COSI FAN TUTTE. Longborough Festival Opera **** (July 4)

Or “Women are Human” in this radical approach to Mozart’s notorious opera of fiancee-swapping and Age of the Enlightenment cynicism. Some might take a bit of convincing in accepting the parameters of this decidedly controversial production, but I can assure them that, but for a few flaws, it works very much of the time.

Longborough has long been ahead of the game, and in its two-fingered approach to all the pandemic strictures it built a big top of a performing arena, an acoustic baffle above, and arranging socially-distanced audience seats (admittedly not very comfortable) around a circular stage. And this presentation went one step further, making a virtue of the necessity of social distancing for the performers by having them hold and sing to classically-sculpted heads for their most emotional moments.

But that was just one brilliant touch in director Sam Browne’s novel take upon this normally set-in-stone masterpiece. It took us quite a time to get our heads round what were scarcely nuances in this heavily-underlined staging: what actually was happening at the beginning, set in what appeared to be a museum of statues, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella standing on plinths being measured up for wedding-dresses, their fiances Gugliemo and Ferrando drinking themselves to loutish excess, the urbane Don Alfonso pouring the drinks and clicking his fingers at the drudge serving-maid Despina (this was all Mozart’s compact cast)? why was fancy-dress much in evidence as the show moved on? And why was there a groovy disco when the girls apparently reluctantly entertained their suitors early in Act Two?

Then the penny dropped, showing us the objects of our affections that we put upon pedestals are only humans themselves, vulnerable to all kinds of weaknesses. So far so good.

Da Ponte’s text has been drastically revisited, not always convincingly (the references to Toilet Duck as a poison seemed worthy of Widow Twankey), and many of the production values go over the top. Do we really need suggestive writhing over the lower regions of statues, pointed party hats, and an embarrassing Full Monty take-off?

So much for the visual aspects. Musically, one can understand the desire to proceed without a necessarily reduced classical orchestra, but to provide something novel and viable in these circumstances, and Lesley Anne Sammons has dared to create a wonderful new arrangement of Mozart’s actually untouchable score., though some of the greatest numbers (“Come scoglio”, “Un’ aura amorosa” lost out in their thin accompaniment.  The only strings are one double-bass, but amidst her motley crew are recorders, perceptively used, and an accordion, imparting a deliciously louche colouring where appropriate. And Sammons conducted with brilliant clarity.

Still on music, I suppose it was just about acceptable to have the audience to lounge-bar cocktail tinklings, but pop music as the lengthy interval-end approached was really not appropriate to this audience (okay, the production team will tell us it was to get  us in the mood for the disco, but ahem to that).

At last to the singers, who  all six did a more than wonderful job. In this surprisingly benign acoustic their voices were untrammelled, their diction magnificently clear, and their acting enthusiastic and generous.

Invidious to pick names out, But Lizzie Holmes was an engagingly resourceful Despina, John Molloy a desperate Mr Fixit as Don Alfonso, and Anna Patelong conveying all Fiordilgi’s emotional and physical torment with an engrossing voice all along the way.

And rain, battering the big top roof, stopped play only once.

Christopher Morley

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