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Kate Valentine, Randall Bills, Marcus Farnsworth, Christine Rice, Sally Reeve [Photo by Mike Hoban]
19 May 2014

Così fan tutte at ENO

It must be the sea air. In Thomas Hardy’s vignette ‘The History of the Hardcomes’, two young women — quiet, gentle Emily Darth, and the more lively, rumbustious Olive Pawle — are betrothed to two cousins, James and Stephen Hardcome; but the quartet decide that they are paired up wrongly, and so ‘swap’ suitors, submitting to a moment of irrational infatuation.

Così fan tutte at ENO

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Kate Valentine, Randall Bills, Marcus Farnsworth, Christine Rice, Sally Reeve

Photos by Mike Hoban


All goes well until a summer outing to the bustling resort of Budmouth-Regis. Amid the sand and sea, the couples are inclined to re-align, and the ensuing erotic entanglements have a melancholy outcome: the pleasure-seeking pair sail to their deaths, while the remaining couple marry and, as the narrator pointedly remarks, ‘fulfil their destiny according to Nature’s plan’.

In Phelim McDermott’s new production of Così fan tutte,there are similar ironic reversals on the boardwalk of 1950s Coney Island. But, while there is much entertainment on the esplanade, there is little of Mozart’s ambiguous operatic psychology, or of Hardy’s cynicism, in McDermott’s light-hearted seaside farce.

Nattily uniformed naval officers Ferrando and Guglielmo are on shore leave, enjoying the fun of the fair with giggly sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Over a night cap in the nightclub, they are challenged by sleazy magician, Don Alfonso, to prove the loyalty of their beloveds. So, after a tearful farewell and re-embarkment, they swap their lieutenants’ epaulettes for rockers’ leathers and return incognito to test the girls’ devotion and dependability.

6426.gifRandall Bills, Marcus Farnsworth and Roderick Williams

Predictably, heads and hearts are turned amid the hedonistic pursuits of the pleasure garden. These are convincingly and enchantingly displayed by McDermott and his designer, Tom Pye, whose attention to detail is impressive. The flashing neon-sign of the aptly named Skyline Motel is framed by a vista of distractions and diversions: the gentle gyrations of the ferris wheel, the heady heights of the wooden rollercoaster, the whizzing slides of the helter-skelter. Nostalgically painted in innocent primary colours, the scene is depicted with tender irony: seagulls on sticks twirl around the esplanade lampposts, stiff flags ‘flutter’ in the breeze.

The low-rise, post-war motel is itself neatly designed. Three rooms, whose doors face an interior corridor, spin and rotate to allow the lovelorn ladies to flounce from bedroom to bedroom, their histrionics espied by the maid Despina — sparkling in a canary-yellow dress to match the Marigolds — through the Venetian blinds. However, with the appearance of the overly ardent ‘greasers’ the spinning through the connecting doors becomes something of a ‘Carry On’.

In his magical fairground, strikingly tinted by Paule Constable’s gleaming red, green and blue beams of colour, spiv Don Alfonso promises to fulfil any desire — however daring and dangerous. Banners proclaim the pleasures on offer, from Sweet Marie, to Louis the Undead and Kora the Depraved. Fantasies are fashioned and indulged. Lovers float dreamily in oversize swans, framed within red light-bulb hearts. There is much passion but little sincerity: in the final scene, Don Alfonso’s trunk of tricks is expediently transformed for matrimonial purpose by a speedily supplied altar-cloth.

It’s all very entertaining, but the profundity of Mozart’s psychological comedy remains unexplored: laughter and sympathy, comedy and tragedy should be held in perfect, ambivalent balance. Here, there is unalleviated light, but little shade. Expect, that is, when Don Alfonso’s deception is finally revealed, and anarchy breaks loose: partners are swapped at random, and the quartet pair up briefly with assorted freaks and mutants, before equilibrium is restored. McDermott seems, like Hardy’s cool narrator, to suggest that surface differences are superficial and there is no natural ‘order’ or destiny at all.

In fact it is the panoply of circus freaks which provides the thread which hold the fantasy together. As the overture commences, before a shimmering gold lamé curtain swathed in Constable’s gleaming light, master-of-ceremonies Don Alfonso accompanied by his showgirl assistant, Despina, wheel out a chest of curiosities from which climb — and somersault — a cast of eccentricities and oddities: short and tall, strong man and sword-swallower, bearded lady and fire-eater. The placards they bear announce the attractions of the vaudeville to come. The curtain-raising trailer promises ‘Lust’, ‘Power’, ‘Entertainment’, ‘Politics’, ‘Big Arias’ and ‘Chocolate’ among other titillating delights; and the billboards are re-arranged into various applause-raising permutations — an amusingly wry device but sadly, on this occasion, the arising laughter and ovation obliterated much of the overture.

As the show rolls on, this troupe of peculiars play their part in Alfonso’s plotting: as bunny girls dishing up cocktails in the casino — as strong men heaving props on and off, as spinners of Dr Magnetico’s fantastical, life-restoring, firework-erupting contraption; or as circus side-kicks levering Fiordiligi’s hot air balloon aloft. Throughout they contribute to the carnivalesque and ensure slick stage business and nifty transitions between scenes.

6373.gifKate Valentine, Christine Rice and Mary Bevan

And so to the cast. Kate Valentine’s self-satisfied Fiordiligi and Christine Rice’s more self-knowing Dorabella are well-matched. Valentine displayed much bombast in ‘Come scoglio’, coping with the peaks and plummets, and showing the unappealing side of Fiordiligi’s pride in a haughty lower register. In her second aria, the mock majesty was replaced by real emotion; Valentine showed that she can truly act with her voice in a fluent, intense, and thoughtfully phrased ‘Per pietà’ Unfortunately, any genuine pathos that the soprano evoked was destroyed by the staging. Fiordiligi must yield to her desires while struggling to resist; there is real emotional turmoil here, as she is deeply troubled by the fragility of her fidelity. But, her inner conflict was rather bathetically rendered by the rise and fall of a hot air balloon.

Mezzo-soprano Rice demonstrated a rich, creamy tone, and a sharp facility for comic nuance —mimicking her sister’s indignation but eventually getting fed up with her fickleness. Rice communicated directly, both musically and theatrically, and the over-blown torment and solipsism of ‘Smanie implacabili’ won both affection and gentle mockery.

Young British baritone Marcus Farnsworth was excellent as Guglielmo; he fitted comfortably into the role, and like Rice balanced comedy with psychological perception. The manly attributes professed in ‘Non siate ritrosi’ may have raised a doubtful eyebrow, but the tone was unfailingly warm and the phrases well-shaped, so it was no surprise that Guglielmo’s attempt to win Dorabella’s heart was ultimately successful. Their ensuing duet ‘Il core vi dono’ was seductively sweet, so that we might forget the rapidity with which devotions had been reassigned.

Making his UK and ENO debut as Ferrando, American tenor Randall Bills was somewhat disappointing; tense and taut in ‘Un'aura amorosa’, particularly at the top, and generally sounding strained. Perhaps it was first-night nerves but Bills seems to lack the Mozartean relaxation required to make us sympathise with the scheming would-be seducer: Ferrando is genuinely hurt to learn that Dorabella’s have given away the medallion with his portrait so quickly to her new paramour, but Bills’ tight edginess and lack of gradation and colour was uninviting.

Roderick Williams’ light baritone was characteristically pleasing, but not sufficiently weighty to suggest Don Alfonso’s world-weary cynicism or the force of character that could bait, goad and manoeuvre all those around him. Despite his spangly red tuxedo, this Alfonso was surprisingly low-key. In contrast, Mary Bevan’s Despina — whether bee-hived chalet-maid, or be-wigged mesmeriser — had more commanding stage presence. One felt that it was Despina who was the real maestro of manipulation: she accepted the magician’s bouquet, but his snatched kiss earned him a slap. Light and bright of voice, Bevan slipped convincingly into any costume, and any accent, delivering the text with clarity and perky projection.

There were so many on-stage shenanigans — and much accompanying noise and spontaneous audience appreciation — that at times it was easy to overlook what was going on in the pit. ENO composer-in-residence Ryan Wigglesworth led the ENO orchestra in a somewhat lacklustre performance, the tempi often in disagreement with the stage, and the ensembles rather ragged. Wigglesworth also played the fortepiano piano recitatives, which moved swiftly and fluently onwards.

After his successes with Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and The Perfect American, here McDermott once again demonstrates that he can put on an entertaining show, serving up a visual and theatrical treat. It certainly didn’t matter that a technical hitch rendered surtitles unavailable, as the cast’s enunciation was uniformly crisp, making Jeremy Sams’ translation clearly audible.

McDermott makes the slide from realism to fantasy utterly convincing; everyone and everything is in a spin, as the tea-cup dodgems suggest. This is certainly a show which will delight the punters, if not the purists.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Fiordiligi, Kate Valentine; Dorabella, Christine Rice; Ferrando, Randall Bills; Guglielmo, Marcus Farnsworth; Don Alfonso, Roderick Williams; Despina, Mary Bevan; Conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth; Director, Phelim McDermott; Set Designer, Tom Pye; Costume Designer, Laura Hopkins; Lighting Designer, Paule Constable; Orchestra of English National Opera. English National Opera, Coliseum, London, Friday 16th May 2014.

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