English National Opera's successful and highly entertaining production of Cosi Fan Tutte raises again the question — as ENO's production of Rodelinda did a few months ago — whether in opera houses the theatrical experience should be of primary concern, even if it overrides musical content. Critics clearly decided a long time ago; that is when they started to appraise staging in all its dimension (including dramatic concept, sets, costumes, etc.) before discussing the musical delivery of singers and musical concept/skills of the conductor within their reviews. With hand on heart, even if pushed, I could not decide on priority between theatre and music (in the opera house). Ideally, as in Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk, there should be no priorities; each element should support the whole. However, ideal conditions rarely exist; often music tends to be relegated to lesser importance than the other components of the opera.
Phelim McDermott's staging of Così fan tutte is great fun, from beginning to the end. Starting with fairground figures pulling placards (such as OPERA, TWO ACTS, BIG ARIAS, CONCENTRATE) from a trunk during the overture — and maintaining the fairground component as a theatrical leitmotif throughout — the entertainment aspect of the experience is assured and rock solid. However, the downside of this approach also is manifested already in the overture: with the audience's eyes (including mine) firmly fixed on the theatrical entertainment, Mozart's witty and sparkling music inadvertently turns into spirited background music.
The full cast of the Mozart/Da Ponte two-act comic opera consists of six characters although a chorus is used half-way through Act 1 and in the Act 2 Finale. However, how does one fill London's biggest theatre (which the London Coliseum supposedly is) with six people for over three hours? Quite often McDermott fills the stage with the astonishingly skilled twelve members of the aptly named Skills Ensemble, either delivering circus acts (such as fire-eating, sword-swallowing, weight-lifting) on the fairground or playing supporting roles in the dramatic/comic plot of Da Ponte's libretto. They are partners in crime with Don Alfonso and, to a lesser extent, with Despina. The short dance scene of Despina with two little people (husband and wife team Karen Anderson Laird and Max Laird) was hilarious but stayed within acceptable taste. Other times the twelve people are spectators of what can be regarded as the theatre within the theatre, reacting to the twists and turns of the multiple deceptions in the plot. Or they offer comfort to the protagonists.
Tom Pye's sets are literally brilliant to look at, atmospheric, functional and fill the stage. There are the adjacent chalets in a Coney Island motel of the 1950s (facilitating plenty of comings and goings between rooms and chalets). The seaside funfair with the large, slowly rotating Ferris wheel against the credible blue sky creates just the right ambience for affairs of the hearts.
Mozart composed Fiordiligi's music for the apparently virtuoso soprano Adriana Ferrarese del Bene who possessed an agile coloratura as well as a powerful chest register. Kate Valentine cannot be described as a virtuoso singer, and initially — probably because of understandable first-night nerves — her pitching and ensemble work was not perfect. However, she delivered Mozart's music with honour, in spite of having to keep coming and going through doors during her Act 1 aria 'Come scoglio' and floating in a hot air balloon during her Act 2 aria 'Per pieta'. Valentine's style of singing was not Mozartian, but neither were the conditions she sang in. On the other hand, I honestly cannot remember if the duet with Fiordiligi and Dorabella was Mozartian, as they were accompanied by exciting circus acts which distracted the focus from the music. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice is very experienced in various styles, her role (Dorabella) is less laden with virtuoso vocal jumps than Fiordiligi's. With her velvety voice and good sense of humour, she delivered an excellent Dorabella.
I am not convinced about the casting of two of the men. Mozart composed the role of Ferrando for Vincenzo Calvesi, who apparently possessed a sweet and sonorous voice with a fee-ringing top register. Randall Bills voice did not seem particularly lyrical and his top was strained (on the first night). However, he is clearly a good singer with plenty of abilities. The role of Don Alfonso was composed for the buffo-bass Francesco Bussani, who at the age of 46 was reportedly no longer at his vocal prime. Baritone Roderick Williams, on the other hand, is in full vocal prime but is not a bass and not really credible as an old man. I hasten to add that, on its own terms, Williams gave an outstanding, witty performance.
Baritone Marcus Farnsworth was fully credible as Guglielmo, while soprano Mary Bevan could hardly be bettered as Despina. I don't recall either any problems or great Mozartian depths from conductor Ryan Wigglesworth's delivery. On the other hand, his control of his orchestral forces — even while literally faced with fire-eating, sword swallowing and similar stage attractions — was impressive throughout.
Looking for an evening in the theatre with quality musical entertainment? This production definitely fits the bill. Don't miss it.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Mike Hoban