This is Tom Hawkes's eighth production of this opera in almost 40 years. He tells us that he has returned to it because he still finds something new to say, and Mozart never bores him. He goes on to prove his point by factoring in some deft, unexpected touches in his direction, right up to the last bars of the score.
This is a well-endowed, infectious production of Mozart's comedy. The set (a piazza that doubles as the sisters' apartment) is decked out in the green and red of the Kingdom of Italy. All the costumes, except for the two male disguises, are a delight to behold, and are influenced (the ladies' outfits in particular) by Edwardian designs. A larger than usual orchestra of around 40 pieces is finely paced and responsive to the vocal lines. The conductor allows six splendid voices to find their measure of Mozart's sublime but demanding music, and then weighs in and supports them to the hilt.
But it is the vocal talents that must help us to understand and appreciate this great opera. Despina and Don Alfonso, unrewarding roles even in the best productions, here find assured and credible voices for the buffa and the patter.
The Australian mezzo Catriona Barr, despite singing a bit above her natural range, brings depth and breadth to the younger, more impressionable sister, Dorabella. Her acting is the best on view. When crossed, she can scowl like a Valkyrie. When things are going her way, or she is giving in to temptation, her charm and wile recall a mature Norina, or Musetta. Her contribution to this production, and her understanding of her character's music and persona, are impressive.
We suspect, however, that Mozart was in love with the elder sister, Fiordiligi. After all, this opera's most beautiful music is reserved for her. It's not just her mighty "Come scoglio..." with its exacting range, from low chest notes to high head notes, but also the incomparably finer Act II solo "Per pietà, ben mio, perdona..." with its octave-and-a-half leaps, underpinned by some of the young maestro's most inspired writing for horns and woodwind. In this role, the Scottish lyric soprano Lee Bisset masters her character's temperament with great panache. Her connection with the more complex and astute sister (the Brünnhilde of the piece), her rapport with the emphasis that Mozart gives her, and the scope that he leaves her for character interpretation all mark her voice out as something quite special.
To 21 Jun (028 9263 9545) www.castlewardopera.com)
George Fleeton, university teacher, Belfast
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