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Così Fan Tutte

by on 15 March 2022

All the Fun of the Fair

Così Fan Tutte

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte 

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 22nd March

Review by Andrew Lawston

Against a glittering golden curtain, a rousing rendition of Ukraine’s National Anthem brings the audience together before Così fan tutte has even begun.

This revival of director Phelim McDermott’s 2014 production of Mozart’s comic opera begins with a flourish that sets a playful tone for the evening, as the skills ensemble of sword swallowers, contortionists, fire-eaters, and acrobats take turns to climb from Don Alfonso’s surprisingly capacious trunk onto the Coliseum’s forestage.

As the carnivalesque ensemble melt into the background of a bar in a faded recreation of 1950s Coney Island, Don Alfonso begins to harangue his two young friends Guglielmo and Ferrando about the essential duplicity of women.

In the grand tradition of ill-advised decisions made in the pub, the two officers wager one thousand dollars that their fiancées – sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella – are devoted and incorruptible.  Hilarious consequences, as they say, ensue.

The English National Orchestra, conducted by Kerem Hasan, is on sparkling form, upbeat, bright and zippy, as the deal is struck between the three men, and tenor Amitai Pati (Ferrando), baritone Benson Wilson (Guglielmo) and bass-baritone Neal Davies (Don Alfonso) create wonderful harmonies musically as well as interacting with an easy chemistry.

In the next scene, the two men declare that they have been packed off for war, so that they can participate in Don Alfonso’s bizarre experiment to test the faithfulness of their fiancées.  Soprano Nardus Williams (Fiordiligi) and mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp (Dorabella) wave them off from a simple but wonderfully-realised seafront.

The set-up complete, the story really gets going when the action moves to the sisters’ house – here depicted as a motel with three revolving bedrooms, another great design from Tom Pye which provides flexibility for all the singers, as the production lurches briefly into the bedroom-hopping territory of farce.

Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves as suitors, and attempt to woo their fiancées, having given Don Alfonso their word as officers that they won’t give the game away.  Benson and Pati both look as though they’re having much more fun in disguise, as swaggering cocksure peacocks wearing ridiculous jackets.   (The colourful costumes by Laura Hopkins are a constant joy).  The lovers spend much of the rest of the first act chasing each other between the three motel rooms and it’s all gloriously well-choreographed fun.

It does of course strain credulity that Dorabella and Fiordiligi don’t recognise the two soldiers, and neither at first does Despina, their chambermaid in whom Don Alfonso partially confides in order to secure her help in his scheme.  Soprano Soraya Mafi has a brilliant time with Despina, bringing a powerful voice to this comic role which shines through clearly even when adopting Scottish and American accents for the various guises that Don Alfonso asks her to play.

The comedy is dialled back slightly in the second act as the disguised suitors gradually overcome their fiancées’ resistance.  While Dorabella initially seems quite happy to enjoy the company of the men while their future husbands are apparently away waging war, Fiordiligi takes to the air in a pod from the backdrop’s Ferris wheel and orbits the stage as she sings hauntingly of her regret and repentance for succumbing to their advances.

It goes without saying that the male characters’ behaviour is outrageous and abusive by modern standards, but the production makes no attempt to disguise this fact or to excuse Ferrando and Guglielmo.  Don Alfonso passes off his manipulation as some sort of moral lesson and everyone incredibly seems fairly happy with this.  The improbable ending works in this semi-modern dress production due to the heightened atmosphere created.  The fairground setting, given a surreal twist by Joby Carter’s artwork, and by set details including heart-shaped illuminated arches and swan carriages, give the second half a dreamlike quality, and soften the turmoil experienced by the main characters.

When Don Alfonso appears in a red sequined frock coat for the final scene, the ringmaster of this 1950s style circus, the acrobats, fire-eaters and contortionists are all assembled, but where are the clowns?   It quickly becomes apparent that no one needs to send in the clowns this time – Guglielmo and Ferrando have been fulfilling that role the whole time.  That they don’t seem to receive any real come-uppance for their actions beyond being made to look foolish to the audience is almost a detail.  Three hours of world-class performances have flashed by, in a tremendous operatic and theatrical spectacle.

Andrew Lawston, March 2022

Photography by Lloyd Winters

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