Saturday, 5 June 2010

Mackerras, Hytner and the OAE provide a sparkling Cosi Fan Tutte at Glyndebourne

Until this Friday, Cosi Fan Tutte was the only Mozart/Da Ponte opera I had never seen staged.  Actually, three years ago I had a near miss with this very production.  I dearly wanted to see it, but the dates didn't work and I wound up with the diabolical staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion instead.  Interestingly, that simultaneously deprived me of an early opportunity to hear Robin Ticciati in action, before his move to the SCO.

Still, good things come to those who wait, and three years later Nicholas Hytner's production was getting a revival under the baton one of the finest Mozartians, Charles Mackerras.  Not only would I get to round out seeing the Da Ponte operas, but to have seen them all with him in the pit.  At the helm of the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, with whom he has recently and successfully recorded the work for Chandos's Opera in English series, he delivered a musical treat.  They played beautifully, with plenty of sparkle and bounce.  Mackerras made good progress, and yet never did he make the music feel rushed.  The uniformed listener, with their eyes closed, would have been hard pushed to guess that the man in the pit will be 85 later this year.  And, as ever, he proved amongst the most sensitive accompanists you will find.

Amongst the cast there was not a weak link.  True, there was no breathtaking or astonishing singing either (with the possible exception of Sally Matthews as Fiordiligi whose long act two aria was especially sublime), it was just very good and solid all round.  Indeed, I can't think of the last thing I saw that had such a well rounded cast, where one wasn't thinking "yes, but if only X was a bit better it would be perfect".  Indeed, here Mackerras scored a major victory over the Chandos recording where Lesley Garret is somewhat past it and whose rather ugly singing as Despina provides some comedy but little more.  Anna Maria Panzarella proved it is possible to get every bit as much wit, if not more so, and still sing beautifully.

Then there is Hytner's production.  Of course, I'm a big fan of his, and the way he faithfully but inventively realises opera, his stunning Don Carlos being a case in point.  Here, the production is less lavish but well served by Vicki Mortimer's clever designs, in which a light and airy set doubles equally well for the interior rooms as it does the Mediterranean terraces.  Doubtless because they must switch quickly between a number of productions, simplicity is the watchword, and true enough the basic set is more or less unchanged, with a few flats cutting across it from time to time.  Yet such constraints only go to show that less can sometimes be more and do not stop a lavish wedding scene, complete with marquee, hoisted up and tethered to the walls.   And then there's lighting designer Paule Constable's beautifully realised skies on the cyclorama.

In the first half, Hytner emphasises the comic aspects to great effect, especially as the men strike amorous poses as they attempt to seduce their fiancees in disguise and then as Guglielmo (Robert Gleadow) powerslides across the stage to an astonished Dorabella (Barbara Senator).  He is helped by the fact that all of the cast can act as well as sing (again, a rare occurrence) - without fail they nail the comic asides or the faked poisonings, or whatever other silliness is called for.  Indeed, generally the production feels drilled to perfection, unlike my recent German repertory experiences where some things have felt a little unrehearsed.  Then there is the strong sexual chemistry between the leads, especially between Dorabella (Senator) and Guglielmo (Gleadow).  In the second half it is played rather less for comedy and rather more for poignance, and the ambiguous ending is nicely judged, helping to soften the opera's slightly distasteful theme that all women are unfaithful by suggesting that after all of this things aren't completely happy.

With a nitpicking hat on, it must be noted that the text on the surtitles was very small (much smaller than one usually sees), and some members of the audience seemed to have had trouble reading it.  More critically, the operator was slightly wayward and too often not fully on the ball (especially during the continuo sections), with the result that a joke on stage often preceded the text's appearance.  In act two, there were a couple of fluffed notes from the horns, but to be honest that only underscored how fine the orchestra's playing had been the rest of the evening - this is some of the finest period instrument work I've heard.

It was, then, a near perfect evening at the opera, helped by gorgeous summer weather, making for a lovely interval picnic.  The only really sour note came from other members of the audience: we were surrounded by talkers.  Never amid the many, many operas I've attended (including three others at Glyndebourne) have I had it so bad.  Of course, I've never been to such a popular work here.  Some of them didn't even attempt to whisper.  They were immune to the filthiest stares I could muster, though my loud comments as we were leaving for the interval had some effect.  Sadly, to some extent, there are people who haven't gone to Glyndebourne primarily for the music - a pity given how fine it is; ultimately, you can put someone into a DJ, but it doesn't make them a gentleman.  Still, if you can score a ticket before Mackerras ends his run on 12th June (thereafter James Gaffigan is in the pit) do, you're unlikely to regret it.

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