True Humanity: Così fan tutte at the Fundação Gulbenkian

Mozart – Così fan tutte

Fiordiligi – Valentina Naforniţa
Dorabella – Natalie Pérez
Guglielmo – Samuel Hasselhorn
Ferrando –
Ilker Arcayürek
Despina – Im Sunhae
Don Alfonso – Marcos Fink

Coro Gulbenkian, Orquestra Gulbenkian / Nuno Coelho.
Mise en espace – Marcos Fink.

Grande Auditório, Fundação Gulbenkian, Lisbon, Portugal.  Sunday, March 20th, 2022.

Tonight, as part of the usual post-opera ritual, I turned to social media to post the usual thoughts on what transpired to be quite a magnificent evening at the Fundação Gulbenkian.  I was greeted by a tweeter mentioning that Così fan tutte should be ‘retired’ and that the story did not hold up ‘to the times’.  And yet, what opera does hold up ‘to the times’?  After all, why do we still engage with Figaro, Don Giovanni, Clemenza – and don’t even get me started on Madama Butterfly.  I am a fervent believer in the need to decolonize opera, to reflect on the implications of the stories contained within.  Yet, I find this idea of having to necessary ‘cancel’ what is a musical masterpiece, with a story that will appear problematic to a twenty-first century audience, extremely objectionable.  Instead, we need to reflect on its implications, to question this masterpiece, and to focus on how far we’ve come in terms of gender equality, and how much further we have to go – particularly at a time when our transgender siblings are harassed on social media and elsewhere, for instance.  If we don’t understand and reflect on our past, we have no way of creating a better future.  Otherwise, we’re only at one remove from burning books.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

I start with these thoughts because tonight’s Così was given in an extremely insightful semi-staging by Marcos Fink, who also sang Don Alfonso.  Perhaps as a result of his long experience with this opera, Fink gave us a piece of genuine theatre that reflected not only a profound understanding of the work, but also a deep appreciation of the humanity within.  He used the full area of the stage of the Grande Auditório, using only a couple of chairs, while changing the costumes of the cast as they dressed up as Albanians or with Im Sunhae’s Despina dressing up as both a notary and the doctor.  A small number of props, helped the comedy along – not least when Despina treated the ‘poisoned’ Albanians.  Fink also introduced a wonderful moment at the start of Act 2, where he revealed the glass wall behind the orchestra, to show the garden beyond – a moment enthusiastically applauded by my seat neighbour.  What I found particularly interesting was how Fink brought out Alfonso’s cynicism, not least as he tossed candies to the audience while Ilker Arcayürek’s Ferrando sang ‘un’aura amorosa’.  At first, I found it annoyingly distracting; but then I found it deeply unsettling, Alfonso trivializing what should be an extremely tender moment. 

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Similarly, Fink’s staging brought out the humanity within.  That questioning of the meaning of fidelity and where it can lead.  Of how the heart can be led astray and how nothing could ever be the same again for these couples.  This wasn’t a staging that focused on female emotions and male exploitation of these.  Rather, Fink and his cast presented to us a group of people who were living emotions that they were incapable of understanding and to which they needed to choose how to react, in a world where emotions and desire were uncertain.  Consequently, Fink gave us an evening that showed us what it means to be truly human, that life is complicated and messy, and that comedy is often simply a way of trying to rationalize a tragedy within.  And in turn our world is so much richer to have an evening such as this in it.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Musically there was so much to admire – with one exception.  Let’s get this out of the way first.  Valentina Naforniţa was a glamorous and statuesque stage presence as Fiordiligi.  Her soprano has an agreeably dark sheen to it and she maintained great composure despite her ‘per pietà’ being accompanied twice by a ringing cellphone.  And yet, to my ears, the technique sounds unfinished.  Naforniţa is frequently flat on high, the florid writing was sketchy and she does not yet own a genuine trill.  Those large intervals in ‘come scoglio’ were less than optimally judged.  The poor tuning led to her contributions to the ensembles taking something of a microtonal edge.  It strikes me that she’s attempting to make the voice several sizes bigger than it actually is, the support not lined up fully and the tone not ideally focused.  Again, she’s an engaging actress, and she had clearly worked hard on her portrayal of her character, but vocally it was somewhat disappointing. 

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Natalie Pérez is a very young singer and her Dorabella contains some promise.  Her orange-toned mezzo is pleasant on the ear and she’s also an enthusiastic stage presence.  Perhaps due to her relative youth, it sounds that she doesn’t yet have the ability to use the text fully to create her character.  Words weren’t always ideally distinct and the mind consequently had a tendency to wander during her numbers.  The French mezzo most certainly has the raw material, however, and will no doubt grow as an artist over the next few years.  Fink sang Don Alfonso with a world-weary bass, somewhat frayed on top now, but with so much communicated through the text.  He was very much the glue that held the show together and brought to it so much insight.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Im was a sensational Despina.  She brought out so much through the text – really colouring the words to bring her character to life, in exceptionally idiomatic Italian.  The way she portrayed her character through the text rendered the Portuguese surtitles superfluous, such was the vividness of her singing and acting.  Her bright soprano, with an engaging smile in the tone, her impeccable comic timing and ability to make Despina a three-dimensional character, even more than in a fully-staged production, all made for a terrific portrayal.  Arcayürek sang Ferrando in an agreeably chestnut-toned tenor.  He has that implicit understanding of this music that cannot be taught, singing with an impeccably even legato and a tenor that is absolutely even from top to bottom.  He also brought out the full range of emotions of his character – from the anger to the honeyed lyricism, with the text always front and centre.  Samuel Hasselhorn brought his firm and handsome baritone to his role of Guglielmo.  He sang ‘il core vi dono’ with an easy legato and turned the corners with ease in ‘donne mie’. 

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

Nuno Coelho was a revelation on the podium.  The youthful Portuguese conductor is a Mozartian of distinction – and also has an implicit understanding of how this music should go.  His tempi were nicely swift and the recitatives were fully integrated into the action, living with spark and verve.  Ornamentation was used frequently and imaginatively, allowing the singers to work their magic and bring genuine individuality to their lines.  The Orquestra Gulbenkian was on admirable form for him.  There was one passing incidence of scrappy string playing, in ‘donne mie’ in fact, where the strings weren’t quite able to keep up.  Playing with agreeably minimal vibrato, string intonation was generally very accurate and the horns were exceptionally well behaved in ‘per pietà’.  Credit also to the principal clarinet (unfortunately the Gulbenkian isn’t yet producing paper program books so I can’t credit the player by name), who played with deliciously characterful tone.  The chorus sang with impeccable blend and was also fully engaged in the stage action.

Photo: © Jorge Carmona – Gulbenkian Música

This was a splendid evening, one that brought this complex and multifaceted masterpiece to life.  In it, the cast, led by Fink, took us to the highest of highs, but also to the lowest of the lows.  Musically, with a couple of reservations, it was absolutely first class, led by a young conductor with serious promise.  We were given an evening that took us into what it truly means to be human, in all of its contradictions, and one that gave us a complex and multifaceted reading of this most complex of works.  The Gulbenkian audience rewarded the cast with a generous standing ovation. 

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