There are those who prefer the sweet sparkle of Le Nozze di Figaro or the fatalistic drama of Don Giovanni, but Mozart’s 1790 opera Cosi fan Tutte (“That’s How Women Are”) is regarded by many as the most musically perfect ever written. The comic narrative revolves around a bet between two young soliders and their senior officer that the men’s lovers will be faithful while they are away at war; cue seduction, deception and daft disguises, all in the name of love.
Hampstead Garden Opera’s English language production shifts the action to Sicily of 1943, where the troops are enamored of two young actresses performing with the Entertainments National Service Association unit stationed in the city. The new setting makes sense of the narrative’s urgency – with war hanging heavy in the air and the cast periodically sheltering from air raids, passions run high and desires are easily swayed. Disguised as Yankee airmen, the soldiers spy on their lovers and bribe them with chocolate to test their fidelity, convinced they will win their bet easily.
Even with the updated setting, it’s hard for modern audiences to completely ignore the undercurrent of cynicism in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto. Easily flattered and all too ready to swoon into the arms of the next available suitor, the giddy Dorabella (Sarah Denbee) seems to be the kind of faithless girl Don Alfonso is referring to when he makes his fateful wager. Her sister Fiordiligi, beautifully sung by soprano Maud Millar, at first seems the more steadfast. She stands atop a chair to proclaim in the aria Come scoglio that her love is like a rock, but her position is as precarious as it is lofty, and the sentiment will come tumbling down before the final curtain.
In the end, and to the horror of both Fiordiligi and her suitor, it’s not the chocolate that wins the day but false professions of love and devotion. Floating around the narrative of Don Alfonso’s scheming and his junior officers’ willing deceptions are, incongruously, some of Mozart’s most luscious operatic melodies. Make what you will of the world-weary narrative, there’s no denying that the tunes are bewitching.
The Gatehouse’s intimate upstairs performance space leaves no room for error, either vocal or dramatic. Thankfully the excellent cast rise to the challenges of this small venue and the performances are uniformly first-rate. Special mention must go to musical director Dorian Komanoff Bandy for his sensitive direction and spirited accompaniment on the fortepiano.
Cosi Fan Tutte is Upstairs at The Gatehouse, Highgate, until 6 May.
1-5 May at 7.30pm; 6 May at 4pm. Tickets £16-20 Box Office 020 8340 3488 or book online here.