Over at the South Bank, Sir Georg Solti and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe indulged us in the music without the theatre. Well, there were one or two minor concessions to semi-staging, but in the main, hearing was believing. Just so, in the case of Renee Fleming's sensationally sung Fiordiligi. The good news is that one of the most moving accounts I have ever heard of the aria 'Per pieta' will be heard again in a live Decca recording.
Solti was, as ever, a dynamic, if perhaps overly strict, motivator, his hardworking right elbow never fully allowing the music freely to float, shimmer, and chortle. Cherishable playing from the COE winds added dimension to every character. And when the mind is concentrated in this way, one is reminded just how completely the moodiness, sensuality, femininity and sexy Mediterranean light and shade is written into Mozart's heavenly score. All you need do is close your eyes.
Nicolette Molnar's new production for English National Opera sorely tempted me to do just that. If you've seen the posters, you'll have gathered we're in 1950s Naples. Fair enough. It was a time of romance after the drab Forties, a time when waists were tight and skirts flared, where boys would be boys and the girls hung on, moony-eyed. A workable context. But there's a sense in which the show is a bit like shaking a bottle of pop that's already gone flat. Jacqueline Gunn's clothes aren't nearly as 'glam' as the ENO poster (wouldn't these little rich girls change at least once in a day?), and her 'remnants of Naples' set just sort of sits there, adding little or nothing by way of atmosphere. Awkward-to-negotiate steps present all kinds of problems for the cast getting to and from the sisters' summer villa and one high vantage point above the bay. It's physically, visually, heavy. Blocking Act 1's farewell trio 'on high', so that the voices quite literally waft over our heads, should have been magical. It isn't. Just uncomfortable.
Not so, the singing - most of it decent, some a good deal better. Vivian Tierney toughs out the fearful highs and lows of Fiordiligi's arias to find some shining moments, Susan Bickley's Dorabella is well- matched in the amplitude of her delivery. So too, Christopher Booth-Jones and Neill Archer's energetic suitors, their 'foreign' disguises straight out of Dodge City (though Archer was plainly experiencing some strain in his vocal pursuits); and there's a waspish Despina (Sally Harrison) who gets most of the jokes and all of the props.
But the real raison d'etre for Molnar's production comes with the punch line. So stop reading now if you're planning a visit. With a little theatrical license (or liberty, depending on your viewpoint), she cunningly turns the tables in favour of sisterhood, leaving the men with two substitute brides while Fiordiligi and Dorabella make their getaway into the dawn of women's liberation. Not before time, you may say. But where are Mozart and da Ponte in this tricky denouement? Don't ask.
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