Tuesday, 20 May 2014

All the fun of the fair: ‘Cosi fan Tutte’

Cosi fan Tutte - ENO - Picture credit: (c) Mike Hoban
Cosi fan Tutte - ENO - Picture credit: (c) Mike Hoban
Mozart - Cosi fan Tutte: English National Opera
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 16 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Phelim McDermot's 1950's fairground updating of Mozart's comedy

'Cosi fan tutte' at the ENO was a riot of bright lights, fabulous staging, and circus skills, making it a spectacular event of an opera. This new production by Phelim McDermott is certainly worth a look, setting the opera in a faded 1950's seaside town, based on Coney Island, complete with fairground rides, a pier with fortune teller and candyfloss seller, a pleasure garden and a sideshow circus.

'Così fan tutte' is a darkly comic opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), premiered the year before his death. It has been rumoured that the libretto, written by Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), who also wrote the libretto for 'The marriage of Figaro', was looked at and discarded by Mozart's rival Antonio Salieri. But it seems from Mozart's letters to his wife that his worry about her fidelity may have meant that this story struck a chord with him. Also Mozart may have seen his own love life in the plot because he originally courted Aloysia Weber before being rejected and marrying her sister Constanze.

In this production time is a bit of a loose feature - you are never sure if the all happens during one day or over several days. In a bet with Don Alfonso, two young men (Ferrando and Guglielmo) test the loyalty of their girlfriends (sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella) by pretending to go off to war, whilst in reality they disguise themselves and pursue each other's partner. The girls are eventually persuaded by Despina (a friend of Don Alfonso who is not altogether in the loop) and the advances of their new admirers (including taking poison to try and elicit sympathy) to have a bit of fun with the boys. However, nothing quite goes to plan: the girls fall in love with their suitors, who are disgusted with the girl's behaviour. Nevertheless the two couples marry and presumably live out the rest of their lives in disappointment and distrust.

Although the title blames women's inconsistency really this story holds no one in a good light. Don Alfonso is cynical and Machiavellian; Despina is weak and inconstant; and the two young men have only their stupidity to blame for the hurt their pride receives. In some ways the girls come off best because they are at least true to their easily swayed hearts – but in marrying deceitful, manipulative, liars they are the ones who will suffer the most.

The original libretto is full of 18th century jokes and satire but the fundamental nature of humans has not changed. Setting the opera in a more modern era simply brings the philosophy closer. When Mozart wrote this opera Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire and the libretto calls for the young men to pretend to become soldiers and return as Albanians. Thankfully any indiscrete references were not also brought up to date. The men leave as sailors and return in casual rock and roll clothes.

Cosi fan Tutte - ENO - Picture credit: (c) Mike Hoban
Cosi fan Tutte - ENO - Picture credit: (c) Mike Hoban
Phelim McDermott recently directed 'Satyagraha' and 'The Perfect American' for the ENO. But this production was a step up. There were lots of little touches here and there, too many to mention, that moved this from ordinary to a multi-dimensional experience. Playing to his strengths at visual theatre the chorus was enhanced by a Skills Ensemble from Improbable (consisting of a fire eater, sword swallower, bearded lady, strongman and more). The circus artwork by Joby Carter deserves a special mention, along with Tom Pye and Laura Hopkins for designing the sets and the glorious 1950's and circus costumes which brought the whole concept together.

Equally there was a high standard of acting from all concerned. The four crossed lovers were Fiordiligi, performed by Scottish soprano Kate Valentine (an ENO Harewood Artist), Dorabella by British mezzo Christine Rice, and their beaus, Ferrando, played by the American tenor Randall Bills, and Guglielmo by baritone Marcus Farnsworth.

Roderick Williams was the worldly-wise and mischievous Don Alfonso, while Despina (and her alter egos) were performed by the versatile Mary Bevan, recently seen in 'Peter Grimes' and 'La clemenza di Tito'.

The surtitle machine was broken on the night I was there, but this made no difference to my understanding of the text. Each of the performers had very clear enunciation and there was some lovely blending of voices, especially Fiordiligi and Dorabella as they mooned about on the pier and the solos were all done well.

Cosi fan Tutte - ENO - Picture credit: (c) Mike Hoban
Cosi fan Tutte - ENO - Picture credit: (c) Mike Hoban
But this is an opera without any great memorable tunes and in fact it tends to go on quite a bit, especially towards the end when the lovers are endlessly expressing their feelings. Also you get the impression that, after the scene on the pier, everyone's passions are a bit lacklustre. To combat this the director has ensured that there is always something going on - whether it is merry-go-round horses, a tea cup ride, a flying balloon, a magic trick, a circus act, or a spinning machine used by a quack to restore life (to name a few) – so it is never dull.

Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth (the award-winning ENO Composer in Residence) and the orchestra played impeccably, making the most of their share. However, most of the recitative had only harpsichord or light string accompaniment, and, because this opera is mostly about thoughts, there was little drama required from the orchestra and it remained definitely in the background.

If you do not like gimmicks then this is not the opera for you. But if you love a spectacle and want to be entertained then it is definitely a good night out.
Reviewed  by Hilary Glover
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