SALLY Matthews’ intimate knowledge of Cosí fan tutte will help SCO’s new production deliver deeper truths behind the farce
The moment soprano Sally Matthews lifts the phone to speak, there’s a sound of scuffling and mild domestic chaos. “I’m just running upstairs to escape my three and nine year-olds,” she says, adding that it’s what working mothers have to do from time to time. Funny that, given her impending role tonight and tomorrow is in the opening programme of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s new season – a concert performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. The often-used loose and somewhat deprecating translation of the title is “Women are like that”.
Matthews sings the role of Fiordiligi, one of two sisters (the other is Dorabella), whose fiancés are both soldiers. The girls fall prey to the men’s weakness in accepting a wager from the elderly Don Alfonso that, should the men feign accepting the call-up to war, instead disguising themselves as Albanians to woo each other’s fiancé, both Fiordiligi and Dorabella will succumb to their false advances; and prove Alfonso’s belief that woman are fickle. Which they do, but everyone forgives one another and all live happily ever after with the right partners.
Viewed at such a superficial level, Così fan tutte is as absurd as any 18th-century operatic plot. But this is Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte, and where these two get together, farce is simply the protecting veil of the passion, humanity, politics and irony that lie teasingly beneath the surface. Matthews, who has played Fiordiligi on stage several times, has no time for those who dismiss the character as simply a pawn in a comic farce.
“Fiordiligi is often portrayed as dizzy and glitzy, but she’s not. She’s actually very complex. Of all the characters she goes on the biggest emotional journey. She’s very honest and very true, undergoing the same confused emotions that happen to lots of people. They take you by surprise, and suddenly you’re blown off course. That’s why Così fan tutte, when done with a clear understanding of what it’s all about, is so difficult to watch.”
That view was confirmed a couple of years ago when Matthews sang the role at Covent Garden in a revival of Jonathan Miller’s contemporised 1995 production for the Royal Opera House, which had the men in bandanas and leather trousers, the girls in sunglasses and figure-hugging jeans and constantly fingering their iPhones, and the marriage contract drawn up on a laptop.
“It was a wonderful experience, but quite different from what I had anticipated. I thought, with Jonathan, it was going to be highly intelligent and highly complex, but what he did with it was simply very honest, very clean, and the kind of production that can go on forever. His knack of making it so wholeheartedly simple, so theatre-based, really got to the crux of what it’s all about – the fact that people do fall in and out of love.”
That’s all very well, but in tonight’s concert performance at the Usher Hall (and tomorrow’s at the City Halls in Glasgow) Matthews, and the rest of the cast working under SCO principal conductor Robin Ticciati, face the awesome challenge of conveying all of that without staging, costumes or props. If anything puts the veracity of an opera to the test, surely this is it.
As far as Matthews is concerned, it’s an approach that puts Mozart exactly where he needs to be – centre stage. “This way, as a singer, you get more chance to concentrate on the music, in the same way you do performing Mahler 4. By simply having to stand and sing, the music is first and foremost. I Like concert performances for that reason.”
Not that she envisages it being a motionless affair. “Until we get to rehearsal, there’s no saying how much moving around we’ll be expected to do, though anything’s possible as we are all singing it from memory.” Indeed every one of the cast – Rachel Frenkel as Dorabella, Maximilian Schmitt as Ferrando, Adam Plachetka as Guglielmo, Christopher Maltman as Don Alfonso and Laura Tatulescu as Despina – are veterans of various staged productions in the world’s leading opera houses.
“We’ve all done it so often, but in different places at different times, which effectively brings together a collective knowledge of many productions into one. Personally I’ve sung this role three or four different times. That gives me something to hold onto, and certainly helps me appreciate the movement in the role, even when I’m standing still.”
The 37-year-old soprano has also had recent experience with Ticciati in the opera theatre, once again in Mozart, singing the role of the Countess during the summer in The Marriage of Figaro, Michael Grandage’s new production for Glyndebourne. “We did 17 performances with Robin, by which time you really felt he had Mozart under his skin. He really knew what he wanted, and I don’t see that being any different with Così.”
It is, she says, a singer’s opera, but one that places the highest demands on both technique and emotions. “Mozart expects a lot from each voice type. Fiordiligi is mainly dramatic and lyrical, but he asks you to sing like a mezzo [soprano] at times – all the vocal exercises rolled into one; Dorabella is a mezzo role, but made to sing high a lot. All the singers have to tackle everything that is difficult and make it work, otherwise you’re in trouble.”
“In other words, you have to be in tip-top vocal form, and that’s when the emotional magic comes alive. Mozart has a wonderful way of making you laugh and cry within five seconds, he knows how to flick the switch. He never indulges, but just draws you in and you’re off.”
And it’s all there in the music, much more so than in Figaro, claims Matthews. “Figaro has its touching moments, but basically it’s a laugh from start to finish. But in Così, beneath the laughs, and expressed in some of best operatic ensembles Mozart wrote, people are left looking at their own lives.” And not just the women.
• Sally Matthews sings Fiordiligi in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s concert performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, conducted by Robin Ticciati tonight in the Usher Hall Edinburgh, and tomorrow in the City Halls, Glasgow. www.sco.org.uk
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