Monday, November 20, 2017

Così fan tutte (NI Opera): funny, delicate and surprisingly contemporary for a 1790 opera set in the 1920s

NI Opera’s production of Così fan tutte has just finished a three night run in the Grand Opera House in Belfast and will play in the Millennium Forum in Derry on Thursday 23 November.

Two young soldiers brag about the fidelity of their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Their friend Don Alfonso bets that they are open to being seduced. The wager involves Ferrando and Guglielmo pretending to have been called up to battle. Their deceit involves them dressing up in outrageous uniforms and pretending to be Albanian soldiers who have fallen madly in love at first sight with the sisters. This upper class jape, masterminded by Don Alfonso, requires downstairs help and the sister’s maid Despina is bribed to help steer the bereft pair towards new love. The two lads use ever more desperate methods to inveigle their way into the women’s hearts.

At first sight, Mozart’s 1790 opera seems like a misogynist nightmare with men believing that women are fickle and can be manipulated at will. While the women do faint and swoon, stirred on by their maid they rail against the ‘all women are like that’ culture (that’s the translation of the opera’s title ‘Così fan tutte’) embraced by the men. Despina has the measure of the men, announcing that they are “replaceable” and “all the same … fake flattery, fake tears”. Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto must have been quite a challenge for original audiences with its theme of gender politics and its astonishing suggestion of female liberation. Today the male assumptions are more shocking than the female resistance to conform to stereotype.

This production feels like a bit of a turning point for NI Opera. Their previous mantra under artistic director Oliver Mears demanded performances in English to maximise accessibility for new audiences (which opera does badly need to replenish). While I was a fan of eliminating barriers to attend and appreciate what is badged as a highbrow art form, I found that the volume of sound coming out of the orchestra pit tended to drown out the singing in the last few performances, negating the benefit of the English lyrics.

Così fan tutte was performed in the original Italian underpinned by a gentle score, with Nicolas Chalmers keeping the Ulster Orchestra suitably muted throughout. Sometimes a piano – sounded like an upright which had been allowed to go quite honkytonk [I stand corrected] a period fortepiano – took over from the orchestra, minimising the musical distraction before the strings would sweep in at a key moment of drama. A surtitle screen hung perhaps a little too high up above the action with unmistakably modern English translations of key lyrics.

Even though the period is rather overused in theatre and opera productions, Così’s themes suited its setting in the 1920s with the explosion of sexual liberation and eye-catching flapper fashion. The constantly dancing and tipsy partying chorus of twelve showed their acting skills and comic timing as well as vocal abilities with their melange of glamour and frivolity. (Though sometimes while they needed to be on stage to sing their lines, it wasn’t at all obvious why they needed to be doing whatever action they’d been directed to perform.) And an NI Opera trademark moment of near nudity was humorously woven into the final scene of the first act.

The voices of the six principal cast members blended together very sweetly with no single performer dominating. I was never convinced that Heather Lowe and Kiandra Howarth could truly be sisters. Lowe played a wonderfully giddy Dorabella with attitude to match her charm, while Howarth played a less bubbly and more reserved Fiordilig.

Aoife Miskelly stole most of the scenes she appeared in as the maid Despina, playing her like a not-so-angry version of Annie’s Miss Hannigan, with constant smoking, drinking and an affection for greenbacks. Miskelly waltzed around the set in a shapeless dress, never visibly off duty from adding comedy and movement to the carefully created tableaux.

The two soldiers Sam Furness and Samuel Dale Johnson were hard to distinguish (other than by the pattern of their ridiculous ‘Albanian’ dress and varying amounts of chest hair) but contributed to the situation comedy that opera-newbie director Adele Thomas curates on stage.

The cast threw some gloriously dishevelled poses, draping themselves across a dining room table that matches the pantomime proportions of opera. The balloons that decorated the upper deck of the stage were worked into the choreography, being fondled, released, kicked and burst.

Underneath the soap opera plot of sexual politics, Così fan tutte examines what people are like with and without the disguises that they choose to wear. One soldier’s bravado is quickly replaced with fear and doubt; the sisters wax and wane between loyalty and forcing themselves to embrace the romantic opportunity at their front door; and Despina switches from a maid to a mad Doctor (armed with a healing egg-whisk). When the masks slip, who really are they?

The production succeeded in filling a garish set with performances that had a big enough dash of farce to lift what could otherwise have been performed as a tedious test of fidelity. The whole cast were clearly having a ball on stage and their enjoyment was infectious, reaching out over the orchestra pit into the audience which laughed out loud at the well-placed gestures and raised eyebrows.

Beautifully sung with a delicate accompaniment, it lacked a large iconic solo moment to anchor the production. Having constructed a fine ensemble cast on top of a glamorous set, Così fan tutte felt like the most entertaining show by NI Opera for some years, and hopefully a sign of good times under new artistic director Walter Sutcliffe.

Tickets are still available for Così fan tutte in the Millennium Forum in Derry at 8pm on Thursday 23 November.

Photos by Patrick Redmond.


Harold Wilkin said...

The piano was actually a period style fortepiano played by the assistant conductor.

Alan in Belfast (Alan Meban) said...

Aha ... corrected! Learn something new every day. From my seat, the orchestra consisted of the conductor's head.