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Reviews

02 Mar 2020

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

English Touring Opera 2020 spring tour: Così fan tutte at the Hackney Empire

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Così fan tutte

Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith

 

Not for Attridge the moral imperatives, psychological ‘proofs’ or ideological frameworks which some thrust upon Mozart and Da Ponte’s drama of abstract forces which drive human behaviour, which cannot be denied and should not be lamented. In an essay which considered the relationship between Così and Fidelio, Edward Said suggested that Così ‘refuse[s] the kind of metaphysical, or social, or cultural significance found readily by [various commentators] in Don Giovanni, Die Zauberflöte and Le nozze di Figaro’, and Attridge seems to agree.

“Out of a gothic North” we go “Southward into a sunburnt otherwhere”, said Auden in his poem ‘Good-Bye To The Mezzogiorno’, “some believing amore/ Is better down South and much cheaper”. And so Attridge transports us to 1930s Alexandria, then Egypt’s most cosmopolitan city, a beacon of Mediterranean culture and a gateway to Europe. That tolerant and inclusive city where the great, good and glamorous from far and wide - France, Italy, Greece, England, Armenia - mingled, in their chic bathing costumes, with Egyptian Jews and Muslims on ‘the sand beaches of Sidi Bishr’, as Lawrence Durrell described one such fashionable seafront watering-hole in his Alexandria Quartet.

Designer Oliver Townsend and Lighting Designer Mark Howland flood the small Empire stage with colour and sunlight. The crisp glare of the promenade where Don Alfonso, a English writer-abroad, lounges to pen his observations of the interlopers’ amorous antics, gives way to the cool blues and greens of a Neoclassical terrace. The emerald drapes, cobalt columns, gold patterned woodwork and hanging lanterns evoke leisured luxury: it’s a fitting arena for the lovers’ dalliances amid the alabaster statuary and palm plants.

Alfonso, sporting a white suit and panama, may be as cool in dress and as in manner, but the lovers are an explosion of colour. Their days are dedicated to fun and frolics. Indeed, the sunshine seems to have gone to their heads. Faces are flushed and hearts are febrile when ‘Dr Despina’ arrives to revive the ‘suicidal foreign lovers’, her medical apparatus producing Mesmer-like magnetic vibrations racier than is customary. The amused men throw themselves into the fiasco with a physical gusto which is more than matched by the concerned women. It’s hilarious and swiftly despatched. Farce at its best.

Loges and Stafford.jpgStephan Loges (Don Alfonso) and Jenny Stafford (Despina). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

The cast are perfectly attuned to the blithe spirit of Attridge’s production. Martha Jones’ Dorabella, flamboyantly attired in a glorious green trouser-dress, grasps her romantic opportunities with relish, and confesses all in a beautifully sonorous ‘È amore un ladroncello’, looking and sounding not the least regretful as she reveals her indiscretions to Fiordiligi. Joanna Marie Skillett is a more demure Fiordiligi, attempting to defy the amatory sunstroke that afflicts the other lovers, but passion drives the precision of both ‘Come scoglio’ and ‘Per pietà’. As she pleads with herself to resist temptation and moral taint, her sincerity is undermined by some gentle but pointed horn commentary.

I admired Tom Elwin’s Nemorino last summer, in Into Opera’s L’elisir , and here he was a vocally elegant Ferrando, his diction, like that of all the cast, excellent - enabling us to enjoy the insinuations, double entendres and wry couplets of Jeremy Sams’ English translation. Frederick Long sang with a lovely fresh and relaxed tone as Guglielmo, dashing in his knee-boots and flying suit as he swept Dorabella to the clouds.

Elwin and Long.jpgThomas Elwin (Ferrando) and Frederick Long (Guglielmo). Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith.

As Despina, Jenny Stafford demonstrated the same comic timing and vocal grace that have impressed several times at Bampton Classical Opera . Stephan Loges evinced Don Alfonso’s worldly-wise weariness, lounging with a lazy lethargy which was complemented by the languidly uncoiling smoke of his cigarette, but his cool cynicism did not deprive the recitatives of their cutting impact.

There was a sense of caution in some of the ensembles. This is understandable at the start of a long tour, but was also a result of some uncertainty, of tempo and tuning, from the Old Street Band in the pit. Conductor Holly Mathieson got the show on the road with a crisp overture, but elsewhere a bit more zip and drive was needed.

Lawrence Durrell claimed that in the Alexandria Quartet ‘only the city is real’. And, that spirit of amoral fantasy imbued this Così . There was no gravity, no guilt, no emotional shipwrecks. As Despina says, “Quello ch’è stato, è stato,/ Scordiamci del passato.” What’s done is done and the less said the better.

“Wish you were here!” proclaims the picture-postcard front drop. Audiences around the country certainly will wish they were!

Claire Seymour

Mozart: Così fan tutte

Fiordiligi - Joanna Marie Skillett, Ferrando - Thomas Elwin, Dorabella - Martha Jones, Guglielmo - Frederick Long, Stephan Loges - Don Alfonso, Despina - Jenny Stafford; Director - Laura Attridge, Conductor - Holly Mathieson, Designer - Oliver Townsend, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland.

English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire, London; Saturday 29th February 2020.

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