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Melbourne Opera has built up a stable of talented, entertaining singers, so what better opera than Cosi Fan Tutte, with no less than six major roles, to show off the skills of their popular artists.
Radically changing the time and place setting of operas can be risky, but potentially rewarding if the update illuminates the text and enhances the variety for audiences who are well accustomed to traditional stagings. Happily, the choice of 1960s Melbourne is an excellent one, giving this production an extra pep and delight beyond the innate charm of the music.
We find our clean-cut heroes Gugliemo (Phillip Calcagno) and Ferrando (Roy Best) enjoying Melbourne's burgeoning cafe society with the wise but cynical Don Alfonso (Roger Howell). The scene dissolves to show Fiordiligi (Danielle Calder) and Dorabella (Victoria Lambourn) reclining on banana lounges on the brick veneer patio of their Mornington Peninsula home. The age of free love and the prospect of the Vietnam war prove well matched to the opera’s plot. A hippie love-in or two and a range of fun disguises for Despina (Andrea Creighton) heighten the colour along the way.
Director Suzanne Chaundy has expertly crafted her vision for the piece, bringing out the best in the six leads. The English translation works beautifully, enhanced by crisp diction, facilitating the accessibility of the performance. Cheeky updates, such as the poisonous mixture of "Pine-o-Cleen, Ajax and Mr Sheen" are well chosen and add to the fun. The only drawbacks of the English are that the original character names don’t really fit, especially in light of the update, and the tendency towards repetition in the lyrics is highlighted.
Best of all, in the relative intimacy of the Athenaeum, the vocals sound glorious and the sense of sheer fun experienced by the performers carries easily over the footlights to the receptive audience.
Also sounding wonderful is the Melbourne Opera Orchestra under the lively baton of conductor Greg Hocking.
Christina Logan-Bell’s witty designs capture the garish colours and extremes of mid-60s Melbourne. Given the restrictions of budget, the set is very well realised, fitting the space and framing the action perfectly. The oversized linoleum squares on the floor are a masterstroke.
It is difficult to single out individual strengths in the six lead singers when all are so evenly matched and each has moments to shine. Both Creighton and Howell complement their excellent singing with moments of fine comic sparkle.
Best’s high tenor voice sounds strong and pure. Calcagno creates a sensually romantic persona to match the highly attractive timbre of his baritone voice.
Lambourn shines with innocent delight and sings with lovely expression. Calder continues to demonstrate a maturity of tone and expression beyond her years, and is a centred, eminently watchable performer. Her rendition of “Please forgive, my beloved, pardon” is surely the solo highlight of the evening.
Each of the duets, quartets and sextets involving various combinations of the leads sounds truly wonderful.
With the opera stretching just over three hours, Melbourne Opera wisely started this Tuesday evening showing at 6.30pm, allowing audiences to enjoy the performance without being out too late.
The extremely strong alternate cast demonstrates the depth of Melbourne Opera’s talent pool. The number of their regular performers who supplemented the recent Melbourne season of Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow did not go unnoticed.
by Simon Parris
18 July 2012