Cosi fan tutte as a classroom comedy? It’s not what Mozart had in mind

Rebecca Evans in Cosi fan tutte
Witty take: Rebecca Evans plays Despina like a Victoria Wood dinner lady - Elliott Franks

As WS Gilbert might have written: “Two little maids from school are we, pert as a school-girl well can be, filled to the brim with girlish glee”. That seems to fit the protagonists of this show – but this is not The Mikado, this is Mozart’s subtle and sensual opera Così fan tutte, alarmingly reworked by director Max Hoehn as a sixth-form comedy drama. The two pert girls Fiordiligi (Sophie Bevan) and Dorabella (Kayleigh Decker) have their affections tested by their manipulative teacher Don Alfonso (José Fardilha), not much of a role model, as their boyfriends Ferrando (Egor Zhuravskii) and Guglielmo (James Atkinson) swap identities to win the other girl’s affection.

It’s true that the subtitle of the opera is “School for Lovers”, but we can be pretty sure this sort of academy is not what Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte had in mind. It certainly allows the immaturity of the young quartet to shine through, but the surrounding high-jinks, with romping rugby club members and girlish gym lessons, on a set liberally decorated with artistic illustrations of what used to be called the facts of life, suggests a lethal mixture of The History Boys and The Belles of St Trinian’s.

Having created the analogy – the girls paint portraits of the boys in art class, the boys are called up as naval cadets, and so on — the director has to stick with the conceit even though it becomes increasingly unsustainable amid the seriousness of the opera’s second act. This coming-of-age drama happens rapidly: the depth and maturity of Fiordiligi’s aria Per pietà, wonderfully captured by Sophie Bevan stretching her vocal range from the depths to the heights, provides a still heart for the drama. As Dorabella in her WNO debut, Kayleigh Decker is effervescent but does not quite plumb these depths. The two girls are better differentiated than the boys, who look pretty interchangeable in their hippy disguises – James Atkinson’s strong baritone Guglielmo emerges with a touch more strength of character than Egor Zhuravskii’s weak Ferrando. Guglielmo dissents from the sublime canon which the four sing at their uneasy wedding ceremony (unconvincingly staged on school speech day) and the opera ends not with the couples reconciled but with four isolated, uncertain figures facing their future.

We can be grateful for some supreme professionalism in Rebecca Evans’s witty take on a Victoria Wood dinner lady as Despina; José Fardilha’s crisp Don Alfonso is vocally less appealing, but at least he manages to avoid the imminent danger of the whole farrago becoming offensive. Musically, the pacing under conductor Tomáš Hanus, who is not known for this repertory, is currently uncertain, with some awkward co-ordination and odd speeds: the whole opera doesn’t flow, and even the first-act finale, one of the wittiest, most exhilarating scenes in the entire operatic repertory, doesn’t yet take wing. But maybe when this show settles in, there will be enough innocent fun for audiences on the tour.

In rep until Mar 8, then touring. Tickets: