English Touring Opera 2020 Review: Così fan tutte
A School for Lovers Full of Froth and FizzBy Benjamin Poore
(Image Source: Official website)
The great critic Edward Said saw Mozart and Da Ponte’s “Così fan tutte” as a work of irreconcilable contradictions: astonishingly tender in its explorations of longing, fear, and regret, yet also strangely cold and unredeemed; a world of libertinage and manipulation that burns forward without any clear moral purpose.
The frivolity of its scenario is powerfully at odds with music of extraordinary glittering invention and fragility. So too is it hard to reconcile with the darkness of Don Alfonso’s furious, nihilistic tirades against women, and the succour of human relationships themselves, let alone some eerily violent moments in the libretto. “Remember,” Dorabella chillingly chides Fiordiligi in English Touring Opera’s new production, “he can kill you if you disobey.”
This opera can leave directors adrift. The more they dare to look at the opera’s ominous vision (as Said has it) the more overburdened it can become and the more tarnished its glittering musical surface. Too extravagant examination of the opera’s stagey-ness and obsession with masquerade can make it feel as arid and bitterly self-satisfied as Don Alfonso himself; “Così” as philosophical seminar for lovers makes for a long evening indeed, the price being the work’s effervescent comedy.
Director Laura Attridge finds a smart setting and scenario for this troublesome work. The action is relocated to the Alexandria of the late 1920s, with a dumb show in the overture setting up the frolicsome couples’ holiday romance. It’s the world of Lawrence Durrell and E.M. Forster, and of a world whose sexual and social mores are in transition for the women at the centre of the opera. This latter dimension gives Despina’s urgings to the pair later an especially subversive and modern energy, and brushes off stereotyped performances of the character as a bitter, lascivious old maid.
The orientalist dimensions of the work – the lovers are supposed to reappear as swarthy ‘Albanians’ – are transferred to the setting rather than Ferrando and Guglielmo themselves. More ingeniously they are disguised as a swashbuckling fighter pilot and rakish colonial army officer, with goggle and pith helmet that seem straight out of the pulp fictions of the period. In the late colonial imagination Alexandria in this period is an exotic crossroads where European values can be tested and warped by this swelteringly decadent setting: Attridge has found a superb coincidence of setting and text, reveling as they both do in slippery, uneasy games of masquerade and identity.
Don Alfonso watches the action unfold from his cafe table, a postcolonial flâneur in the mould of Graham Greene. His lofty detachment swaps the philosophical stringency of Mozart’s Enlightenment context for ironic archness of the novelist or idle aesthete, whose detached existence gives him special insights into his playthings, doubtless the subject of his next book. Here he is a more avuncular figure than the rather mean-spirited manipulator to which audiences have grown accustomed. Stephen Loges’ performance is genteel and witty, though even his quicksilver manner can’t quite take the edge of the various broadsides against women that punctuate his appearances.
It’s a sleek and lithe production, moving at terrific pace thanks to expedient cuts – the chorus have been entirely excised, an economically expedient decision for a small touring company – and positively fizzing with humor throughout.
It’s a “Così” played for laughs, with carefully judged comic timing and fruity Gilbert & Sullivan caricatures, not least in the swaggering of the disguised men, whose physical comedy is a production highpoint. Oliver Townsend’s playful designs make eloquent use of tiles, screens, and a divan in the act one interior that summons up Orientalist images of languorous sensuality, albeit knowingly.
Singing came from what felt like natural Mozart voices, and averred, perhaps following the period instrument stylings from the pit, towards historically sensitive forbearance in crisp consonants and neatly sculpted vowels. Properly fulsome singing was reserved for the accompanied recitatives and the biggest numbers of the show, but for the most part the through composed passages – the end of act one springs to mind – were kept moving by discrete diction and fleet-footed phrasing, saving us from sluggish longueurs. The act one trio of “Soave il vento” made it clear that an understated approach to the singing need not want for lyricism or warmth.
Jeremy Sams’ garrulous translation was particularly effective in Despina’s case, full of earthy idioms that made her seem refreshingly down to earth. Jenny Stafford gave a sparkling and youthful rendition of the character that was infused with a liveliness that made her so much more than the stooge of Don Alfonso, and her surprise, regret, and even shame in the denouement was a convincing instance of the work’s many melancholic touches. Her comic avatars as the fez-wearing, chalk-voiced Notary and vibrator-wielding Professor Mesma – a touch of the Marie Stopes there, surely – were deliciously droll.
Frederick Long’s Guglielmo has a delicate baritone that does not batter Mozart’s challenging music, with its unforgiving tessitura, into submission; he was especially fine in his act two duet with Martha Jones’ Dorabella, whose transition from reticent naif to someone rather more adventurous made for another compelling narrative journey.
Thomas Elwin’s Ferrando proved himself an ideal Mozart tenor, creamy in timbre throughout his range and with plenty of soft lyrical edges, even if some top notes in “Un aura amorosa” felt a little snatched.
Joanna Marie Skillett as Fiordiligi offered a show-stopping “Come Scoglio.” Her vocal distinctiveness – more gleaming and silvery than her colleagues – helped reflect the character’s particularly complex emotional and sexual journey across the opera in both her arias and ensembles.
Holly Mathieson led ETO’s regular period instrument orchestra the Old Street Band. Unfussy tempi were the order of the day: she took the famous “Così fan tutte” motif of the overture in the tempo of the Presto that follows it, and scarce looked back after. Mathieson eschewed languorous breaks between numbers for applause, a common pitfall that all too often dulls the opera’s narrative edges. After a scrappy overture owing to a few woodwind wobbles on Mozart’s fiendish musical tightrope the orchestra found its feet, the strings springing into the triplets of the first aria with aplomb. The pit was most compelling in the accompanied recitatives of the work, with nervy, anxious strings early in act two giving sketching much psychological light and shade.
Does this production delve as deeply as it might into the emotional turbulence that lurks beneath its surface? The ending, always a contentious issue, returns the couples to their original configurations, and the moral is sung with bright sincerity. One is left wanting for a sense that the characters are transformed more profoundly by these games, or that something has been revealed about their desire and shame. Guglielmo seems tantalizingly close to refusing to play along, clearly embittered by the experience, but the sunshine ultimately returns.
Nonetheless, this is a touring production that will take a show that can prove hard to love to audiences across the UK underserved by opera companies, dispatching this perilous masterpiece with apt lightness of foot and musical loquacity.