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Cosi Fan Tutte

by on 7 October 2018

This is a Man’s World

Cosi Fan Tutte

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto Lorenzo da Ponte

Dulwich Opera Company at All Saints Church, East Sheen, until 6th October, then on tour* until 2nd November.

Review by Matthew Grierson

‘What madness to seek out misery’: so says one of the soldiers soon to wager on his intended’s virtue in the first scene of Cosi Fan Tutte. Misery may not be an easy sell for what has become a popular comic opera, but the bet certainly results in the anticipated ‘madness’, with this engaging production steering a careful course through three hours of seriousness and silliness, if occasionally sailing a little close to the wind. All this to the accompaniment of Elspeth Wilkes at the piano and some simple but effective staging.

The piece opens with a pair of soldiers at a patio table, where Guglielmo (David Fletcher) nonchalantly drinks wine as his companion Ferrando (Robert Barbaro) paces up and down, angered by the suggestion that his fiancée could possibly be unfaithful. For the pair are not only under the shadow of a creeping vine but also the creepy Don Alfonso (James Williams), keen to press his misogynistic agenda. Boys being boys, it is not long before they agree to his plan to test the women’s virtue.


Girls will be girls as well, it seems, and the soldiers are replaced at the table by Fiordiligi (Loretta Hopkins) and Dorabella (Phillipa Thomas), praising the men who have just been seen promising to hoodwink them. Comparing pictures of their suitors, they playfully if unknowingly rehearse the reversal Mozart has in store for them, as one steals the other’s locket and forces a light-hearted chase. When Ferrando and Guglielmo enter with news of their supposed mobilisation, the women are heartbroken.

So far, so normative. It’s a tricky proposition to stage a piece that depends so heavily on the double standard, especially when the lads are established as typically laddish and the ladies as typically ladylike. But – I think – Ptolemy Christie’s direction maintains a precarious balance between stage tradition and 21st-century sensibilities, which is nowhere clearer than in Honey Rouhani’s joyous characterisation of the ladies’ maid Despina, a standout performance among an excellent ensemble.


While Fiordiligi and Dorabella may be justly distraught at the soldiers’ departure, this can’t excuse the ill treatment they mete out to their servant on their return home. In turn this gives her good grounds for wanting to bring them back to earth from their, well, operatic upset, in responding to which Rouhani proves herself an expert in the exasperated look. But more than this, Despina’s case that the ladies allow themselves some fun while the men are off ‘fighting’ shows that delight can be taken in women’s pleasure for its own sake, ignoring society’s constraints. The interwar ambience of the production’s design gives some credibility to this emerging possibility for women’s own agency. Viva Despina!

The production draws a fine contrast between her and Don Alfonso as the twin engines of the plot. Whereas the maid offers clear and convincing reason for bringing her mistresses down a peg or two, the Don’s animus against womankind gets no explanation other than the title of the piece – ‘They are all like that’. He lays claim to some ‘experience’, though he is of similar age to the soldiers and, presumably, excused military service on account of a limp, so it’s just as plausible that he’s bitter about not being in on that action. James Williams’ fine turn as the conniving Alfonso, complete with cad’s moustache and co-respondent shoes, puts one in mind of Iago, with his similarly nebulous reasons for misleading Othello.

Forgive for a moment my own aria, but I find the comparison with Shakespeare instructive: Alfonso proves his thesis about women correct through his manipulation of the other characters, but similar accusations made of Desdemona, Hero and Hermione are all unfounded. In fact, the closest comparable moment in the Bard is when Portia and Nerissa, in the guise of young lawyers, pull one over on their lovers Bassanio and Gratiano, giving women the upper hand and proving men unfaithful. As most of these episodes are in the tragic mode, even if they occur in comic plays, what does it say of Mozart that the same theme is played (and in this case, successfully) for laughs?


Perhaps it has to be. When Ferrando and Guglielmo return disguised as ‘Albanians’ to woo each other’s fiancées, the grotesquerie of their advances has to be comic, as it becomes here, because if it weren’t it could get very uncomfortable today. Likewise, the casual Orientalism of their fancy dress needs to be taken in a similar pantomime spirit to avoid offence. The cleverness of the production allows this stagey lasciviousness and implicit xenophobia to be interpreted as the soldiers’ attempt to be as off-putting as possible to the women in order to win their bet with Alfonso.

Any doubt may be dispelled by the delightful silliness of what ensues. Having seemingly poisoned themselves because of their heartsickness for Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the two ‘Albanians’ are revived by Despina, tricked out as a Frankenstein-style scientist, by attaching enormous crocodile clips to their harem trousers to jolt them back to life. Despite earning the women’s pity – are they in on the joke, or simply that gullible? –Ferrando and Guglielmo remain rebuffed and are driven off the stage, proving that the conned fiancées can still give as good as they get.

By the time of the second act there has been a crucial change of heart on both sides. The boys have upped their charm, serenading the objects of their affection with hand puppets in an effectively simple substitute for an elaborate masquerade, and the women begin to relent. This leads to a mock betrothal, with the two couples having their hands bound with vines; playing out along All Saints’ nave, this vignette makes good use of the church setting to suggest a ceremony at ninety degrees to a conventional wedding.

The awkward moment that follows is played legitimately awkwardly, with neither couple certain of where to take things from here. The subsequent contrasting arias of the women play out two of the options they face. Dorabella follows Despina’s advice, and returns from a liaison with Guglielmo to recount, in some detail, the fun she’s had. In her simulation of the encounter, Phillipa Thomas completes a convincing transition from fidelity to postcoital knowingness. Fiordiligi remains in two minds, however, and her aria exposes the passions she feels for her absent fiancé and would-be lover alike; all the same, she still spurns the disguised Ferrando.

That Dorabella yields and Fiordiligi remains faithful then opens the faultline between the two men. Guglielmo is able to brag simultaneously of his conquest while his own fiancée has remained loyal, but this prompts Ferrando to redouble his efforts, threatening to run himself through if Fiordiligi does not yield. If anything, this shows the opera to be as much about masculine egos as it is an exploration of feminine (in)fidelity. A sham wedding is ministered by Despina in the role of a priest, Rouhani enjoying the business this allows with papers and funny voices, but this only confirms the wounded pride of the male protagonists. As the unhappy couples toast their nuptials, they sing an aside to the effect that they wish their brides were drinking poison.

Rather than leave such a sour taste in the mouth, though, the production concludes by having its composer reveal himself. Don Alfonso spirits away the ‘Albanian’ grooms to have them return in their own person, exposing the plot and casually shopping Despina as its conductor. In a nice wink to the audience, as the piano strikes up to hymn the reunion, he then distributes the scores that they’re to use, with the title clear for all to see: ‘Cosi Fan Tutte, di Don Alfonso’. Once they realise they’ve been singing his tune throughout, the women each give the cad the slap that he’s more than earned, and even Despina rips up her earnings from the scam.

Technically, Alfonso has proved himself right, but he’s not allowed to take any pleasure from the fact. And this is probably the best way to retell the old lie in such an entertaining way, as this production manages, while keeping it palatable in a more equal century.

Matthew Grierson
October 2018

*forthcoming shows in Poplar (25th October) and Chatham (2nd November)

Photography by Alex Brenner

From → Opera, Reviews

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