Così fan tutte, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2014Posted on 17 May 2014
In this new co-production with the Met in New York, English National Opera has a winner. During the overture a dozen circus performers (strongman, bearded lady, sword swallower, dwarves et al) emerge from a chest and are a continuous background presence, reminding me of the Commedia del Arte figures in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
Each starts with a word card, interchanging places to make various sentences, and at the end of the opera they interchange partnerships just as the singers themselves have done. In the meantime they help change sets and scenes, operate an extraordinary contraption that spins round to bring the young men back to life after their fake suicide in Act I, and operate a giant lever controlling a balloon carrying Fiordiligi into the air for her guilt ridden Per pietà in Act II.
Balloons and spinning contraptions are all of a part with Phelim MrDermott’s extraordinary production that sets the action in a mid-twentieth century seaside town (Coney Island) with a fun fair. When the lovers, Ferrando and Guglielmo change places they abandon their naval lieutenants’ uniforms for rock ‘n’ roll clothing and hairstyle, and Don Alfonso even appears in a brightly sparkling tuxedo towards the end. Tacky, yes, but it’s huge fun, with McDermott’s Improbable Company and its actors ever at the ready to drive the action forward.
Tom Pye’s clever set designs allow interiors and outside to be switched at will and the magical chest that produced the circus performers reappeared from time to time, serving as an exit for the disguised lovers when Don Alfonso announces the return of the naval officers. Excellent lighting by Paule Constable, and the balloon ride in Act II was accompanied by a wonderfully romantic night-time scene with fairground lights behind. The fantastical nature of the Così story is well matched by the theatrical staging, and when a naval officer and ratings leave with to join the ship taking the lovers away only to creep back surreptitiously on stage, it shows at once the gullibility of the young women and Don Alfonso’s delicate set-up.
His partner in deception, Despina was gloriously sung and acted by Mary Bevan, who gave a very pretty delivery of her famous Act II aria on girls knowing what’s what. With Kate Valentine as a poetic Fiordiligi, and Christine Rice as a cheeky Dorabella, playing and singing their roles to perfection this strong cast was well complemented by young American tenor Randall Bills as a sincere Ferrando making his UK debut, Marcus Farnsworth as a charmingly ready Guglielmo, and Roderick Williams as an earthy Alfonso.
Conducting by Ryan Wigglesworth gave full regard to the singers, whose expressive acting and fine diction (in Jeremy Sams’ translation) overcame the absence of the expected surtitles, missing due to a first night technical hitch. But this was all huge fun, and I expect it to become a standard item in the ENO repertory.
Performances start at 7 pm and continue on various dates until July 2 — for details click here.