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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Mozart, ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ English National Opera, London Coliseum, 26 May, 2005 (ME)

I first saw this production almost exactly three years ago (see review, May 29th 2002) and have to say that I was surprised that the company chose to revive it instead of the version they gave at the Barbican the following year, which had some style, delicacy and verve. As I said in my previous review, Matthew Warchus seems to have little to say about the issues involved in this most subtle and complex of Mozart’s operas, and I felt that the production was full of ill-assembled ideas – images from Magritte suggesting alienation, country – house ‘charm’ suggesting bourgeois values etc. There was some fine orchestral playing to be savoured, but sadly this time the singers did not come up to the standards of the first cast, and what is worse, there was little sense of what I most treasure at ENO, namely its sense of being a real company ensemble.

I always resent, and become fidgety during, any brouhaha which it is deemed must take place during an overture: an overture is just that, and if it is even half decently played it is sufficient to hold our interest. Here, we had a bright, characterful, supple piece of playing, but the director had decided that audiences are too thick to sit for five minutes of ‘just’ instruments, so we had to have this display of mud – and – sepia swathings, presumably meant to suggest something but I’m damned if I know what. To me, the curtain should open onto a scene redolent of sunshine, the Midi / Med and youth – the words that come to mind should be ‘Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth / O for a beaker full of the warm South,’ and not ‘O dark, dark, dark, they all go into the dark, / The vacant interstellar spaces.’ Not so, of course: here we have a dullish baronial / gents’ club hall, with Alfonso supping a malt as he hatches his plot. This was a role debut for Robert Poulton, a fine singer who tried to make what he could of the jests in the part but somehow did not quite manage to match Andrew Shore’s witty portrayal – I imagine he will settle down as the run progresses.

Our two manly heroes were played by Mark Stone, a raved – over Giovanni and, I am assured, ‘Barihunk,’ and the American Gregory Turay who was making his debut here after having sung at the Met: on this showing, neither was an improvement on Christopher Maltman and Toby Spence. Stone has a fine, if very light, voice, but his projection is indirect and his phrasing rather lumpy; Turay is promising, being a graceful stage actor and ludicrously handsome with it – there is some justice however in that he did not fulfil the potential of his recitatives when it came to his big aria – nerves, perhaps. The sisters were taken by Cara O’Sullivan and Anne Marie Gibbons, who again did not eclipse their predecessors: the soprano has a positively matronly stage presence which is supplemented by her comfortable style in recitative – her big arias were well delivered but without any special distinction – the mezzo was more convincing both dramatically and musically, with some quite elegant phrasing.

Despina is one of the most irritating of all operatic creations, and I always wince at her supposedly worldly arias and her excruciating impersonations (this is funny? Oh please) – here, she was sung by the first artist whom I ever heard in the role, the vibrant Lillian Watson, who has not performed on this stage since 1996 and who is more currently known as one of the inspirations behind the glorious standards of singing which have been a feature of the Royal College of Music for the past three years. Of course, she stole the show, her vast experience shown in her sharp characterization, the way in which the recitative simply tripped off her tongue, and her incisive singing.

Edward Gardner, the twelve year old (only joking) Music Director of Glyndebourne Touring Opera, was making his ENO debut, and he drew lively, sympathetic playing from the ever-superb orchestra – woodwind especially were mellifluous in tone, and the harpsichord of Stephen Higgins was a joy. It was a pity that neither the singing nor the staging matched what was going on in the pit: this is an opera which should move you to tears but I was entirely untouched by it, and the translation hardly helped – ‘I want to have some fun / I too would like some fun’ in the great ‘choosing’ duet, along with plenty of other doggerel. There was as little of what Jane Austen called ‘delicious play of mind’ about this as there was in the ‘personenregie’ – not a vintage ENO evening.

Melanie Eskenazi

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