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Review: Cosi Fan Tutti by Fiona Halliday

Too Cosi for comfort

Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte has been re-conceptualised, shelved and relaunched more times than Marks and Spencers. It has, over the years, become a testing ground for quirky production ideas: it’s been set in a scientific warehouse, a snobby hotel during the Boer War, a girl’s boarding school and a mental asylum in Melbourne. It’s also been a ‘hip hopera’ complete with nipple piercings and inner city locution. What next? Arias in Kalahari click language?

The latest attempt to transform this odd but beguiling opera premiered at the ENO last friday. The man in charge of the production was Abbas Kiarostami, the minimalist Iranian film director and it had already debuted at Aix-en-Provence last year. Not only was Abbas a stranger to opera, but he was forced to hand over the directorial reins to his assistant, Elaine Tyler-Hall as ‘visa complications’ prevented his entry into Britain. These facts raised certain questions about the opera before the curtain even raised.

Anyway, as I sat down, the ENO programme’s front cover whetted my appetite for sexual intrigue. A smouldery kohl-eyed Dorabella peered knowingly from a sizzling red background, not so much the trembling debutante as dazzling debauche. I was hopeful. And the Overture was good. It was deft. The violins swooshed and swithered and the woodwind played a sophisticated game of musical ‘pass the parcel’. The conductor, Klingele handled the tempi with a sure hand without overdoing the presti and it was all pleasantly frizzante.

Then the curtain rose. It rose on our squabbling paramours, Ferrando and Gugliermo. It rose on a taupe-coloured all-but-empty set swimming in margarine lighting. A projection of cafe tables and cappuccino-sipping clientele comprised the back wall. It looked like a scene from 'Allo 'Allo but wasn't particularly distracting. Mind you it wasn't particularly interesting either. Even the costumes were understated to the point of drab. The man next to me took one look at it and sighed.

Then came the next disappointment: the English libretto.

You see I wanted to like the libretto. The original Italian librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, was a real Enlightenment character, a transient poet-philosopher with spells in both the priesthood and brothels. It cannot be said the original libretto’s sauciness and verve survived intact. The translation dragged it across the centuries and it arrived into English, a pale and witless emigre. The ENO sur-titles only rammed home its dullness. Certainly there is an argument to be made for accessibility but I would recommend seeing it in Italian, or indeed Jabberwockian. Bafflement would be preferable to boredom.

The cast valiantly tried to colonise the rather empty stage.

Don Alfonso was by turns sinister and sagacious - half Valmont and half the very model of a model major general.

Susan Gritton’s mellifluous Fiordiligi expressed moments of trembling vulnerability and uncertainty which offset Fiona Murphy’s (as Dorabella) slightly metallic and less expressive mezzo. However it wasn't an even performance. One of Gritton’s arias had a curiously corked effect. It seemed to glottal stop in mid air as if she suddenly bottled it. And Dorabella had swaddled her sex appeal in a white nightie, and now exuded a sexual asepsis that even Guglielmo’s throaty baritone couldn’t sully. The boyish Thomas Glenn as Ferrando delivered his high-flying arias in a tone somewhere between bleating and over egged tenderness. Together the ill-starred quartet exuded all the eroticism of an Argos catalogue.

Only Sophie Bevan as Despina radiated an earthy sauciness that the rest of the production lacked.

During ‘Per Pieta’ I was pleased to see the horns put in an energetic turn of wolf-whistling as Fiordiligi got out her, er, top notes. But it was all stiflingly tranquil on stage.

The man next to me had assumed a look of beatific suffering. He looked like he’d expected Joan of Arc and got Barbara Cartland.

Over all I thought that Abbas was simply too naïve as a director to handle Cosi's confusing mix of eroticism, mockery and slapstick. The internal strife present in the music leaked a certain compellingly creepiness into the strings and a sinister eeriness to the chuckling oboe that accompanies Don Alfonso but it wasn't enough to lift the production out of a beige stalemate. Abbas is a beautiful haunting filmmaker but in his mission for artistic purity and understated simplicity he is at odds with Cosi’s flawed and wanton heart and that it is ultimately what sends it into catatonic arrest.