Review: Così Fan Tutte, Arts Centre Melbourne

Patricia Maunder

Opera Australia’s production is a beautiful escape for the soul and the senses.
Review: Così Fan Tutte, Arts Centre Melbourne

Samuel Dundas as Guglielmo, Jane Ede as Fiordiligi, Richard Anderson as Don Alfonso, Anna Dowsley as Dorabella and Pavel Petrov as Ferrando in Opera Australia's 2019 production of Così fan tutte at Arts Centre Melbourne. Photo: Jeff Busby.

The final production of Sir David McVicar’s Mozart trilogy for Opera Australia finally comes to Melbourne with its gracious evocation of Italy in 1900 fitting hand in glove with Così fan tutte’s sublime music. None of the compact cast are outstanding singers, but that rarely matters in this rom-com opera driven by ensemble singing and amusing characters and situations.

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Premiering in Vienna in 1790, Così is a bittersweet comedy about the fickleness of love and desire. Ferrando and Guglielmo are so certain of their fiancées’ fidelity that they have a bet with cynical friend Don Alfonso. Following his condition that they try to woo their betrothed in disguise, the gentlemen set to work on Dorabella and Fiordiligi, with the help of the maid, Despina. To all the lovers’ surprise and anguish, fidelity is not as unshakeable as they expected.

The cast of six is all Australian with the exception of Belarusian Pavel Petrov making his Down Under debut. Interpreting the increasingly lovelorn Ferrando with dramatic and vocal sensitivity, he delivered some of opening night’s loveliest solo singing with his warm, confident tenor. A tall man with a strong, well-controlled but nuanced baritone, Samuel Dundas brought plenty of dashing smugness and surly attitude to Guglielmo.

As Fiordiligi, the older sister whose protestations of fidelity are the more determined and enduring, Jane Ede struggled a little with her Act I aria, ‘Come scoglio’, especially some of the notoriously challenging legato, which rises and falls like a rollercoaster. That didn’t stop her flinging a chair across the stage to underscore her character’s protestations at the end of the aria, however, and Ede’s soprano was true and expressive in Act II’s ‘Per pietà’; in fact that second aria was probably the performance highlight. Anna Dowsley played Dorabella with just the right degree of mischief and romance, and a pleasing mezzo.

This quartet were generally at their best when able to bolster each other vocally, with Act II notable for some delicious duets, and they also received good support from Richard Anderson as the scheming, cynical Don Alfonso, and especially Taryn Fiebig as Despina. She threw herself into the character’s playful, wily ways, not least with her agile, ringing soprano, and was a hoot in male disguise as a quack doctor then a notary.

There was further, occasional support from the unseen but ever reliable Opera Australia Chorus, and a handful of male actors, four of whom cut very fine, tall figures as army officers. Led by conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson – how refreshing to see a woman on the podium – Orchestra Victoria brought out the lustrous, shimmering quality of Mozart's score, while also subtly conveying its serious elements.

How much to make of the potential for serious reflection in Così fan tutte’s farcical story is a question every director must ponder. David McVicar arguably takes the sexist, disruptive subtext too far in the end. He has Dundas play Guglielmo with increasing nastiness in the final minutes, and wraps up what is essentially a comic romp in a manner that’s entirely at odds with the finale’s joyous, harmonious music.

That aside, this production, which premiered in Sydney in 2016, and follows McVicar’s successful interpretations of Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, is pure delight. Fundamental to its pleasure is Moritz Junge’s gorgeous set and costume designs, which conjure the carefree, aristocratic seaside mood of Naples during the Belle Époque with elegant restraint.

A majestic wall to left and right leads the eye to a simple but evocative representation of a sparkling azure sea, with a third wall parallel to the audience occasionally descending to create a slightly more intimate interior space. The odd addition, including massive Moorish lanterns for Act II’s scene of romantic persuasion, costumes that often emphasise gracious lines and curves, and David Finn’s golden lighting, deposit not just the cast but the audience’s imagination in a languid summer by the sea long past.

Pure pleasure to look at, often very pleasing to the ear and, that jarring ending notwithstanding, full of fun and romance, this Così fan tutte is a beautiful escape for the soul and the senses.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

Così fan tutte
Opera Australia
Fiordiligi: Jane Ede
Dorabella: Anna Dowsley
Ferrando: Pavel Petrov
Guglielmo: Samuel Dundas
Despina: Taryn Fiebig
Don Alfonso: Richard Anderson
Conductor: Keri-Lynn Wilson
Director: David McVicar
Set and costume designer: Moritz Junge

18-25 May 2019
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Tickets $69-287

About the author

Patricia Maunder is a Melbourne writer.