Opera Scotland

Così fan tutte 2016Edinburgh International Festival

Read more about the opera Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte has not been exactly a rarity on Festival stages over the years, and some performances have not entirely justified their presence in a major Festival, taking an over-frivolous view of this great human comedy. Usually, the musical element has been notable enough to overcome most objections. The portents for this staging were good, however, with the director's reputation implying a preference for serious interpretations. The lively critical response to the production's first outing at Aix-en-Provence in July certainly implied that the evening would be highly stimulating. The word was that this fresh view was both politically provocative in its setting, and explicit in its depiction of the characters' behaviour.  Warnings were put about that the production might be unsuitable for children. The second performance, on an early Saturday evening with a 5pm start - an interesting experiment worth repeating - was packed out, and greeted with enormous enthusiasm. Children were noticeably absent, but then Così is hardly a piece that might be suitable for immature minds in any competent, thoughtful staging.

The setting was certainly provocative - Eritrea during the thirties when Mussolini tried to carve out a new Italian empire in Africa, and the country was under military occupation - quite a brutal one, to judge from the torturing in progress at the start (a man in the shadows strung up by his ankles through the night). It could just as easily have been a French colony, with the Foreign Legion in attendance, or even the Spain of Carmen vintage. Is it too outlandish to consider that a really unusual setting, such as eighteenth-century Naples, might have worked just as well?

The soldiers were hot, tired and bored. Before heading out on patrol, the men ironed their uniforms, not that you noticed once they were on. And they entertained themselves at the expense of the local women. The sisters seemed to be colonial daughters, very relaxed within this society, more casually dressed than their maid. The attitude to sex was more overt than in most stagings - Dorabella was happy to fondle her boyfriend in view of the other troops, while Guglielmo's attitude to the local female population is clearly that they exist primarily for his use - he gave no sense of enjoyment - more that sex was something very casual used to pass the time. The first setting was in the shadows (very shadowy) of a high-walled fortress or town. An army post is prominent. No sign of the sisters' domestic arrangements. The second act appeared to be relocated to some form of bath-house or hamam, though the significance of this seemed relatively unimportant.

The older characters are subjected to a similar rethink. Alfonso, played as an old colonial hand, takes the local women very much for granted, and their attitude to him is one slightly of fear, mainly of boredom. Despina has clearly enjoyed a number of relationships, finding the local men rather more stimulating than the Europeans.

All this is quite acceptable within the logical structure of the piece. Where the production by Christophe Honoré does court controversy is in the disguise adopted by the boys as part of Alfonso's scheme. The Albanian ruse, from da Ponte, is thrown out - it usually is nowadays - but instead they appear in black greasepaint and afro-style wigs. Their costumes become vaguely ethnic, though with army boots and trousers visible beneath. Their appearances are altered to a far more significant degree than usually happens, The resultant development of inter-racial bonding, foreshadowed previously by Despina, would no doubt have been controversial in the 'thirties, even if it causes little worry now. Certainly the Edinburgh audience seemed to find little to upset them, and cheered the performance to the echo at the end.

The level of the musical performance was consistently excellent. Central to this was the expert contribution of the baroque specialists from Freiburg in the pit. Conductor Jérémie Rhorer's choice of tempi all seemed just right - which may give the impression of dullness but certainly shouldn't. The musical performance brought continuous pleasure. The chorus also made an excellent impression, not just with singing, but the individualised characters they depicted. There was also a team of mimes, who watched, listened and lurked, so the singers rarely soliloquized, but sang their arias at someone, frequently in close physical contact. It's amazing how the technical security of singers allows them to move in a way unthinkable a few decades ago. 

Several of the cast have had excellent careers, even if they are not familiar in Edinburgh. Rod Gilfry has been a leading performer notable for a range of work from Mozart to new pieces, and an excellent interpreter of Billy Budd at Covent Garden. His Alfonso was domineering when required, though still youthful. Sandrine Piau's voice was richer in tone than the usual soubrette, as Despina, and added valid ornamentation to her sung line more than the others. It was clear that her depiction of a character out to have a good time did not always avoid risk, and an interesting sense of uneasiness.

Joel Prieto is remembered warmly for his superb Ferrando with Scottish Opera back in 2009. Since then he has sung the part at Salzburg and other exalted venues. His rendering of 'Un' aura amorosa' did not quite have the beautiful liquid phrasing of last time, but the voice has developed in power, while he remains a committed and excellent actor. Argentinian baritone Nahuel di Piero produced a character who was basically an unsympathetic thug, and yet he managed not to forfeit our interest completely, largely through the subtlety of his singing.

As for the girls, they received strong, physically-based performances. In other stagings, Dorabella sometimes can seem the loser among the four players. Here Kate Lindsey gave as good as she got, very much a liberated woman in control of her actions. She also managed to avoid forfeiting sympathy. Lenneke Ruiten sang commandingly, yet with plenty of subtlety, and, like the others, succeeded in holding our attention during her arias in spite of the other distractions going on around her.


Festival opera programme 2016

The opera programme of the 2016 Edinburgh Festival featured two imported stagings. The rarity was a piece difficult to bring off and receiving its first Festival showing - Bellini's Norma. The second was a work far more frequently seen, Così fan tutte. There was the start of a new Ring project, in concert form, with Das Rheingold. The Usher Hall concert schedule also included several works that should be listed here, even if they are not exactly opera. These ranged from Bach (St Matthew Passion) to Elgar (Apostles) and Schoenberg (Gurrelieder).

Performance Cast

Ferrando a young army officer

Joel Prieto

Guglielmo another officer, Ferrando's friend

Nahuel di Piero

Don Alfonso a middle-aged bachelor

Rod Gilfry

Fiordiligi a young lady from Ferrara, engaged to Guglielmo

Lenneke Ruiten

Dorabella Fiordiligi's sister, engaged to Ferrando

Kate Lindsey

Despina maidservant to the sisters

Sandrine Piau

Performance DatesCosì fan tutte 2016

Map List

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

25 Aug, 19.15 27 Aug, 17.00 28 Aug, 19.15

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