Cosí fan tutte is a puzzling work, a broad and often ludicrous farce punctuated by some of Mozart’s most sublime music.
It’s as if the characters in Carry on up the Khyber periodically swapped their double entendres for Shakespearean iambic pentameters. Action and arias seem to pull in opposite and irreconcilable directions. Until its final few minutes director Benjamin Davis prioritizes laughs, setting the opera in a seedy seaside resort peopled by a gallery of commedia dell’arte grotesques – imagine Hi de Hi meets early Fellini.
The hyperactive style was often entertaining but sometimes to the detriment of the music. Arias by the sisters Fiordiligi (Elizabeth Watts) and Dorabella (Máire Flavin) suffered from excessive comic business. The former’s showpiece Come scoglio is demanding enough without added manic dashing about. Watts showed how good she can be in Per pieta when, allowed to simply sit on the deserted stage and sing, the music’s plangency evoked the emotional depths that lurk underneath the opera’s surface. Andrew Tortise (Ferrando) and Andrew Griffiths (Guglielmo) managed some fine singing despite being hampered by false noses and mock cigarette smoking.
The production favours farce and Neal Davies’ Don Alfonso, every inch a saloon bar philosopher in his check suit and co-respondent’s shoes, and Joanne Boag’s sparky worldly-wise Despina steal the show – getting laughs without compromising the music. Mark Wigglesworth conducts with evident love of the score and the fine WNO orchestra lets us hear the fruits of the work Mozart lavished on his beloved wind section.