Così Fan Tutte is arguably one of the world’s most loved operas. Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart chart the emotional journey of two couples; Fiordiligi and Ferrando, Dorabella (Fiordiligi’s sister) and Guglielmo. They are engaged to be married and still have everything to learn about love. Don Alfonso, self-made philosopher, bets with the two fiancés, that Fiordiligi and Dorabella will betray them given half a chance. Horrified, Ferrando and Guglielmo, seeing an opportunity to make some money, enter the wager.
The plot maybe slender but Mozart’s sophisticated score gives this opera buffa meaning.
For the music alone, Così Fan Tutte dazzles, but let’s face it, the opera is a little over three hours long and innovative staging is needed to support the exquisite arias, duets, quartets, quintets, and sextets. Gone are the days when our six main protagonists perform bewigged in a series of 18th century boudoirs and drawing rooms.
When I read that Phelim McDermott was transposing Così to 1950s Coney Island for the ENO production, I was intrigued but not convinced. Could this cheapen Mozart or lighten the composer’s worth and intentions? Coney Island is associated with a funfair, freaks, and bawdy jokes. Surely, we are talking about noble love here. Or are we? Love can be dirty, bawdy, cheap, in short, an illusion.
The stage is aglow with golden lame curtains, behind them the singers will ride on a merry-to-round, sit in giant cups, enter cages, a ghost train which will emerge through a huge gaping mouth.
McDermott has many awards under his belt and as Artistic Director of Improbable (an enlightened inclusive theatre company of performance artists) he manages to fill in the lulls in the action that would occur on stage. Not only does he keep things moving along (literally), but he also brings new insights to the opera. Yes, we are entertained with fire eater, contortionists, acrobats, a very tall man, a couple, small in stature, and at the performance they all took up their positions as listeners or active participants in the unfolding story.
Most memorable was the cocky, sensual Guglielmo singing to the female performers, who swooning over him, wipe glasses in time to his aria. Guglielmo starts to rant about women, the women stop what they’re doing, their eyes glaze over and they disappear under the counter they’re standing at, leaving the row of pint glasses. When Ferrando steps in to sing his aria of despair – Dorabella has been unfaithful – the glass ladies, now fed up with men altogether, snatch the glasses away and duck under the counter. Little touches provided light relief from Ferrando’s self-obsession and self-pity and showed women fighting back.
The singers made up the dream cast. Nardus Williams as Fioriligi showed complete command of her Mozartian soprano – her leaps, trills and runs and high notes were executed faultlessly, and she still managed to exude warmth and gain our sympathy in her sadder arias Act 2. Meanwhile Hanna Hipp as Dorabella played her character well, evolving from dullard sister to sex bomb after falling for Guglielmo’s very evident charms. Her full bodied mezzo really came into being at that moment. Benson Wilson as Guglielmo impressed with his suave, sensual baritone, and Amitai Pati with his sweet, sensitive tenor, full of careful nuance, had the audience eating out of his hand with Un’aura amoroso .
Most importantly, there was good chemistry between the young couples – essential in this opera!
Neal Davies as Don Alfonso excelled as the arch manipulator – educator. His comic timing was superb and very importantly, (my neighbour in the audience commented on this too) we understood every word in his recitative without having to crick our necks to read the surtitles.
Soray Mafi as Despina was delicious in her spiritedness “No woman yet has ever died for love” but sadly and most interestingly she is probably the saddest of all, as she has not only deceived the two sisters but has been used in her turn by all three men.
There’s so much more in this opera which makes you wonder where Mozart stood as far as women were concerned – he knew what it was to be in love, to be betrayed and to betray. Don Alphonso sings “You must take as you find” and “that’s human nature”. Probably wise words in this complicated world.
Highly recommended – catch it quickly – only a few performances left.
Così Fan Tutte Performances at ENO: 18th, 22nd March at 19.00 and March 20th at 15.00