While we've had Figaro in a car showroom and Don Giovanni in Spanish Harlem, the last of Mozart's Da Ponte operas has proved more resistant to such updatings and transpositions; and even when they have been attempted — one thinks of Doris Dörrie's hugely entertaining 70s sitcom staging for the Berlin Staatsoper — it has usually been within the essentially domestic parameters of the original.
Phelim McDermott and his Improbable company, then, deserve considerable credit for what they've done with this new production for ENO at the London Coliseum: a complete rethink that takes it out of its traditionally ordered world — elegant interiors, formal gardens, a view over the Bay of Naples — and plonks it down in a 1950s Coney Island setting about as far from the usual visual and emotional tropes of the piece as one can get.
It's a bold, risk-taking strategy announced from the very beginning as a multitudinous circus troupe emerge one by one from a trunk, each bearing a one-word placard — "opera", "love", "sophisticated", "chocolate" and so on — before arranging and rearranging their positions to spell a number of surprisingly apt descriptions — even the chocolate is, of course, relevant — of the comic masterpiece we're about to see unfold. By the time the glittery curtain has risen, we may, alas, have missed most of the felicities of Mozart's bubbling overture with so much happening on stage, but the riotous tone has been set and the laughing audience promised a good show.
And so we meet the uniformed Ferrando (Randall Bills) and Guglielmo (Marcus Farnsworth) relaxing in a tackier version of a Rat Pack Vegas bar where Don Alfonso (Roderick Williams) appears as a sort of zoot suited, sleazy prestidigitator, in his natural element and out for a good bet. Meanwhile, we find Kate Valentine's Fiordiligi and Christine Rice's Dorabella installed in a motel beside the fairground, with fetchingly uniformed maid Despina (Mary Bevan) dancing attendance on them. The Fifties styling — from the motel interiors to the pointy-brassiere-and-sweater combos sported by the girls — is impeccable, and the ability to revolve each or all of the three motel rooms from exterior to interior means that an awful lot of business can be accommodated, with almost instantaneous switches from indoors to outdoors or even a combination of the two. It's a technique shown off to great effect during Fiordiligi's 'Come scoglio', in which the lady definitely protests too much, with the impressionable Dorabella attempting to emulate her sister's determination, the lovers in hot pursuit and Alfonso and Despina trying to disguise their part in the dissimulation. Whether or not the celebrated aria was written to send up the original singer and her limited acting skills, it's not often one sees it played as part of a breathless bedroom farce that undercuts the heroine's moral pretensions so absolutely right from the start.
It's when the supposedly departed soldiers return disguised as fairground carnies — all greased back hair and denim jeans — that the Coney Island setting comes fully into its own. The troupe of sideshow performers — bearded lady, giant strongman, sword-swallower, fire eater, midgets — act simultaneously as local colour, baffled observers of the lovers' silly moral dilemmas and an invitation to a polymorphously perverse world in which identity is far from fixed and desire and its objects are in a constant state of slippage and revision. If this seems an unnecessarily over-the-top approach to the romantic entanglements and disguises of Da Ponte's text, one could argue that what it actually does is to normalise and reconnect them with those liminal spaces of the 18th century familiar to both Mozart and his librettist: the Pleasure Gardens at Vauxhall and elsewhere, where the normal rules and roles of class and gender might be momentarily relaxed in the licenced transgressions of carnival in its true sense. It's a connection that Tom Pye's eye-catching designs make explicit, and the magical evening promenades of Act II thus take in fairground rides and freakshows as the rules of the daytime world are forgotten and fantasy comes to the fore; the couples pair off in giant polka-dot teacups, and Fiordiligi's 'Per pietà, ben mio, perdona' is delivered from a hot-air balloon with moonlight-painted gulls flying past.
It's all great fun, and one could argue that this visual emphasis on pleasure and illusion, far from acting as a distraction from the opera's deeper undercurrents, merely adds another pleasing visual layer that chimes perfectly well with the piece's Enlightenment theme of replacing unrealistic idealism with clear-sighted human understanding. McDermott's interpretation may rob the piece of some of the darkness and cruelty it's often invested with these days (Michael Haneke and his 'Funny Games', indeed), but I don't think many people will have a problem with that. I did find, though, that this opening out of the action — with all the visual and thematic interest it brings — actually, and counterintuitively, robbed the opera of some its comedy, which is perhaps more effective in the cloistered traditional settings that can make CosÌ such a bore in the first place; swings and roundabouts (or merry-go-rounds), I suppose.
Musically, things weren't quite so consistently engaging. Ryan Wigglesworth kept tempi brisk — at times too brisk — and pointed the crucial wind passages nicely, but it was a workmanlike reading at best and lacked the bittersweet jouissance that can make CosÌ one of Mozart's most endlessly rewarding scores. It was a mixed bag vocally, too. I'm not sure that Roderick Williams could give a bad performance if he tried, but perhaps his Alfonso was just a bit too young and sprightly sounding to quite convince, despite some excellent acting. Randall Bills's Ferrando, while sometimes appealingly bright and vulnerable, was apt to turn rather strained and nasal at times, while Marcus Farnsworth's Guglielmo showed off a lovely tone and admirable clarity, but again sounded pushed by the time he got to his Act II aria.
Mary Bevan resisted the temptation to overplay Despina, and one sensed that her happy-go-lucky attitude to men disguised some carefully concealed hard knocks in the past. She was solid throughout, and her line-dancing Notary, complete with proper Texan twang, was one of the evening's most unexpected turns; it was genuinely hilarious and it somehow worked. Kate Valentine had an uneven night, delivering a decent 'Come scoglio' whilst having to negotiate some really complex choreography, but came badly unstuck in the leap to the first big high note in 'Per pietà' and never quite recovered her poise. Christine Rice was the stand-out of the evening, her rich mezzo making one feel one was in safe hands from start to finish and serving to hold some of the more wayward ensembles together.
Perhaps some of the problems were down to first night nerves; I got the feeling that things will bed down nicely after a couple of performances. Yes, there are some niggles to work out, but this could prove a popular and revivable show for ENO, and it goes a long way toward making CosÌ an attractive proposition for first-timers in a way that the pretty but painfully static Abbas Kiarostami production of 2009 never could. It will certainly be interesting to see how it fares when it travels to New York, replaces the Met's current dreary staging and gets an injection of star power.
By David Sutton
Photos: Mike Hoban