Così fan tutte, Royal College of Music, London

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The Independent Culture

Ian Judge's elegant production is set in the late 1950s. Alison Nalder's designs bring the haughty East Coast glamour of High Society to Naples; with gorgeous Grace Kelly-style day-dresses for Fiordiligi and Dorabella, crisp cruise-wear for Ferrando and Guglielmo, and sun-baked white walls against a hot turquoise sky. The emotions of those who are being addressed are as clear as the expressions of those who are singing, the body language subtly detailed. Judge makes you hope against hope that all will be well for the four young lovers. The annihilation of their innocence at the close of the opera is, consequently, scalding.

The RCM's first cast was impressive. Anna Leese (Fiordiligi) has an electrifying spin on her top notes and a naturally sweet presence. Though Come scoglio was disjointed, her account of Per pietá was absolutely heartbreaking. As Dorabella, Martina Welschenbach was the best I have seen in several years: brilliantly acted, stunningly well sung, and a catch for any company. Thomas Walker's petulant Ferrando and Andrew Conley's volatile, boyish Guglielmo were cleverly characterised - Conley's silent weeping at his betrayal was a cruel punctuation point in Act II - as were George Matheakakis's suave Alfonso and Silvia Moi's spirited, earthy Despina. The choruses were goosepimple good, the orchestra - under Michael Rosewell's smartly paced, attractively nuanced direction - full-bodied and stylish. The recitative, consistently conversational, expressively inflected and idiomatic, was impeccable.

Due to technical problems, the first performance of Così was given without surtitles. In the wake of the variously triumphalist and mournful reactions to Sean Doran's announcement that English National Opera will shortly be adopting surtitles for its own English language productions, it was interesting to observe how attentive the audience was in their absence. Much has been written about falling standards in diction, which was certainly not the case at the RCM. More pertinent is how necessary surtitles may be in any given acoustics. The Britten Theatre is ideal for young voices. The Coliseum, built for popular spectaculars, is not. If Doran's decision is, as some have said, an admission of defeat, it is defeat in the face of unsuitable acoustics and uneven casting rather than bad teaching.