Così fan tutte re-envisaged as a garish funfair? For the Mozart/da Ponte collaboration that has most troubled contemporary audiences for its undertones of misogyny, deceptive sexual politics and outright cruelty, this might seem an unlikely directorial choice for ENO’s new production. Yet from the moment Mozart’s exuberantly winsome overture takes off, one feels the vibrancy of the showbiz golden curtain concealing the stage to be not entirely out of place. The lurid radiance of director Phelim McDermott’s palette might not help to elucidate the work’s subtler textures, yet the transposition succeeds in redeeming a troubled story with an atmosphere less of cruelty than of showmanship and fun. In doing so, it makes a case for Così as not only amongst Mozart’s most orchestrally sophisticated works, but also one of his most purely enjoyable.
This tone of jollity was established from the first bars of the score. In front of the circus’s glossy curtain was set a performer’s box embellished with the features of a smiling, carnivalesque face. From this box emerged, one by one, an entire troop of performers taken from the talented skills ensemble of Improbable, Mr McDermott’s production company. Traditional circus fare is out in full force; there is a sword-swallower, acrobatics, a contortionist, fire-eating. Each bears a placard, together forming more complicated constructions – from the comical ‘Opera starting now – Please concentrate!’ to evocations of ‘Lust’, ‘Big arias’, and, of course, ‘Chocolate’ portending a sampling of the delights to come.
Taken with the brillia
ntly envisioned set designs of Tom Pye and the wonderful redolence of the 1950s evoked by the costumes of Laura Hopkins, a world of imagination filled with amusement park colour saturates the stage, setting the oddities of the piece firmly in a surreal and brightly intriguing world. The circus is intended as a seaside funfair, a sort of operatic Coney Island; bedecked in conservative cardigans and ankle-length skirts, Fiordiligi and Dorabella stroll a boardwalk against a backdrop of amusement park rides – the dark silhouette of a roller coaster track, a slowly spinning ferris wheel. When the clandestine lovers court their girlfriends at night in a pleasure garden, a blanket of lights peppers the background with stars as amusement rides serve as the seat of their wooing. If the presence of the carney performers on stage sometimes distracts, the production as a whole is impressively slick and executed with creative flair.
The young, nimble cast enhanced the staging’s sense of freshness. Top honours go to Roderick Williams’stireless Don Alfonso. Alfonso is the lynchpin of the plot, and the tone of the piece always has much to do with the way in which his role is played. In this case, Mr Williams vividly portrayed a showman, a mostly well-intentioned if slightly dubious character pulling the strings at the circus to teach his friends a lesson – and, one felt more than anything else, to have a bit of fun in the process. From his turquoise suit and light panama hat as he runs about the circus sparking mischief to the shining, red sequinned jacket he dons at the end as he pretends to marry off the sisters, he created an aura of shadiness tinged with energy. As a less malevolent reading of the part, it suited the production well and largely helped to make the evening so effervescent as it was. It helps that Mr Williams is a consummate performer, and if his baritone’s timbre is a shade lighter than the typically more bass driven exponents of the role, it complemented the sprightliness of his characterisation.
He was joined by the wonderful Despina of Mary Bevan. Like Mr Williams, her soprano sometimes felt light for the part. Yet her bright, shining tone and agile high notes made her presence on stage a constant pleasure, ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ a particular joy. As was her admirable comic forays, first as the doctor – here a sort of German mad scientist crowned with a flurry of white hair – and later as the notary. The latter was a particular achievement, Ms Bevan sporting a studded cowgirl outfit complete with a white cowboy hat and an impressively voiced southern American drawl. Never mind her line dancing while singing. And flanked by two little people, also in southern American attire. Of course it was all a bit much, but it has been some time since I have witnessed an audience so happily imbibing the comedy elements of an opera performance, and Ms Bevan’s skill had much to do with this.
Kate Valentine and Christine Rice were an impressive pair as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Ms Rice was perhaps the more entirely successful, her ‘È amore un ladroncello’ polished, lovely, and suffused with all the radiance of the more coquettish of the sisters. Ms Valentine took more time to warm up, and I found her vibrato occasionally overbearing early on. Yet she has an exquisite soprano voice, full of warmth and expressiveness; for a production that consciously played up the superficial pleasures of the work, the one moment of supreme poignancy came from her heartrending ‘Per pietà’ – no mean feat given she was forced to sing it from a balloon drifting gradually higher over the stage. She brought tremendous pathos and beauty to one of Mozart’s tenderest compositions, and it was certainly one of the evening’s highlights.
Guglielmo and Ferrando were taken by Marcus Farnsworth and Randall Bills, respectively. Each was perfectly fine, Mr Farnsworth perhaps the more consistent of the two; his consternation over the avowed inconstancy of the fairer sex was comically expressed in a dynamic ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti’. Mr Bills, on the other hand, began somewhat less strongly; his ‘Un’aura amorosa’ felt pale, though he improved markedly as the evening drew on. He was in excellent form in his duet with Ms Valentine, ‘Fra gli amplessi’; each sang with ardour and conviction.
Taken as a whole, it was a strong cast that conveyed the vitality of the opera with unusual vigour. They were aided by the excellent playing of the ENO Orchestra, led by conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. Mr Wigglesworth’s conducting proved more efficient than exemplary, and one of the few flaws in a generally charming evening was the occasional lack of coordination between pit and stage, most noticeable in the ensemble pieces that ended the acts. Particularly in the end of the first act, the conflation of drama and music seemed more adrift than it should. Yet certain passages gleamed with intelligence and sensitivity – the delicate, heartfelt ‘Per pietà’ already mentioned the most potent example – and the performance was more often than not a sound one. If there were depths of Mozart’s orchestration left unplumbed, this was perhaps not the production in which to plumb them. With all its funfair rides, carnival eccentrics and views of pleasure gardens under the stars, the overall tenor was one of buoyancy and fun, and in this, it succeeded very well indeed.
The opera’s ending, featuring the band of circus performers joining the principals on stage and pairing up with them, underlined this conceit. In the showiness of the strange universe McDermott’s production and Mr Pye’s designs have crafted, anything goes, and if Guglielmo wants to take a turn with the bearded lady, why not? Of course the two pairs of lovers ultimately fall back into each other’s arms, and the magic of this production is making this conclusion seem neither hollow nor false, but as joyous as the brightly coloured stage world or the flowers Alfonso bestows on Despina with a final prestidigitatory flourish as the curtain falls.
In recent years, ENO has rightly laid great significance on the importance of reaching out to new audiences for opera. More often than not, this has taken shape as the hiring of a ‘celebrity’ director with little to no experience in opera, new productions that eviscerate their subject matter, or crass audience exhortation to dress in jeans. With Mr McDermott’s Così, they have got it just right – for the truth somehow overlooked for its simplicity is that the best way to inspire more people to come to opera, particularly new, younger audiences, is to stage it well. In breathing new creative life into Mozart’s masterpiece, re-imagining it with fresh colour and vibrancy, and underpinning it with a young, talented cast of singers, ENO stands to succeed both in exposing a wider audience and opera and securing the company’s future as an artistically viable alternative to Covent Garden.
So, a triumphant evening for all involved; let us hope more productions of such artistic merit follow.
John E. de Wald
(Photos: Mike Hoban via ENO website)