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S & H Opera Review

Mozart, ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ English National Opera, Coliseum, May 29th 2002. (ME)


Janis Kelly       Mary Plazas        Susan Gritton       

E.J. Dent memorably described the plot of ‘Cosi’ as ‘the apotheosis of insincerity,’ and this beautifully lit, sometimes exquisitely sung, orchestrally sound but ultimately unmoving production echoes that definition with sharp clarity. If it is true that the abiding subject of opera is the mystery of the female character, then Matthew Warchus had little that was new to say about it, but if you see the whole as refracted through the vision of Don Alfonso, then his was an original take on the piece.

During the overture, directed with delicacy and finesse by Mark Wigglesworth, we witnessed a tableau in which sepia –clad figures entwined their way around the stage and each other, their faces, Magritte – like, swathed in cloths, and as the music for the first scene began, we were transported to a somewhat sparse country – house drawing room, masculine without being oppressively so. This is the second virtually sunless production from ENO this season, and I can’t quite see why, when a setting is such a gift as Naples or the village of ‘L’Elisir,’ we have to alter it so much as to present it in drab officialdom or pseudo – Upper Class Brit, but there it was.

Andrew Shore’s Alfonso is yet another of his set piece examples of how to make a small voice sound larger than it is by the most subtle means, and his acting is always treasurable in that we’re – all – in – this – together style which he has been cultivating in so many roles. This Alfonso is fond – very fond – of his two handsome chums, and looks upon the sisters as unpleasant, even unnecessary personages; he seemed to me to be presented as a gay man who genuinely only cares for men and looks upon women with active dislike. Perhaps the libretto can be taken to suggest this, but it is certainly foreign to my experience, since all the gay men I know actually like women. It seems to me that the opera works better when its deterministic view includes men, too. I found myself uninvolved in the first scene as far as the production values were concerned, but was delighted with much of the singing.

Toby Spence and Christopher Maltman are just about as good – looking a Ferrando and Guglielmo as you could possibly want, and they both act with wit and grace, not sending themselves up too much. I found Maltman’s singing a little subdued at times, especially in the ensembles, but as the performances progress he will surely be able to show more of his usual confidence. Toby Spence is a wonderful Ferrando, singing his arias with great poise and stylishness, and decorating reprises with genuinely musical skill; if he shows a little strain at some of the more fiendishly high points at times he compensates for it with the unforced sincerity of his phrasing, the sweetness of his tone and the ardour of his declamation, and he held the house spellbound through much of ‘Un aura’ amorosa.’

With the arrival of the sisters we are finally in what looks like Italy, albeit in a somewhat surreal vision of the Caracalla aqueduct, and the girls’ sepia – toned dresses blend into the overall café – au – lait stage picture as they languidly fan themselves. Susan Gritton, made up to look like Madonna, sings beautifully and almost makes us sympathize with Fiordiligi’s dilemmas; ‘Come scoglio’ was not the rough ride it can so often be, and ‘Per Pieta’ was exquisite, the soft notes just placed exactly where they should be and the moments of high drama not semi – shrieked but really sung. Mary Plazas was a spirited Dorabella, singing with warm, confident tone and proving a tower of strength in ensemble.

The Ferrarese sisters, one assumes, are idly rich, so why, one might ask, do they share a bedroom with two narrow little beds? I did like the splendidly tasteless cabbage-rose wallpaper, though. Their maid – of – all work was taken by Janis Kelly, evoking memories of that heart – wrenching Opera Factory production in which she sang the same role; much was different here, and her tone is not quite as elegant as once it was, though she acts with as much verve and commitment as ever; I found the concept of her character a rather seedy one.

There were many intriguing stage pictures to be savoured, and the lighting was poetic, with sensitive use of shadow and background depth as well as clever employment of spotlights; the blocking was nicely accomplished, and the costumes covetable (with the sole exception of Guglielmo’s mustard suit) but the production lacked what I can only call heart. Two examples will illustrate what I mean; the Act 1 quintet, and the Act 2 duet ‘Il core vi dono.’ The quintet seldom fails to move me; from the sisters’ ‘Mouio d’affanno!’ through the hesitant, palpitating strings, the lovers’ differing protestations of anguish and Alfonso’s repeated ‘Io crepo se non rido’ whilst we in the audience are nearer to crying than laughter, it is the apotheosis of what ‘Mozart’ means, yet here, I felt nothing except pleasure in the delicate, shapely orchestral playing – you would have thought that these four barely knew one another, still less had unbearable (albeit short- lived) difficulty in parting.

The same was true of the duet; I will admit that here, English is not, to my ears, quite up to what is required, and this translation, whilst no worse than others, emphasized the prosaic – ‘You’ll take it?’ ‘I’ll take it!’ ‘Bad luck for Ferrando!’ ‘But good for me’ (or words to that effect) just does not fall upon the ear in the same way as ‘L’accetate?’ ‘L’accetto.’ ‘Infelice Ferrando! Oh che diletto!’ but one still needs to feel the import of what is occurring, and all I felt was that this was pretty good singing.

It was a performance of which it can be said that the orchestra played with exquisite lightness and elegance under the direction of a conductor who shaped the music with exceptional skill and caressed the singers’ lines in such a way as to give them every chance to shine, and which featured some fine singing by a committed young ensemble, cannot have failed to please, yet the evening was ultimately unmoving; to me, one should emerge from a ‘Cosi’ with some awareness of the fragility or at least unpredictability of human nature, and all that I took from it was an echo of Pope’s line that ‘Most Women have no Character at all.’ Perhaps that was the intention, but don’t take my word for it – go and see it, whatever you do; you’ll hear playing of a quality that I doubt many other houses could match, some genuinely Mozartian singing by a plausibly young and handsome quartet of lovers, and you’ll still experience ‘ ‘the Paragon of all that is Silly and Sensible, commonplace and eccentric, Sad and Lively, Provoking and interesting ‘ that is a Mozart opera buffa.

Melanie Eskenazi

Christopher Maltman              Mary Plazas

Photo credit: Laurie Lewis

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