People used to think that Mozart's opera Così Fan Tutte was merely a scurrilous lampooning of the infidelity of women. Let us celebrate, then, a production that blows this impression out of the water.
David McVicar's version – first seen in Strasbourg, but now with Scottish Opera – updates the action to 1900. But, lest you think this is a postmodern vision justified by some kind of spurious relevance to modern life, the effect is merely to clothe the cast in elegant dresses and heroic uniforms (designed by Tanya McCallin) and place it in some of the most beautiful stage sets we have seen for a long time, with a calm view of the Bay of Naples that could be screened to form a dignified palace room (set designer, Yannis Thavoris), effulgent with a credibly Italian light.
There was nothing fashionable, or unfashionable, about this stylish, virtuoso production. Happily, there was also a virtuoso conductor, Tobias Ringborg. The overture exploded into a harum-scarum chase, without a glance over the shoulder, and this triumphant refusal to be cautious marked the whole opera, with the artists carried along on the flood. There were also perfectly poised slow tempi; "Soave sia il vento" flowed gently and serenely, the Tyrrhenian Sea glistening in the background.
This conductor's spontaneity was echoed by the Despina, the fine Marie McLaughlin. She was coarse, funny, freewheeling, turning "Una donna a quindici anni" into a sort of comic folk song. Violet Noorduyn brought a glinting brilliance to Fiordiligi, though Dorabella (Caitlin Hulcup) sang with a dense tone that lacked charm; she flounced around and fell on the floor but it was all rather by the book. Ville Rusanen was a commanding Guglielmo, Joel Prieto an exciting and nervous Ferrando. Don Alfonso, Peter Savidge, was snakelike, louche, obviously an old gigolo.
It has been remarked that the two pairs of lovers are vocally ill-assorted (high voice with low voice) until they swap partners. This was strongly illustrated in the scenes of seduction; Dorabella and Guglielmo (two low voices) were swept away on a wave of sexual chemistry, but Fiordiligi and Ferrando (two high voices) fell into each other's arms in a tragic scene of white passion and sacred musical overtones.
But above all, the complexities of the theme were strongly revealed. Falling in love is a reality, but so is growing into love at the urging of an eager suitor, and the two are incompatible, causing endless trouble. Maturity comes from seeing the frailty of both processes; perhaps the only criticism of this magnificent production was that the couples remained swapped over at the end. But maybe this complaint is too obvious. McVicar is never obvious, and we came away pondering this unexpected conclusion.
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