Così fan tutte • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Dir: Abbas Kiarostami
170 min • English National Opera, London Coliseum • May 29th, 2009
The Coliseum on St Martin’s Lane in London is a grand and remarkable theatre. Its opulence harks back to another era, and is more likely to appear on the film-set of a period drama than in actuality. There are few theatres in the West End that can claim such beauty. It makes the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden look rather tame. It is the perfect location to host a production of one of Mozart’s most beautiful operas, Così fan tutte.
The ENO’s production of Così Fan Tutte is directed by the Iranian film director, and first-time opera director, Abbas Kiarostami. The production made its debut at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2008. The direction and staging are magnificent. The look is traditional, eighteenth century Italian, but the sets are given depth by the fact that the backdrops are projections. Like the Menier Chocolate Factory’s groundbreaking and award winning Sunday in the Park with George in 2007, this is a remarkably effective technique. The backdrops, in particular for the café scene in Act I, add an element of fun that is wholly in keeping with the comic plot.
Così fan tutte is about constancy in love. And in particular the constancy of women. This is something Mozart would fret about in his own married life. He thought his wife was a flirt. His librettist, the man-about-town Lorenzo da Ponte, shared this general view about women’s constancy, rather ironically. The opera relates the story of what happens when the worldly wise Don Alfonso (Steven Page) makes a wager with the two young soldiers, Guglielmo (Liam Bonner) and Ferrando (Thomas Glenn), that their intendeds will not remain faithful. (It is not too much of a stretch to see the mocking elder bachelor Don Alfonso as a homosexual cipher.) The two men protest their lovers’ consistency and Don Alfonso mocks them. The rules of engagement, as it were, are that two young men pretend to be sent away to war, disguise themselves, and then attempt to woo the women.
The scenario is somewhat ridiculous, and that is why it is rather funny as opposed to being an exercise in misogyny. One must not forget that the subjects are young men and women, slave to their hormones and the drama that invokes. If the phrase had been invented at the time they no doubt would have been termed teenagers. Fiordiligi (Susan Gritton) and Dorabella (Fiona Murphy) must be seventeen, eighteen at most. That desperate need to secure a man and marry him is, moreover, a cultural staple.
To play a serious character in the midst of a comic scenario is a demanding task, and the four leads manage this beautifully. Fiona Murphy as Dorabella, is superb as the sister whose constancy is the weakest, and Susan Gritton as Fiordiligi, is magnificent. Fiordiligi gets the best arias. After all, da Ponte wrote the role for his mistress. Liam Bonner as Guglielmo and Thomas Glenn as Ferrando give virtuoso performances as the soldiers in ludicrous disguise.
Così fan tutte is about the four young leads, but the opera belongs to Don Alfonso and the maid, Despina. Enlisted by Don Alfonso to help him introduce two young men to her mistresses, Despina is not in on the entire scheme. Stephen Page and Sophie Bevan manage the interplay between the two characters beautifully. Bevan is the Kathy Burke of the operatic stage. Her performance as the apothecary Dr Mesmer is delivered with perfection. The girls are so self-involved that they do not see through the disguises of Despina and their two fiancées. Their interest is in the idea of love. They are vain and self-involved. Why would they notice? Despina, on the other hand, is bewitched by the promise of money from Don Alfonso.
The conclusion of the story has a hollow sense to it. One has to wonder how the principal characters can go back to their lives, and then move forward, having been undeceived? The restoration of the original pairing meets the demands of eighteenth century operatic traditions, which is the why the traditional staging is an aid to understanding it. In contemporary staging the hollowness of the ending would have stood out more. Of course, the strength of the performances is what matters, and it would be impossible not to be left feeling sated after such a wonderful production.
The translation into English by Martin Fitzpatrick is remarkably well done. It sacrifices neither sense nor cadence, and therein is its success. I am unsure about the aesthetics of translating Italian opera into English – but that is beside the point, it is what the ENO does, and if it opens opera to a wider audience, then sobeit. None of the beauty of Mozart’s music is lost, although Italian is a more mellifluous and beautiful language than English. If The Magic Flute were translated from the harsher German I doubt this would be an issue.
The orchestra for this production is conducted by Mozart specialist, Stefan Klingele. In Così fan tutte, Mozart uses the full breadth of the orchestra. The Overture is illustrative of his technique. Klingele brings this out beautifully, and the Overture is a wonderful indication of what was to come. The acoustics of live sound in a theatre such as the Coliseum completes a production that is nothing less than magnificent.
And in women you expect to find fidelity?
How I love such simplicity!