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Cosi fan tutte (Susan Elkin reviews)

There’s much to enjoy in ENO’s new production of Cosi fan tutte with Phelim McDemott in the director’s seat and Karem Hasan in charge in the pit.

The singing is faultless with especially strong performances from Benson Wilson as a fruity Guglielmo and Nardus Williams as a wistful but powerful Fiordilgi especially in her “Far Away a Man is Sighing” with horns doing lovely work beneath her. The famous Act 1 trio (Williams, Hanna Hipp as Dorabella and Neal Davies as Alfonso) is sung with show stopping passion.

As we were reminded by tenor Toby Spence before the show, Williams – like Wilson and Soraya Mafi as a fine Despina although she fails for sustain her accent – is an ENO Harewood artist. This is an excellent scheme which provides opportunities for trained young singers and ENO needs as much help as possible with funding it, which is what Spence was there to tell us.

I like Jeremy Sams’s translation which is often Gilbertishly witty: “I’ll sing you a sonnet. If you’ve got any sense, you’ll reflect upon it” sings Neal Davies chirpily for example. As always, though, I notice that English inflexions don’t always sit happily with the rise and fall of the music although I appreciate and respect ENO’s policy of staging all shows in English.

This take on Cosi sets it in a 1950s seaside motel – imagine the set for Bedroom Farce, revolving to suggest inside and outside and you’re almost there. Some scenes take place on what we used to call “the prom”. Tom Pye’s sets are grandiloquently impressive with carousel horses, swan pedaloes and illuminated encircling heart shaped arch ways. It’s all colourfully romantic.

Nearby is a circus complete with sword swallowers, fire eaters, acrobats and the rest. They are in effect a non singing ensemble (they do a lot of scene shifting) in addition to the chorus which, because this is Mozart, appears very little.

So what do the circus performers add to the opera? Not much. In fact they’re a distraction. If you put a spectacular tumbling and circus skills display centre stage during a key duet then no one in the audience is going to listen to the music. It’s an insult to the singers and seems to imply that the director doesn’t trust Mozart to deliver the goods without irrelevant visual trivia.

Even the overture is highjacked. We see the circus performers – including three people of unusual stature – emerging from a trunk racing about lining up placards to tell us what the opera is about. That means that the audience laughs and applauds over the music which is almost unnoticed. The line between being as accessible as possible and dumbing down is a fine one although I was delighted to see a number of children in the audience for the matinee I attended.

This performance is the first I’ve seen which began – appropriately – with the Ukrainian national anthem for which the entire audience stood. Sadly, I don’t suppose it will be the last.

First published by Lark Reviews:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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