Peter Reed – Opera Magazine

The Saffron Opera Group has had its share of Covid casualties – its Tannhäuser was cancelled twice (third time lucky, one hopes, this September) – but the nine year old company took a break from its unfolding Wagner series with a compelling performance of Mozart and Da Ponte’s unsparing appraisal of romance, incidentally a knowing corrective to the declarations of undying love to be expressed worldwide the very
next day.

In what was described as a concert performance, the cast of six were all agreeably detached from their scores and music stands, enough to push the comedy close to the edge of a proto-staging. There was no credit for a director but there was a light touch to the movement and many telling details. To add to the overall brio, all six roles were strongly characterised, so that the cartoon-like clarity of the plot’s initial premise could quickly generate the opera’s soul-searching moments where doubt and morality make themselves known, as Mozart so eloquently intended. Best of all it was one of those occasions where the opera’s music and words mutually admired each other.

As Despina, Fflur Wyn showed off her effortless talent for suggesting mischief simply by standing still and letting an arched eyebrow or minimalist hand gesture take the strain. Her soprano is now quite substantial, but agile and word-friendly, and she radiates vitality. She was a good match for Richard Burkhard’s suavely sung and sublimely cynical Don Alfonso whose underpinning of ‘Soave sia il vento’ made the trio delightfully double-edged. The partner-swapping quartet of lovers was just as neatly drawn. Jessica Cale guided us through the gradual erosion of Fiordiligi’s resolve with considerable subtlety. Her lead into ‘Come scoglio’ and the aria itself were expertly phrased and shaded, all the more affecting for aspiring to be a sternly purposed Baroque scena, and in Act 2 she got straight to the point of being careful what you wish for in a heart-breaking ‘Per Pietà. Rebecca Afonwy-Jones’s lovely mezzo has depth without darkness, and its warmth made her Dorabella a good foil to her more complicated sister. In duet they produced a thrilling, very Straussian gleam.

Their two young men made complete sense of the sisters’ burgeoning conflict. Marcus Farnsworth is a seasoned Guglielmo who sang seductively and elegantly, his lightly assumed macho attitude being summed up by his carefree performance of his Act 2 aria. Farnsworth made a striking double act with Liam Bonthrone, who sang Ferrando with a lovely warmth throughout his register that flattered his unforced high range, his personable stage presence was just the ticket for an irresistible ‘Un’ ora amorosa’. The many ensembles were excellent with a fizzing Act 1 sextet.

Conducting his part-amateur, part-professional orchestra, Michael Thorne was engaged and intuitive and the results had quite a swagger. It helped that he had a fine wind section and a flexible well-schooled chorus.

Peter Reed