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Mozart, Così fan tutte: Garsington Opera Production, Concert staging based on John Cox’s production, Dir: Frederic Wake-Walker, Soloists, Garsington Opera Orchestra, Cond: Steuart Bedford. Barbican Hall, London 11.7.2008 (ME)

‘…can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?’ Substitute Italy for the vasty fields, and a villa in Naples for Agincourt, and you’ve got the problem – can the Barbican recreate the luscious grounds of Garsington or all the suspension-of-disbelief props associated with theatrical sets? Well, no -  but the intimacy of the original setting and the special qualities of youthful ensemble which delineate Garsington were authentically replicated in this event, mainly via the small orchestra which was finely led by Steuart Bedford, and by the principal pair of lovers.

The Fiordiligi and Guglielmo were by far the most promising members of the cast. Erica Eloff has already won the 2008 Handel Singing Competition, and her poise is remarkable in such a young singer – her statuesque bearing does her no harm, and her slightly aloof stage presence was very much in keeping with the concept of the character. Her voice is bright without being brassy, her phrasing musical and elegant, and she negotiated the heights of Per pieta with aplomb. D’Arcy Bleiker’s Guglielmo has yet to acquire her calm confidence, but his warm, supple baritone shows great potential, and he was a source of strength in the ensembles.

Anna Stéphany was an unusually contained Dorabella – her voice is quite light for the rôle, and she gave a very assured reading of her arias. The director’s concept of her character seemed to suggest calculated choice in what she does rather than the more usual passionate, headstrong ‘she-has-to-fall-first’ interpretation, and her superb costuming echoed this in its Edwardian elegance.

Ashley Catling has a very sweet tenor although he was taxed by Un aura amoroso – for once I would have liked a little more stage business here – however he made a credible Albanian and phrased his music with style. Riccardo Novaro’s Italian diction was, of course, superb but he was conceived as a sort of hotel manager rather than a suave and commanding Don, which detracted from his general standing in the narrative. I never cease to be irritated by Despina, and if a singer can get through the part without making me wince too much then she has been successful, and this was achieved by the genuine Albanian, Teuta Koço.

In terms of the orchestra and continuo, it will surprise no Mozarteans that sympathetic support was supplied throughout - Garsington’s singers are fortunate to have Bedford to guide them. It seems churlish to be too critical of the production given the obvious constraints, and there was in fact much to please the eye, from the exquisite costumes to the cleverly judged lighting, but for me the setting of the commencement of the Great War did not quite work, perhaps because most of the action seemed to take place in the foyer of a forerunner of a Marriott. However, Garsington Opera can once again be proud that it has cast a team of young singers of whom it can certainly be said that each one is a name to watch.

Melanie Eskenazi

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