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Cosi fan tutte, Sydney Conservatorium School of Music Opera School, 8 October


Oh Mr Mozart. Signor Da Ponte. You are so wicked, mixing your weasel words and  melting harmonies into the outrageous confection that is Cosi! You set declarations of love, hope, faith and tenderness to some of the most beautiful music in the repertoire, then you put in the mouths of dissemblers, tricksters and fools.

Is a love song still a love song, if the person singing it isn’t in love?

The Conservatorium’s Opera School has put together a production of Cosi which, in the spirit of Mozart and Da Ponte, is simultaneously straight, musically, and thoroughly crooked, dramatically — the ultimate anti-rom-com. On a simple set (with several handy hidey holes) the cast camp it up to generate lots of laughs.  Director Narelle Yeo uses a wide repertoire of theatrical tricks and pratfalls to keep the action engaging, so that there is always something to see. Indeed, there are so many visual gags that one sometimes finds oneself watching the action on the margins — a chorus member clipping hedges, Despina pigging out on chocolate, and a scene-stealing nurse who seems to have got lost on the way to a fancy dress party in Darlinghurst. But while it is distracting at times, it’s so well choreographed and so downright entertaining that it seems churlish to criticise.

The six-hander cast all pull their weight, vocally and dramatically. Tristan Entwistle cuts a fine figure as Guglielmo, the alpha male, and sings like a dream, finding the solid centre of every note. Chris Berg’s Ferrando is more fragile: when he sings well — which is most of the time — his sound is achingly seductive, but there are moments in this treacherous role where the voice sounds unsupported.

Deepka Ratra is a scarily effective Despina. She handles the vocal challenges without drama, her voice fine-tuned and agile, but what is most impressive is her ability to maintain a character, a melodic line, an intricate part in a sextet while in a basket, or handling complicated props, or dressed in a fat suit, wearing a false nose. Michael Halliwell – who is associate professor in the vocal and opera studies unit – is a pitch perfect Don Alfonso, with a fine bass which provides a great anchor for the ensembles.

As Dorabella and Fiordiligi, Sarah Kemeny and Jessie Wilson are a well-matched duo who cope with awkward costumes — the fabulous inventions of Brendan Hay — intricate stage business and the work’s prevailing subtext misogyny with dignity and style. Indeed, through their solo arias they build characters with more integrity and emotion than any of the other characters. Yes, they’re being played, but they lose with honour. Wilson nails both her big arias and her blazing ‘Per Pieta’ is a moving portrayal of a someone genuinely trying to be a good human being.

Cosi is often cited as an ideal opera for young artists, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The standard of singing here was consistently high. So too was the orchestral playing, which music director Stephen Mould drove at a cracking pace. And if things threatened to come apart on occasion, it all came good in the end.

Cosi is on for another three performances, on Tuesday 11th and Thursday 13th at 6.30pm and on Saturday 15th at 2pm, all in the Music Workshop at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

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