09 May 2012

My Big Fat American Moustache: A Wartime Così Fan Tutte

An energetic and exceptionally entertaining production of Così fan tutte sung in English and set during World War II, when the Americans often got the girls.

Daisy Evans, who directed Così fan tutte for Hampstead Garden Opera, had the wonderfully inspired idea of setting it in Sicily, in October 1943, at the height of the Allies’ Italian campaign. Ferrando and Guglielmo become two young British lieutenants, briefly on leave from the front on the mainland, and Fiordiligi and Dorabella two giddy members of an Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) concert troupe sent out to divert the Allied soldiers. By this historical juncture British and American troops were fighting together, and this provides Ferrando and Guglielmo with a good reason to disguise themselves as Americans. Evans describes the scenario in her “Director’s Note” as “a micro society built far from home with people you’d never normally encounter, where motivation, morals and hope become plastic, changeable and precarious.” It’s all very convincing.

I was reminded of Kenneth Branagh’s sadly underrated cinematic updating of Love’s Labour’s Lost, set in the late 1930s with the threat of war looming over Europe — not least because of the striking parallels between Shakespeare’s very unconventional comedy and Mozart’s opera. In both cases the introduction of the realities of war gives an “edge” to proceedings often represented as unfolding in a dreamy never-never space, while also, paradoxically, somehow justifying any silliness that does not involve mass slaughter.

Evans’s concept works brilliantly in every respect, and I have no hesitation declaring this the most dramatically solid Così I’ve seen. In the original Da Ponte opera, the decision of Ferrando and Guglielmo to disguise themselves as bushily-moustached Albanians who happen to speak perfect Italian is basically farcical, very much like the lovers pretending to be Russians in Love’s Labour’s Lost. One feels they could be from any country, for all that it matters; one cannot imagine the mere fact of their being Albanian adding to their attraction. By contrast, in the Hampstead Garden Opera production the decision of the lovers to impersonate Americans has real point, and the lines about moustaches are actually funnier — at least if you’re British. In seeming to be Americans, Ferrando and Guglielmo are seen to have an immediate advantage over their British counterparts: they are wealthier, better dressed, more confident, gung-ho and “with it.” They have wonderful things like chocolate and nylon stockings, and can advertise their sexual prowess through raunchier modes of dancing. From the moment they first appear it is obvious the “real” Ferrando and Guglielmo are involved in an unequal struggle. Theatrically speaking, too, the old cliché about two countries divided by a common language allows for plenty of fun, in general the attempts at American pronunciation being (I take it) deliberately bad and inconsistent.

A1193.gif(Left to right) Sarah Denbee (Dorabella), Henry Manning (Guglielmo), Zachary Devin (Ferrando), and Maud Millar (Fiordiligi)

The production utilizes an English translation by Martin Fitzpatrick, tweaked here and there to reference the 1940s situation. It is beautifully idiomatic and faithful to the music’s rhythms; this, in combination with the clear articulation of the singers, made it remarkably easy to hear almost every word. And it was worth paying attention, for line after line had the audience indulging not just in polite chortles but unrestrained hilarity. Two examples from Despina: “What do you think your lovers will do on ‘active service’?”; “Eat up the pasta, but leave room for the salami!” Examples of sensitive modernizing include Ferrando and Guglielmo telling Don Alfonso “You’re a bitter old cynic. / You should be in a clinic” and “I think we’ll hit the jackpot.” One line which caught everyone’s attention was Guglielmo’s describing Fiordiligi as a “faithless, double-crossing, deceitful, lying bitch!” While Italian “cagna” does translate as “bitch,” in the original it is merely the last in a string of nouns, some of them rather past their sell-by date. The piling up of adjectives in the English made the b-word far more emphatic; the fact that it seemed more likely to be spoken by Guglielmo’s assumed American character made the rhetorical moment a memorable coup de théâtre.

The thoroughly entertaining and easily accessible dialogue, the irresistible buffoonery surrounding the “American” imposture, the well-judged, hammy performances by the sisters, who gave the general impression of feeling lucky that they had men at all, let alone two each, and the bounce and verve which Hampstead Garden Opera brought to the whole performance, made it difficult to remember that Mozartean opera is often disparaged as an elitist pastime even by people who like Shakespeare, or who will queue in the rain for a Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. There was nothing elitist about this production. It was popular Mozart, but not dumbed down Mozart, and in fact more intellectually engaging than many a “classic” production in the original language. (When he directed a landmark Magic Flute in English in 1911, Edward Dent argued that there were no limits to the potential popularity of Mozartean opera in Britain, provided it were performed in good translations — I’m now convinced he was right.) A glance around the utterly unpretentious Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre revealed a very diverse audience of the young and old, fashionable and unfashionable, and (I would guess) very different income levels. A deep and unforced sense of pleasure appeared to be general.

In productions like this, put together on shoestring budgets, goodwill and enthusiasm, it is of course unreasonable to expect the very highest musical standards. But that acknowledged, the level was remarkably high, and one would have needed a fastidious ear or uncompromising “professional” standard to go home feeling unsatisfied. The six principals were all outstanding, and if their singing tended to the robust rather than the subtle, this fitted the generally spirited nature of the production. They all possessed a strong stage presence, displayed fine acting skills, and brought an infectious zest to everything they did.

A4018.gifZachary Devin (Ferrando), Henry Manning (Guglielmo, and Sarah Denbee (Dorabella)

The musical director was Dorian Komanoff Bandy, who has undertaken extensive research into historical performance practices in Mozart’s operas and brings the results to this particular production. I can do no better than quote his own account: “In our production of Così, we see the musical text not as a finished document, but as a starting point. True to 18th-century practices, cadenzas will be fitted to the individual singers, and will vary with each performance. Ornamentation will likewise be mostly unpremeditated. Even my recitative continuo, which I will play on a fortepiano similar to Mozart’s, will be active and pervasive, participating in the dramatic action rather than accompanying it. (Would Mozart, the great showman, have sat idly at the keyboard and strummed chords only at cadences?)” I am not qualified to comment on the historical claims made here, but there was no arguing with the fact that the approach brought the music to life in a way which suited the production perfectly. Komanoff Bandy’s palpable passion for what he was doing matched that of the principals on stage, and he secured some very fine playing from his little orchestra. Tempos were fast, but not excessively so, and the music bristled with energy, conveying a general sense of urgency and agitation appropriate to the unstable wartime scenario. This was not the “Classical” or even the “Romantic” Mozart, but it was an unquestionably theatrical Mozart.

It is worth adding, in conclusion, that Hampstead Garden Opera, founded in 1990, has always had a special affinity for Mozart. In fact the company was established specifically with a view to performing his operas, and though they have gone on to explore the works of many other composers, they have kept returning to Mozart. But in the past they have focused mainly on Don Giovanni, Figaro, and The Magic Flute. This is only the second time they have presented Così fan tutte, making it all the more praiseworthy that they have pulled off such a bold and successful reinterpretation.

David Chandler