Così fan tutte/Don Pasquale

Jonathan Miller's operatic return falls a bit flat

Così fan tutte/Don Pasquale
Royal Opera House, London WC2

Jonathan Miller has long complained of neglect by London's opera houses. Though no longer strictly true - English National Opera has premiered productions of La Bohème and L'elisir d'amore by the director in the past couple of years - his work has generally been kept in circulation through revivals. And perhaps they are part of the problem. With his stagings of Rigoletto, The Mikado and The Barber of Seville all still in repertory after 20 years, there has been little space for new commissions. While these evergreen projects might offer little in the way of financial consolation, it is no small honour that Royal Opera has launched its autumn season with two revivals of his work in as many nights.

Miller's production of Così fan tutte, returning for its seventh run (until 24 September), distils the essentials of his approach: neutral, uncluttered set design, a strong emphasis on fine acting and an interpretation refreshingly free from editorial comment. When this staging premiered in 1995, it was noted as the first opera performance with a character singing recitative into a mobile phone; it subsequently also became known for its Armani suits. Such props might suggest flippancy, but they add to a fitting aesthetic that gives Mozart's comedy of manners a strong contemporary relevance.

The opera's protracted joke - that women are fickle - is treated with the intended irony. Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Maria Bengtsson and Jurgita Adamonyte) are played as flouncing Wags; their lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo (Pavol Breslik and Stéphane Degout) are City slickers who return in disguise as Easy Rider types. Despina (Rebecca Evans) is a perky PA who placates her clients with Starbucks "cioccolatte" and tranquilliser pills. And Thomas Allen sings Don Alfonso with the authority we have come to expect.

Most impressive vocally were Bengtsson and Degout, the former demonstrating a honey-toned soprano and smooth legato phrasing, the latter a stylish baritone. It was a fine ensemble, however, and sparkling performances on stage were complemented by Thomas Hengelbrock's account from the orchestra pit: by turns vivacious, coy and touching.

Though Così can seem trivial on the surface, the drama is sustained by the narrative's exquisite symmetry and somewhat elusive philosophy - qualities altogether lacking in Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Nor does the score to this over­blown buffa have the charm of the composer's better-known comedies L'elisir d'amore and La fille du régiment. Protagonists are taken from the commedia dell'arte tradition and are strung together in a plot that frequently resorts to farce: Don Pasquale is an ageing bachelor who, having refused to pass on his fortune to his nephew Ernesto, is duped into acquiescence.

Miller's production (until 21 September), first seen in 2004, locates the opera's domestic milieu inside a vast Victorian doll's house, complete with intricate furnishings, a pair of oversized scissors and outlandish tea set. An uneven cast toiled under Evelino Pidò's competent baton. Paolo Gavanelli in the title role certainly looked the part, but his vocal line lacked clarity, while Barry Banks as Ernesto struggled to project and sounded strained in "Cercherò lontana terra", his showpiece trumpet duet. Íride Martínez was granted an enthusiastic reception for her role as Ernesto's sweetheart, Norina, but her steely soprano lacked sensuousness and depth. So it was left to Jacques Imbrailo as the scheming Doctor Malatesta to win the audience with his poised and graceful tenor.

As ever, Miller's conception makes perfect sense: programme notes suggest genre paintings by the likes of Nicolaes Maes as inspiration, and certainly the set provides a useful canvas for voyeuristic servants and the hustle and bustle of everyday life. In practice, however, it proves ineffective. The characters are reduced to mere dolls, becoming ever more vacuous, and because the performances are restricted to a single visual and acoustic plane, they exhibit a certain flatness.

When they step outside the box for the final scene, the lead characters suddenly become more engaging, but this comes too late. Taut drama and emotion fire Miller's best work - there's not enough of those here.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis