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S & H Opera Review

Mozart Cosi fan Tutte English National Opera at the Barbican Cond: Mark Wigglesworth, 20th September 2003 (ME)


A recent article in The Telegraph opined that the English National Opera should stop being a serious opera company and instead cater to the market which knows nothing about opera, requires surtitles and just wants a nice night out with plenty of posh frocks: funny, because I had always thought that London already has an establishment catering to precisely that market – and it’s called the Royal Opera. Fortunately, ENO knows where it’s going, and it’s not there, however much some would like to have only one ‘real’ opera house in London, reserved for the cognoscenti who can comfortably take their seats (stalls, of course) safe in the knowledge that there will be nothing whatsoever of a challenging nature to be seen on the stage. This production of Cosi, however, neither shocks nor stultifies, but shows exactly what the ENO is about: a lively, thoughtful reading of the piece, performed by mostly young singers who make up an ensemble as opposed to a collection of guest stars.

Anyone old enough to have experienced the wonderful Opera Factory productions of the late ‘80s would feel quite at home with Samuel West’s version: indeed, the ENO’s musical director, Paul Daniel, having also directed Opera Factory (with David Freeman), must surely have given West a few hints, since it was all here for us to enjoy again – the disguised men returning as rich Rolex-wearing Sheikhs, the smearing on of suntan cream, the beach-y ambience, the sunny lighting, Fiordiligi’s combats, Despina as deeply cynical rather than merely seedy, the ambiguous ending. What was missing here, however, was the heart inside it all, which had made the lovers and their manipulators so movingly human and vulnerable when Janis Kelly and Marie Angel got themselves into those part-hilarious, part-heartbreaking positions. No harm done, however - there are plenty of productions which make use of ideas from previous ones, and this was still a vivid theatrical experience.


Victoria Simmonds as Dorabella & Toby Stafford-Allen as Guglielmo

The singers were a pleasing blend of the very young and the experienced: both male lovers were sung by members of the ENO Young Singers’ programme, whilst the sisters and conspirators were taken by company stalwarts. Colin Lee has a very sweet, small, light tenor voice which he uses with great taste and musicality: he managed ‘Un’ aura amoroso’ very pleasingly even though some of the notes were a bit of a stretch, and his stage presence is already quite polished. Toby Stafford – Allen showed a similar level of confidence as Guglielmo, producing a beautifully burnished tone in ‘Il core vi dono’ and lending real bite to his contribution to the ‘El tuo, nel mio’ canon. Fiordiligi and Dorabella were entrusted to Mary Plazas and Victoria Simmonds, both much appreciated by me in many other roles, although on this occasion I felt that they were somewhat subdued at times. Mary Plazas certainly found Fiordiligi’s arias a challenge: I would not call her voice a truly Mozartean soprano, and under pressure the sound is not ingratiating, but she gave her usual commitment to the role and was touchingly believable in her combats as she sang ‘Fra’ gli amplessi.’ Victoria Simmonds was a more languid Dorabella than one often sees – she reminded me of Maria Ewing in the Peter Hall production: here was a young lady obviously ripe for plucking, and her ‘Smanie implacabili’ was delightfully full-blown.


Victoria Simmonds as Dorabella

The stars of the production were the Alfonso and Despina: Andrew Shore must by now be able to sing Alfonso in his sleep, yet he never gives the impression that he’s coasting – every word comes through, every little joke (‘I should have been an actor’) and every aria reminding us that when you can field singers like this, you have no need for surtitles. ‘Soave sia il Vento’ gave him a couple of awkward moments, however, as it did for all three of the singers. Alison Roddy is a real character actress, and she presented West’s image of a feisty, cynical Despina with her habitual engagement: I prefer this kind of worldly-wise, almost cruel interpretation to the more usual cutesy one, especially when it is sung as finely as it was here, although the production did not give the character much chance to show her dismay at the outcome of her machinations.

Orchestrally, matters were also rather muted: the pared-down forces had to battle with the unwelcoming acoustic of this hall, and despite Mark Wigglesworth’s evident love for this music shining forth in quieter moments, sadly much of the dramatic impetus of the music was lost. He is such a sensitive Mozartean however that he still managed to shape many of the crucial moments with telling detail, and this was especially true of the two lovers’ duets.

The previous ENO production of Cosi was a rather murky affair, setting many scenes in a library or on a shady terrace, so it was hardly surprising that this time around, Alison Chitty’s design was very much based around Peter Mumford’s clear, bright, daylight effects: nice to see a company actually listening to comments about a production and then acting upon them when they get the chance. Costumes were gorgeously stylish, movement sensibly plotted and characterization admirably drawn, but the big problem for me lay in the fact that the idea of accepting the unmasking of one of the lovers had not been fully thought through – if Fiordiligi knows who Ferrando is, then neither his ‘A voi s’inchina’ nor Guglielmo’s ‘Ecco io le rendo’ have much meaning, and we are left to contemplate a scenario which is not so much confusing as inexplicable. Maybe that was the idea – after all, even a conventional ending to this opera will be ambiguous, and the music itself is touched with cynicism even in its most ecstatic moments.

Whatever the equivocal views of ‘old hands’ such as myself, this lively, youthful, funny and sometimes touching take on the most problematic of Mozart’s great operas was a great hit with those present (none that I could see, sporting anything like a posh frock) and it certainly deserves to pack in audiences who may be experiencing for the first time all the bittersweet delights of this endlessly beguiling masterpiece.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

English National Opera
New Production of Cosi fan tutte
Press Night - 20/09/03 at the Barbican Theatre

PHOTOGRAPHER CREDIT: BILL RAFFERTY

 


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