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Cosi fan Tutte, Royal Academy of Music: review

Women: they’re all the same. That’s the message of Così fan Tutte, one of Mozart’s most loved and well-known operas.

An old teacher, Alfonso, delivers a lecture on the unfaithfulness of women – explaining that they can’t help being

Royal Academy of Music Cosi fan Tutte
Image by Mark Whitehouse, Royal Academy of Music

fickle as it’s in their DNA. Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, protest that their girlfriends are different. The teacher laughs at their naivety and suggests a bet that the two girls, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will betray their boyfriends within 24 hours. The two men agree, disguise themselves as strangers and test their girlfriends’ loyalty.

In this production by Royal Academy Opera, conducted by Jane Glover, director John Cox has moved the story to the modern day – there are mobile phones, laptops and the alcopop WKD probably plays more of a role than Mozart intended. The opera also becomes a giant science experiment. To emphasize the point, Gary McCann’s design has the walls coated with graph paper and a giant sculpture of the DNA helix hangs from the ceiling.

As the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Katie Bray and Ruth Jenkins are giggly, wide-eyed girls. They text their fiancés on their mobiles and kiss the screens. Bray as Dorabella is the sillier of the two: flighty, excitable and attracted, magpie-like, to pretty jewels. We know she will be the first to fall, and so it proves. The scene in which she is seduced is beautifully sung and simply staged: Charles Rice’s rich baritone and Bray’s full-toned mezzo-soprano communicate the complex emotions of the two characters and create one of the most memorable scenes of the evening.

Jenkins’ Fiodiligi puts up more of a fight, agonising over her changeable heart. The aria in which she asks her absent lover to forgive her (“per pieta”) is moving and heart-felt. As Jenkins tears out her hair, however, Bray’s Dorabella happily skips around, painting her nails and chatting about her new boyfriend.

The sisters are encouraged in their unfaithfulness by their landlady, Despina. Mary Bevan in the role is all high-heels and bling. She totters around the stage teaching the young girls to flirt and flutter their eyelashes. Her aria on the unfaithfulness of men provides some balance in the plot and Bevan manages to suggest an interesting back-story for her flibbertigibbet character.

The two men, Roberto Ortiz as Ferrando and Charles Rice as Guglielmo, are cartoonish: first in their passionate attempts to seduce the two girls, and then in their rage when they submit. Frederick Long as the puppet-master of the experiment, Alfonso, manages to undercut the lovers’ emotions throughout.

Although the first half feels strained, the singers relax in the second and begin to revel in their roles. While the staging is sometimes too static, overall, the calibre of the singing is high enough to carry Cox’s hands-off direction.