OPERA / Slick and smooth: Cosi Fan Tutte - WNO

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THE OIL industry needs some good news, and WNO's so-called 'National Tour of Wales' is it. This tour by a young reserve company is sponsored by BP, and as if to compound the irony Tim Hopkins's production of Mozart's Cos fan tutte is set more or less on the beach of a suspiciously pristine- looking Mediterranean.

I hesitate to call this a slick Cos, but it does run smoothly enough. Anthony Baker's designs are eclectic: Despina is a truant from St Trinian's, Ferrando and Guglielmo a pair of understudies for Tancredi and Clorinda (but later disguised as pupils of Seneca), the whole thing tricked out with colouristic violence. An impression of grotesque theatricality is deliberate: Hopkins has his characters gesticulating and brow-clapping as if they were playing charades at dusk. I'm very doubtful about the implication that the girls in Cos are as insincere as the boys (Mozart's point, surely, is that they believe their feelings to be earth-shattering until they encounter feelings that really are). But Hopkins makes the style work; it is sometimes very funny, and it gives the singers space and a kind of clear-cut gestural medium that palpably helps artists who are, for the most part, young and inexperienced.

They seize the opportunity, almost literally, with both hands. In Cardiff's Sherman Theatre, where the tour ended on Monday, the singing was consistently stylish, and most of the problems were those of youth. Andrew Mackenzie Wicks delivered Ferrando's 'Un aura amorosa' like an angel until its merciless tessitura began to gnaw at his control towards the end. Faith Elliott was similarly easy on the ear in Fiordiligi's three huge songs. She needs only to develop more variety of sound and a less inhibited manner. Ann Taylor Morley and Jeremy Huw Williams seemed more at ease as the opposite, musically less taxed pair of lovers. Morley's Dorabella showed exceptional promise: a strong, attractive presence, instant musicality. But the star of the evening was Gail Pearson, an irresistible hoyden Despina with the voice of a nightingale and hot chocolate always at the ready.

Derek Clark conducted; the cut-down but essentially complete orchestra performed well in the dry, unhelpful Sherman, which did nothing to mask the occasional patch of rough intonation, and certainly couldn't solve the innate problems of balance with such a band - a clear argument for old instruments. The production manages without Mozart's chorus, but includes most of his recitative. For a performance in English, this is a misjudgement. But it was one of few.