The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland have produced some excellent operas in recent years, which makes the disappointment of this production of Così fan tutte all the more acute. Singing that was generally competent never managed to overcome the obstacle of an orchestra seemingly intent on sabotaging a show that was in any case internally incoherent.

Director Nicolette Molnár’s opening gambit was quite interesting. The lights went up on stage during the overture on a collection of female mannequins dressed in period costume, each apparently standing upon a collection of blocks and short staircases which were the full extent of the set. In fact, they were all attached to wires and after just standing there for the duration of the overture and the first few minutes of the singing, they disappeared heavenwards. Though they were to reappear occasionally during the evening and descend again right at the end of the production, they seemed very much like an opportunity missed. One has to go to quite a lot of effort to dress up dummies and make them fly up and down on a stage, so it might be thought that there was an idea in there that was going to feature in some way throughout the rest of the evening. It was the first of several interesting but slightly odd elements which made up a production which didn’t really hang together.

It soon became clear that the first part of the action (and its conclusion, when we were to eventually arrive at the end) was set in a hospital where soldiers were being treated in war time. Again, this was an interesting idea; though whilst it did make some sense of Ferrando and Guglielmo being called up to fight by their regiment, it still didn’t make a great deal of sense overall. We were introduced to Fiordiligi and Dorabella as a pair of nurses tending the wounded. So far so good, but do nurses tend to have ladies’ maids, as these two rather posh nurses inevitably had? It seems unlikely.

Herein lay the basic problem. There’s enough implausibility in Così fan tutte – more than enough really, without introducing other puzzles for the audience to try to work out. Anyway, so much for the stage business, what about the singing?

First up were the men. Richard Shaffrey and Euros Campbell were reasonably matched as Ferrando and Gugliemo – much more so than the sisters whom they were in the business of wooing. Both also got significantly richer in tone as the evening progressed, making me wonder whether they each needed to do a bit more in the warm-up department before hitting the stage. I became more impressed with Shaffrey’s voice the longer I was in the theatre and eventually he was filling the theatre with apparent ease. I’m no native Italian speaker, but there was something about his vowels which made me think of France rather than Italy. Campbell, on the other hand, seemed quite at home. Again, once his voice warmed up a bit he was on much stronger ground than during the first half hour or so. There were one or two moments when I doubted his intonation, but given the sounds coming from the pit, I think he can hardly be blamed for that.

The nurse-sisters whom they were wooing were not quite so well matched. Annabella Ellis’s Fiordiligi had a somewhat forced tone throughout the performance and she appeared to have little dynamic awareness. The voice was either full on or full off. Jessica Eccleston’s Dorabella was much more subtle and she was also clearly a more accomplished actress, displaying some wonderfully coquettish flirtation.

The trouble with an unbalanced pair of singers in these roles is not when they are trying to outdo one another in their romantic affairs, it’s when they sing together. The famous trio “Soave sia il vento” should be the highlight of the first act, but sadly it was totally unbalanced here, with Eccleston being inaudible, Ellis being far too audible and Stefan Berkieta’s Don Alfonso simply lacking the vocal power and drive needed to underpin the whole thing.

His Don Alfonso wasn’t really given enough character either, but that’s primarily an issue of direction. There must be some motivation for Don Alfonso’s actions in pitting the lovers against one another – is it just a jolly jape or is there a darker and altogether more wicked motivation behind things?

A significant bright element of the production was Joanna Norman as Despina the maid. She had a deliciously bright and perky voice, she knew how to act and she made the most of the comedy of her role. She shone out as a significant presence on the stage and I was left hoping that I’ll see and hear a lot more of her in the future.

Così fan tutte is inevitably a battle of the sexes and there was no doubt at all that in the first half of the evening, the women won hands down. Later on in the evening things were playing out a little more evenly. I’m sorry to report that the biggest disappointment of the evening was the standard of the orchestral playing. Timothy Dean was conducting with perfect sensitivity to the singing in terms of volume and pace, which were both excellent. The trouble was, not all of the orchestra were capable of playing the music. The violins struggled all evening to play in tune and the woodwind were having trouble with the fine runs of the overture and produced a strangely muddy sound when playing together later. The less said about the horn accompaniment to Fiordiligi’s aria “Per pietà” the better.

One other point should be mentioned: if the male lovers are to be brought onto the stage disguised as comedy Scotsmen then they need better fitting kilts – especially if they are required to sit, roll and generally loll about on a set which puts their nether regions at the audience’s eye level.

Sadly, this wasn’t the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s finest hour, but Iet’s hope their future productions will return to their usual high standards

Kelvin Holdsworth

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