Phelim McDermott’s production of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ at the English National Opera (ENO) is an outstanding display of eclectic and vibrantly coloured set designs. Tom Pye’s scenery evokes a 1950’s fun fair similar to Coney Island which include all the circus trimmings from a neon ferris wheel, cotton candy, tea cup rides and strange circus folk named the ‘skills-ensemble’ of contortionists, fire eaters, dwarfs and, even, a quiet giant. This glitzy extravaganza mimics a scene out of a Baz Lurhmann movie, which adds a fun and comedic edge to Mozart’s ingenious musical score despite its misogyny and ironic story line.
“Fiancée swapping” was a 13th century practice which has influenced great literature like Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte’s ‘Cosi fan tutte,’ which at its premier (1790), was considered a derogatory piece, Now, 300 years ahead, the severity of the, then, sordid plot has trivialized and much exploration has gone into what musicologists have claimed is Mozart’s best work. But, alas, this can’t be said for McDermott’s production despite its visual entertainment and theatrical brilliance – there just wasn’t enough opera oomph, in my opinion.
At times, there were intriguing tricks taking place in the background but this left the audience torn between watching this and the actual opera; sword swallowing, balancing acts and other impressive talent couldn’t be applauded because Fiordiligi (Kate Valentine) and Dora Bella (Christine Rice) were singing and rightly so – ‘Cosi fan tutte’ is an opera after all. This was coupled with various large fun fair props including love swans, all crafted by Joby Carter, being wheeled in and out of the stage which, although stylish and pretty were frustratingly distracting.
On the contrary, Soave sia il vento, sung by Valentine, Rice and Roderick Williams was performed with tenderness and devotion; it is, I believe, the peak of the entire performance and for Williams, it is possibly, his highlight as there wasn’t any sign of a wise philosopher in his version of Don Alfonso, but a troubled carnival barker. He discusses the wager like a businessman as oppose to proving a philosophical point about women. However, Mary Ward as Despina managed to deliver with multiple roles as a cynical chambermaid, mad German doctor and baffling, yet hilarious rodeo marriage lawyer. She retained the presence she had as cheeky Papagena in Simon McBurney’s production of ‘The Magic flute’.
Randal Bills as Guglielmo was a good enough tenor and Valentine did her best to contain what she could for such a difficult role as Fiordiligi – the over-thinking sister. Yet, it was Rice who kept it together, not only for her improvisations of a keen and mischievous Dora Bella, but sustaining vocal vigour throughout.
Ryan Wigglesworth conducted a sturdy orchestra but at times, the music and voices wasn’t audible. Some surtitles were absent and, in some moments, they took a life of their own as translated by Jeremy Sams. McDermott is, indeed, entitled to chop and choose words as he sees fit yet the only problem is some meaningful comedic value goes missing which is needed for such a disturbing, dramatic and fast-moving opera.
Sadly, there wasn’t any room for analysing the women’s infidelity or the dynamics of the character’s relationships. McDermott has produced a great spectacle of fun and games, but the production lacks depth and a certain ‘wow’ factor. A lot can be learnt from such an interesting opera as ‘Cosi fan tutte’ but by Act 2 the only thing one craves is candyfloss.