A beautiful but chilling return to live opera

23 October 2020

The West Australian Opera has returned to the stage with a stellar local cast but Rosalind Appleby says the beauty doesn’t mask the darkness in ‘Cosi fan tutte’.

Cosi fan tutte, West Australian Opera ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 22 October 2020 ·

There was a particularly luxurious moment in the West Australian Opera’s performance of Cosi fan tutte, in which Prudence Sanders allowed the full glory of her pearly soprano to erupt over the auditorium. The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and Guildhall School of Music graduate was making her role debut as Fiordiligi and her elegant delivery of the mighty “Come scoglio” aria, dressed in an 18th century gown amid the clean classical lines of the set, was breathtaking.

The moment was even more wonderful because this was the company’s first opera performance (alongside the children’s opera The Nightingale earlier this month) since COVID closed His Majesty’s Theatre in March. The production of Mozart’s famous opera is on loan from the UK’s Glyndebourne opera house and fortunately arrived before lockdown began, enabling the company to perform the season as scheduled, albeit at 60% capacity. As a result of this restriction, media attended the general rehearsal.

There was no sense of marking or restraint from the stellar local cast on Thursday night, however. Sanders was exquisite as Fiordiligi and her sister Dorabella was sung by Ashlyn Tymms, who captured wonderfully her character’s more tempestuous temperament, although sometimes at the expense of vocal tone. Reclining on their day beds, the two sisters were young, sweet and bored, their ornate dresses like flowers against the creams and soft blues of the set (design by Vicki Mortimer).   

In ‘Cosi fan tutte’ the two sisters Fiordigli (Prudence Sanders) and Dorabella (Ashlyn Tymms ) are young, sweet and bored. Photo James Rogers

Their equally naïve suitors were sung by Paul O’Neill (Ferrando), who rivalled Sanders for golden hues, and Sam Roberts-Smith (Guglielmo) whose secure baritone was well-and-truly seductive. Their comic attempts in Act I to woo the other’s lover (with John Travolta knee-slides across the floor) had the audience in stitches.

Penny Shaw’s hilarious and immaculate performance of the maid Despina was the comic icing on the cake, while James Clayton was a complex mix of melodrama and manipulation in the role of Don Alfonso.

The opera revolves around the wager Don Alfonso makes with the two suitors that their fiancés will prove unfaithful. Director of the original production Nicholas Hytner establishes Don Alfonso as chief manipulator who cues events with the flick of a wrist: the snare drum signalling the departure of the soldiers, the dressing of the set to enhance the chances of the disguised suitors, even the words spoken by the characters as the self-sabotaging charade plays out.

The opera also hangs on character development and in the hands of assistant director Margrete Helgeby Chaney (and rehearsal director Bruno Ravella joining via video link) the comic pacing, melodrama, and evolution of each character unfolds clearly.

The music drives the narrative, bubbling up with laughter or pausing for reflective stillness, but it also psychoanalyses it, taking the audience through an intensity of joy and despair. Chris van Tuinen directs the West Australian Symphony Orchestra with a light touch, drawing beautifully-paced, crystalline sound from Mozart’s tangle of emotions.

Bring all these elements together and you have a production that is almost too good. Because the music, singing and acting combine powerfully to plunge us deeply into the darkness of the second act.

Here is where the challenge of producing Cosi fan tutte emerges: it is problematic to present an opera that recreates (unfiltered) the race and gender issues of the 18th century. This production tones down the racism (the disguised suitors are not aligned with any particular racial or religious group) but it is impossible to downplay the misogynism of the final scenes.

The women are subjected to gaslighting and abuse (Ferrando sings: “your heart or my death”) until they succumb to the attempts to seduce them. The response from the male characters as they witness this infidelity involves shaming and physical threats: “rivers of blood will flow”.  At its best it is a chilling portrayal of a dysfunctional patriarchal community, at worst it is potentially triggering for victims of domestic abuse. 

There are many ways directors have navigated Da Ponte’s problematic libretto over the years but Hytner doesn’t appear to try, which makes this fundamentally traditional production – imported at great expense – a beautiful but sinister work of art for West Australians to witness as they return to the theatre.

None of this takes away from the fact that WA Opera have returned to the stage – the first company in the nation to do so – with a cast, crew and orchestra that are in fine form. The production showcases a talent and logistical prowess we can be proud of.

WA Opera’s production of Cosi fan tutte continues until 31 October.

Pictured top: Sam Roberts-Smith (Guglielmo) seduces Ashlyn Tymms (Dorabella) in West Australian Opera’s performance of ‘Cosi fan tutte’. Photo James Rogers.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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