Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Cosi van Tutte at ENO

I must confess that I rather have a love/hate relationship with Cosi van Tutte. On a bad day, in an indifferent production, I rather find the plot annoying and a little pointless; even more so when producers try to correct the ending. But on a good day, in a production which makes you really feel the character's pain, it can be profoundly moving.

Prior to seeing the opera on Saturday at the London Coliseum, the last time we'd seen it was Glyndebourne on Tour in Norwich, when they performed the Nicholas Hynter production. This production had a lot in common with ENO's new production which was directed at Aix en Provence by Abbas Kiarostami and revived at the Coliseum by Elaine Tyler Hall. Both Kiarostami and Hytner used traditional sets and costumes, allowing the plot to proceed unencumbered by overmuch directorial baggage. But whereas Hyntner's production laid bare the pain, emotional distress and conflict within Kiarostami seems to have been content to let things just flow along.

Now, in neither case can I comment on the original production. I was not at Glyndebourne when Hyntner's production was new, we saw the Touring version as revived with a different cast by a staff producer. And the same thing happened at the London Coliseum, mainly because of Kiarostami's visa process.

I think that the prime weakness of the production at the Coliseum was in the casting. The two male lovers, Liam Bonner and Thomas Glenn, were young and promising but neither yet seems to have the ability to dig deeply into a role. They simply sang the notes nicely and went through the actions; too much of it seemed play acting rather than real life. Maybe in a smaller theatre they would have made more of an effect, the tenor particularly seem rather taxed by the size of the Coliseum.
Mezzo Fiona Murphy was a little stronger as Dorabella, but she was rather monochrome and far too equable for my taste, this Dorabella was neither headstrong nor giddy, she seemed to take everything in her stride. It was left to Susan Gritton to make the emotional effect and you got the feeling that Gritton had to do most of the work herself. Neither of her arias were technically flawless but they were both profoundly moving.

Whether you like a producers ideas or not, it is always a sign of a good production if the producer gets a strong performance from the cast. This was true of the recent ENO Peter Grimes where I did not really like David Alden's concept but cannot deny the corrosive performances he achieved with his cast. A similar thing applied to the famous Richard Jones Ring at Covent Garden where Jones's ideas rather grated, but his singers were sometimes transformed.

Nothing like that happened here and I'm afraid that part of the way through Act 2, annoyance with the plot and boredom crept in. Luckily conductor Stefan Kilingele kept things moving and, using a relatively small orchestra, gave us a fast and incisive account of the score with the ENO orchestra playing well for him. The other highlights were the performances from Stphen Page as Don Alfonso and Sophie Bevan as Despina. Page was fatally likeable and believable as Don Alfonso, rather more pleasant than in some productions, but this meant that we got a much needed blast of warmth whenever he came on stage. And Bevan came close to stealing the show. Usually I prefer older singers as Despina, but Bevan convinced me that having a young Despina was equally viable.

I rather suspect that the casting for this opera was fatally flawed by a search for youth. Both the young male lovers were slim and personable and visually the 4 lovers made a handsome group. But opera is about more than figure, a singer needs a voice and an ability to use it properly. Maybe this cast would have worked if they had had a long rehearsal period with an experienced opera producer. But this didn't happen hear.

Kiarostami is a film director so not surprisingly his production made use of film. For the opening we had a backdrop of a cafe with the inhabitants unashamedly gawping at the three men. Then for the rest of the opera we had a glorious view of the bay of Naples, filmed real time, so that we saw the boat leaving with the men going off to war, boats coming and going with the singers for the fete champetre etc. All very charming, but though the weather varied a little I would have liked darker storm clouds assembling as the mood got darker. For the finale we had a film of the orchestra (not done real time). This was a good joke, but the quality of the film was a little too fuzzy and it really said nothing about the action on stage. You could not help feeling that this was another lost opportunity and that a more experienced director might have been a little more daring.

All is not lost with the production. What it needs is for ENO to re-cast it with a strong, well balanced cast and lose their obsession with youth and beautiful bodies; then they could show us what this opera is really made of.

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