This revival of Mozart's Così fan tutte is the perfect way to end the Royal Opera's 2006-07 season. After a slightly dud Rigoletto last week, it's great to see musical and dramatic standards back on a high under an ideal conductor-director team and an excellent cast.
Jonathan Miller's production is an absolute pleasure. He completely understands the philosophical background to Così fan tutte, which reflects Mozart and Da Ponte's engagement with themes of the Enlightenment. Thus despite the updating of the settings to an elegant salon in modern times, Don Alfonso is clearly a philosopher figure from the eighteenth century, blending elements of Voltaire and Diderot. He's there to make a human experiment and show the four innocent characters - the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella and their lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo - the truth about human frailty. Alfonso demonstrates (in the manner of Rousseau) that suffering and experience precede understanding and insight. Miller's production makes the idea of the lesson very clear by signposting the methods by which the four lovers are tricked at all times. For instance, we see the maid Despina running off very ostentatiously to disguise herself as a doctor and a notary, and Alfonso uses his mobile phone to order an offstage drumroll when the men are going off to the putative 'war' in the first scene.
But the genius of Miller's vision is that his communication of the philosophical aspects of the opera is never at the expense of the work's high comedy. He has returned to direct the revival and has once again brought certain aspects up to date, for instance Despina writes the marriage contract on a laptop and eats a Krispy Kreme doughnut on her first appearance, and there is a running gag using the cameras on the sisters' mobile phones. The production is a side-splitting triumph, and the evening as a whole was both a lot more engaging and more amusing than the last revival of the staging in 2004.
Musically, too, everything was vastly securer this time around, if not quite flawless.
Elina Garanca was a knock-out as Dorabella. Making an auspicious Royal Opera debut, she acted and sang to perfection. She wittily conveyed the fact that Dorabella is the flirtier sister, trying to sidle up to Guglielmo quite early on, and she has the glamour of a film star. Vocally, she was stunningly secure from top to bottom in both of her arias, 'Smanie implacabili' (Act I), which was sung with a poignant, languid tone, and 'È amore un ladroncello', in which she found a brighter sound. Her Composer in next year's revival of Ariadne auf Naxos promises to be superb, if tonight's performance is anything to go by.
Rebecca Evans was so captivating as Despina that the only sadness was that the role isn't more substantial to give her more to do. Not merely outstanding in her two small arias, she literally stole every scene in which she appeared. She led the way with her Italianate tone and accent, rattling off the recitatives with wit and a sense of rhetoric. And her jolly characterisation was one of the main assets of the show, throwing herself into the disguise scenes with aplomb. (Read our interview with Rebecca Evans here.)
It was a shame that Dorothea Röschmann completely skipped the high B at the end of 'Per pietà', because her stamina as Fiordiligi up to that point had been awe-inspiring. She does occasionally have intonation problems on exposed high notes, which she tended to shriek at high velocity in this performance - sometimes to comic effect, sometimes not. But in general, I marvelled at her lovely full, creamy tone, and 'Come scoglio' was a tour de force.
Another ROH debutant, tenor Matthew Polenzani drew huge applause for his rendition of 'Un'aura amorosa', and deservedly so. His beautiful rich voice shaped each phrase with care, and he was in outstanding voice all evening as Ferrando. After a slightly anonymous first half, Lorenzo Regazzo came into his own in the second act as Guglielmo, performing with great assurance and singing his duet and aria with warmth. But I must confess to a slight disappointment in Thomas Allen's Don Alfonso. His acting was as unimpeachable as ever, dominating proceedings exactly as he should, but his voice seemed in less than peak condition. In particular, his part in the sublime trio 'Soave sia il vento' was barely audible, which is unusual for him.
Returning to conduct this production for the third time, Sir Colin Davis held the performance together with his customary authority. There were almost no discrepancies of speed between stage and pit, and he always stepped in to correct problems where they threatened to arise. The balance of voices and orchestra was superb, and even if some of the tempos were slightly slow, Sir Colin's reading has such freshness and life about it that it would be churlish to complain.
In all, a very creditable end to the season. There are three more performances during the coming week, while the Royal Opera's Young Artists are presenting their annual summer concert on Saturday 21 July (for more details, see our interview with Ana James here). Not to be missed.