatre, Leeds

The Bay of Naples is nowhere to be seen. The garden contains neither trees nor flowers. Powdered wigs and crinolines are out. Tim Albery's Cosi is for our time and of our time. The simple and abstract sets, by Matthew Howland and Robin Rawstorne, reflect the character of the piece as it is presented by Nicholas Till and the other contributors to the well-planned programme book. For what we are witnessing is a suspect scientific experiment, conducted in limbo. Where and when it is happening are irrelevant, and in any case unclear. It might just as well take place in a theatre and, at the opening of Act 2, we are reminded that it is, as Despina presents her instructions to the sisters in the form of a music-hall act in front of red plush curtains.

The intention is that the two sisters from Ferrara are to have their fidelity tested. But their male lovers cannot stand outside the experiment. They must act out their parts and, in the end, perhaps only Don Alfonso is left untouched by this day of deep moral and emotional disturbance. It is a fine touch when, at the end, Despina, seeing the chaos she has helped him to create, slaps his face.

There are no weak links in the sextet of characters, each of whom is vital to sustaining both narrative and atmosphere. Jonathan Best is an admirable Don Alfonso, authoritative rather than benign, free of bonhomie and leering. Linda Kitchen is a wise and witty Despina, very much her own woman. Her doctor is a bottom-wiggling blonde out of M*A*S*H, her lawyer a raincoated Raymond Chandler figure.

The two sisters owe something to the terrible Ab Fab pair - stylish, dizzy and out for a good time, they finally find themselves out of their depth. When the lovers leave for the supposed wars, Fiordiligi vents her grief by letting down her hair, donning dark glasses and swigging tomato juice. Dorabella snatches off her blonde wig as soon as Ferrando is out of the house, and it is never seen again.

But in Act 2 things get serious, and the distress of all four lovers is very palpable. Fiordiligi is a hugely demanding part. Susannah Glanville is not absolutely on top of it, but her performance is moving and genuinely communicative. She is an exciting artist. Paul Nilon excelled as Ferrando. His Act 1 aria was a delight. William Dazeley and Emma Selway were both more than adequate. Diction was excellent all round, and the witty English translation was much appreciated.

The talented Claire Gibault conducted. Her speeds were brisk but never heartless. She was alert to the changing moods of this kaleidoscopic score. There was great clarity in the orchestral playing and some lovely phrasing. Of Opera North's recent Mozart productions, Tim Albery's Cosi is by far the best, and will be much enjoyed. There is no happy ending, nor could there be. We are left with a sense of deep unease, which is as it should be.

In rep to 7 June at Leeds Grand (0113 245 9351), then touring

Anthony Arblaster

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