The Independent Theatre in North Sydney last night rang to the sound of impressive operatic voices, as the newly formed company Operantics debuted its first production: a hilarious, modern Australian—but Italian-language—version of Cosi fan tutte.
At half the cost of the usual low-priced tickets, this Preview was absurdly good value for money. The set was sparse and the costumes low-budget but both were highly effective among the elegant art deco colonnades of the Independent, suggesting a “café in Balmain, 2015” and later a Vaucluse mansion, home to the young socialite sisters Fiordiligi (soprano Joelene Griffith) and Dorabella (soprano Katie Miller-Crispe, who is also the show’s producer). The girls are in love with their respective fiancées, friends Guglielmo (bass-baritone Tristan Entwistle) and Ferrando (tenor Dave Smith), who have just finished their military training.
When their friend Don Alfonso (played as a flamboyantly gay modern-day Mephistopheles by baritone Ian Warwick) bets with the scoffing lads that their fiancées could easily be unfaithful given the chance, the three men hatch a plan to test the girls, with the disguised boys each attempting to seduce their friend’s fiancée. The disguises themselves have to be seen to be believed. I’m sure Da Ponte never wrote “I don’t know if they’re hipsters or homeless” for the girls to sing when the disguised boys appear, but such liberties with the libretto have never been more hilariously apt. While there were some opening-night issues with the surtitles, the translations to modern Australian English were excellently done.
Director Victoria Watson, who sat laughing and conducting in the front row throughout, has done a wonderful job of updating Mozart’s beloved 1790 opera to a modern local setting. In an interesting directorial move, the performers toy with breaking the fourth wall: Entwistle reproaches the ladies in the audience with “Donne mie, la fate a tanti“; Griffith conducts the sisters’ initial duet, and both girls interact playfully with the pianist Nathaniel Kong. Kong’s occasional difficulties last night with page turns through a long and difficult solo piano score were overcome by his technical excellence, light touch and cheery, adorable on-stage persona.
Despite some initial first-night nerves, all the roles were played and sung with aplomb and this promises to only get better during the show’s run. Griffith’s vocal ability impresses in particular with Fiordiligi’s dazzling coloratura, especially in “Come scoglio“, in which the soprano’s ringing top and easy agility across the registers is on full display. The rich-voiced Entwistle also stood out as a highly charismatic performer, really hamming it up with a ridiculous fake moustache, tufts of hair through a backwards cap and OTT pelvic thrusts as he seduces Dorabella. The young soprano Samanta Lestavel is as perkily delightful a Despina as one could wish for. Like Entwistle, she stands out with a promising combination of vocal technique and a pleasant timbre, with adaptable dramatic and comic skills. Admittedly though, this is true of the entire cast.
The audience at the preview was notably younger than typical audiences at OA performances, in line with the average age of the cast. This suggests that perhaps there is a younger audience in Sydney for opera… if only ticket prices could always be as affordable as this! I hope the fledgling Operantics is able to reap financial rewards enough so that we will see many more productions from this talented team. This Cosi is a wonderfully enjoyable night out and a great opportunity to experience the opera stars of tomorrow. Four stars. ****
Tickets for performances this Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 2 pm can be bought online: http://www.operantics.com.au/