Bulletin Website  from 23 August, 2006

Two ladies of quality, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are taken with the portraits of two soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando. That pair are so in love with themselves that they refuse to believe that their girlfriends could be unfaithful. A philosopher, Don Alfonso, schools the vain men in the power that pity and tedium have to make women all the same – Cosi fan tutte, as the title of Mozart’s opera has it. Their maid, Despina, instructs the naive girls in how to get the most out of being women.

Don Alfonso tests their fidelity, and the credulousness of the audience, by having the men pretend to go to war, only to pop up a few minutes later disguised as Albanians who lay siege to whatever virtue the ladies retain.

Victorian Opera chose this challenge for its premiere season at Her Majesty’s. The chances of assembling a cast equal to the fiendishness of Mozart’s vocal lines are slight anywhere. The new company sought to ride over any infelicities in the singing with vitality in every department.

Inevitably, Don Alphonso and Despina are more engaging than their self-deluded pupils. As Despina, Tiffany Speight opted to make a caricature of all the caricatures of pert maids, confirming that nothing succeeds like excess. She missed no opportunity to inflect a note or roll an eye.

Gary Rowley as Don Alfonso gave the younger men lessons in stage and vocal techniques as well as in love. His whole body established his role. His baritone was subtle, dark and sparkling by turns. His humour evoked menace as much as indulgence.

Jacqueline Dark as Dorabella acted and spoke with more authority than she sang until she caught fire. That breakthrough led to a playfulness which carried her beyond the doll-like demeanour that she and Fiordiligi must portray at the start.

Antoinette Halloran’s Fiordiligi escaped from that puppet-like stance to establish a sympathetic personality by holding her passions in check even as she managed her notorious aria, “Firm as a Rock”.

Ferrando and Guglielmo are emotionally more like teenagers than swaggerers, an aspect which the young performers brought to the fore. Christopher Saunders as Ferrando had the sweet tones of a choir boy, though with more cheek. Christopher Tonkin as Guglielmo could not even overact. His baritone possessed reserves of power without so much as primary colours.

The only striking costume from designer Christina Smith was for Despina as she impersonated a doctor. The rest of the wardrobe looked as if the performers had asked their mums to run them up something. Smith’s sets were folds of floral fabrics. At times, they looked liked painted flats. Their mimicry of nature always reproduced the artificial in the plot and the music.

Director Jean-Pierre Mignon filled the evening with a stream of stage business. These tricks of the trade did not point towards any comprehension of the significance of “the school for lovers”. Mignon proceeded as if the Enlightenment had passed Mozart by.

The company’s musical director, Richard Gill, kept Orchestra Victoria alert to the textures of the score, echoing the wit of the libretto.