ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
Mozart’s Così fan tutte returns to the ENO. Last staged in 2014, Mozart’s dark comic masterpiece is brought to life by the multi-award winning director and Artistic Director of Improbable, Phelim McDermott.
Così fan tutte tells the story of a bet between the two young men Ferrando and Guglielmo and the philosopher Don Alfonso about the fidelity of their fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Deception, disguise, deceit and desire are played out in a world where make-believe and reality are fantastically blurred in the ENO’s fresh take on the opera. Mozart’s sublime score, featuring some of his most famous music, unfolds to tell a story of love and desire.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Translation by Jeremy Sams
Conductor, Kerem Hasan
Director, Phelim McDermott
ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.
A Review of Così Fan Tutte by Maxine Morse
For an opera that roughly translates into “all women are like that” with its sexual stereotyping and theme of infidelity, Così Fan Tutte felt brilliantly contemporary. Its success lies in its translation by Jeremy Sams of Mozart’s Italian into humorous, vernacular English, Tom Pye’s sumptuous sets and the casting of Soraya Mafi as Despina, the motel maid with the common touch.
As the strong man, oriental woman, performing dwarfs and other circus ensemble emerged from a wooden casket, we are pitched into PT Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. The direction by Phelim McDermott was slick, well-paced and polished – everything shone from the opera performances to the comic timing, even the kick in the balls from an angry fiancé looked painful.
Two sisters are victims of a cynical wager in which a philosopher and impresario, Don Alfonso (Neal Davies) bets two lovers Guglielmo (Benson Wilson) and Ferrando (Amitai Pati) that their girlfriends won’t stay faithful to them in their absence. A plot is hatched in which the men pretend to go off to fight for their country leaving their girlfriends behind. The men reappear in disguise and successfully woo each other’s partners.
To pull off this trick, Don Alfonso ropes in a motel maid Despina, who is furtively sipping hot chocolate destined for the guests (“they get the chocolate, I get the smell”). In the best British sit com tradition, she stuffs the bribe down her bra and then moves heaven and earth to get the two sisters to break their vows. This involves Despina in adopting different guises including posing as Doctor Magnetico with his vibration machine and arranging a Las Vegas style wedding dressed as a cow girl in a Stetson. Through it all, her singing is as clear as an East End cockney bell.
The chemistry between Fiordiligi (Nardus Williams) and her sister Dorabella (Hanna Hipp) is palpable. We could be in any young girls’ bedroom. They muse about missing their men and talk of looking for someone young, handsome and with lots of money. Their duets were both conversational and glorious.
British conductor Kerem Hasan blends and melds the music, the singing and the staging into one seamless and sensational whole.
In Act Two, I noticed some interesting changes in the audience…kids in a balcony box waved at the circus performers, press hacks stopped scribbling and the surtitles were ignored as all eyes were on the stage.
Così Fan Tutte places the audience into a Tilt a Whirl, gives their cars a good spin and lurches them round bunny clubs, sugared-almond fairgrounds, retro circuses with authentically painted circus hoardings, courtesy of Joby Carter and then abruptly plunges them into depression era movie motels before taking them up to sublime arias from hot air balloons. We are wildly spinning in countless different directions but instead of becoming green about the gills and throwing up our dinner, we don’t want to get off.
Così fan tutte – Grace Creaton-Barber
After a few false starts due to Covid, the circus finally got its audience!
This production of Così fan tutte transports you to 1950s Coney Island for an adventure at the fairground. Saturated in tales of love, betrayal and double standards, the plot revolves around the slapstick comedy of mistaken identity. When the holidaying couples Ferrando (Amitai Pati) and Dorabella (Hanna Hipp) and Guglielmo (Benson Wilson) and Fiordiligi (Nardus Williams) run into the cynical Don Alfonso (Neal Davies), their love is put to the test and the three men concoct a series of tricks to challenge the women’s fidelity.
As I hope is already obvious, this is an opera that loves to exploit a gender stereotype, often at the expense of the women. However, what I appreciate about this production is the attempt made to modernise it, crucially without sacrificing the plot. Instead, the group Improbable and director Phelim McDermott present us with six protagonists, all unique in character and yet none of whom who are morally outstanding. There are of course varying degrees to this, but no gender or person is left blameless.
Now, I do not expect Improbable to do the impossible and erase all points of contention but, after three plus hours, the repeated and unflattering themes of female stupidity become tiresome, and the overused narrative driver of disguise remains incredulous. For all its extravagance and performative glitz, the narrative punch is sadly still lacking.
Visually, however, that punch is strong. With set design by Tom Pye and costume design by Laura Hopkins, the atmosphere is golden, vibrant and large – the chocolate box fairground. It is a treat to watch the skills ensemble on stage, with each member bringing a unique talent to the production and contributing to the coherence of the Coney Island setting. There is something undeniably fun about the opera stage being shared by contortionists, sword swallowers and fire eaters.
The singing is also entirely beautiful. The clarity of the annunciation makes the plot complexities easy to follow and the comedic deliverance is done excellently. Each character is strong, the personalities huge and the voices even larger. Hanna Hipp and Nardus Williams are sensational separately and together, with their synchronised vocal runs an absolute joy to listen to. What is particularly lovely about Mozart’s score is the attention given to each vocalist and, with his ENO debut, conductor Kerem Hasan gives that same attention to each performer, sensitively complimenting the more tender moments as well as the comedic. For me though, it is Soraya Mafi as Despina who stands out on the night. She oozes personality, infusing her song with a delicious sarcasm and performing with such command that the wholly unlikeable Don Alfonso is left playing second fiddle to her all night.
With Phelim McDermott’s talent for fanfare, the fun of the fair is captured masterfully but it is still not quite enough to paint over the narrative weaknesses that diminish my overall enjoyment of Così fan tutte.
When I mentioned seeing Così Fan Tutte to a neighbour, his reply was “a great first time opera.”
Director Phelim McDermott clearly thinks the same. Before the curtain’s even up on his 2014 revival, a small trunk is already expelling circus performer after circus performer, who wave cue cards promising the audience “sex”, “lies” and “big arias.” Even the most uninitiated punter would be reassured of a good time. But it feels like there should be more danger lurking in that trunk beyond sword-swallowers and fire-breathers, given the opera’s contentious elements.
Visually there’s plenty to digest with Tom Pye’s evocative 1950’s sets. We start with a wonderfully gaudy strip club conjured from red sequinned fabric where hustler Don Alfonso – played by a charismatic Neal Davies – bets his two young companions that he can prove all women, even theirs, are unfaithful in just one day.
From there, the amorous deceptions thicken as we move through a series of Coney Island postcard backdrops: a twilight ferris wheel, a silhouetted helter-skelter, swan boats gliding down a tunnel of love. Scenery is beautifully lit by Paule Constable (and revival designer Andy Cutbush) and reconfigured, somewhat conspicuously, by McDermott’s theatre troupe Improbable. When the company performed in Satyagraha earlier this season, they enlivened Phillip Glass’s minimalist compositions with their bustling choreography, but this is Mozart and the extra toys often fight for attention with the music here. Not to say they don’t land their intended laughs – I found Lilly SnatchDragon’s barman in Act III a particularly amusing foil to a frustrated Guglielmo and Ferrando – but eventually the acrobatics and vaudeville gags threaten to distract from what would otherwise be exceptional singing.
The two sisters in particular are a joy to hear, with Nardus Williams’ crystalline Fiordiligi perfectly complimenting a richly sung Dorabella from Hannah Hipp; who only gets more arresting as the night progresses. Their fiancées, Benson Wilson and Samoan tenor Amitai Pati – making his UK debut here as a wholesome Ferrando – deliver stage presence and warmth. Best is Soraya Mafi’s plotting chambermaid Despina for sheer irrepressible energy and finely-tuned vocals, though there is that sudden turn into country singing cowboy in the third act which was… strange. There is some tepid conducting from Kerem Hasan and a sharp, witty translation by Jeremy Sams but to my mind, these are eclipsed – like so much in this production – by a bigger problem.
Not only does McDermott side-step the problematic sexual dynamics at play in this sixteenth century comedy, he also lobotomises any of Mozart’s weightier emotions in favour of a laugh. When placed in a carnival world with its freak shows and subverted gender norms, the straight farce approach seems even more frivolous. This Così is more a spinning teacup than a white knuckle rollercoaster; pleasant, harmless and irrelevant.
As twin packets of Lucky Strike on legs frolic on stage in Act One of Phelim McDermott’s revival on Cosi Fan Tutte, the air tingles with the promise of one wild ride of a show. As in Mozart’s opera, however, promises can swiftly be broken.
Cosi Fan Tutte is Mozart’s tale of two soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, who make a bet with their friend Don Alfonso that their fiancés, Fiordiligi and Dorobella, are faithful women. Don Alfonso takes on the role of puppet master and instructs Guglielmo and Ferrando to disguise themselves to try and woo the other’s fiancé, testing their fidelity. If you think this sounds like the plot of an episode of Seinfeld, you’d be right. Destined to go horribly wrong, yet no doubt entertaining along the way.
McDermott and Improbable Theatre have set the opera against the skirt-swishing, wheel-spinning, flame-wielding world of Coney Island in the 1950s. Among the pleasure gardens and the fanfare, it’s easier to believe women can fall in love in a day, even with excessive beguiling and the addition of the provocative chamber maid Despina.
Neil Davis, who sings Don Alfonso, is reminiscent of a nefarious P.T. Barnum. Alfonso’s self-serving knows no bounds. Using a troupe of acrobats, fire eaters, and strongmen, he tips the scales against Fiordiligi and Dorobella. Sung respectively by Nardus Williams and Hanna Hip, both female leads bring their soaring soprano voices to their roles. Williams especially, makes an exceptional Fiordiligi, timid in all the right ways and with a delivery that tingles the back of the neck in ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’. The sisters are well matched by Benson Wilson and Amitai Pati, as Guglielmo and Ferrando. Playfully entertaining in Act One and dramatically seething in Act Two, Wilson gave a mesmerising performance as Guglielmo.
As was perhaps expected, Soraya Mafi’s Despina stole the show. With sparkling high-notes, numerous costume changes, and a pea green cowboy costume, there was little not to love in her performance. Every scene Mafi sang in was made brighter by her sly smile and savvy portrayal of Despina.
Though the performances were enticing, unfortunately they weren’t enough to sustain the production’s energy. Conductor Kerem Hasan was perhaps too modest for one of Mozart’s most controversial operas, and didn’t match the controlled pandemonium on stage. The sets, although well designed by Tom Pye, were too often clunkily handled during scene changes. The production’s ferris wheel of energy just didn’t seem to lift off in the way the overture and first act suggested it would. A shame, since the performances were superb.
For an opera called Cosi Fan Tutte or ‘Women are like that’, McDermott certainly managed to stray away from the pitfalls of the opera’s original sexual politics. The beginning promised nonconforming insanity and part of me expected it all to end in a gleeful foursome; but perhaps opera isn’t there yet.
Phelim McDermott’s 2014 Così fan tutte is back at ENO, and with his theatre company Improbable on the cast sheet, it is improbable that this will be a timid production. Mozart’s overture is accompanied by ringleaders Don Alfonso and Despina introducing the skills ensemble of carnies. Fire-eaters, acrobats and tall-man emerge from a clown-car-style box accompanied with signs introducing the themes of the plot that swiftly get shuffled around for comedic effect. A gold lame curtain rises to reveal the proud Ferrando and Guglielmo making a bet with Don Alfonso over the fidelity of their lovers. The mischief then begins as the boys feign their departure for the front (there’s a war going on don’t you know), savouring sweet goodbyes with their betrotheds only to return five minutes later in disguise to attempt to woo their friend’s girl. In short, hilarity ensues.
Nardus Williams (Fiordiligi), charming and birdlike throughout, really sparkled during her challenging solo in act two whilst suspended above the stage in a carousel car. Dorabella, played by Hannah Hipp, had a more grounded, sensuous voice that developed as her character fell for the disguised Guglielmo. Tenor Amitai Pati (Ferrando) was musically open and warm, whilst Benson Wilson’s Guglielmo was much more mischievous, his voice smooth and rich. Zoot-suited Don Alfonso (played by Neil Davies) and Soraya Mafi’s Despina made an energetic, compelling pair. The maid with a northern twang was a force of nature, taking on two disguises, each with its own accent (a mad Scottish doctor and a bedazzled Texan notary). Mafi was the only principal who didn’t struggle with diction: her bright citrusy voice was clear and crisp. Even her aqua eyeshadow was noteworthy.
Conductor Kerem Hasan creates some beautiful piano moments, but especially in the busier arias of the first act, the musical balance wasn’t quite right. The funhouse mirror effect of Tom Pye’s extravagant carnival set helped sell the unbelievable narrative. Boardwalk railings placed at the front of the stage cleverly created a reason for the performers to be looking out to the audience, and spinning motel room doors and teacup rides kept the whole thing in perpetual motion.
I’ve seen more sympathetic interpretations of Così: where the women catch on to the men’s ruse and start playing along. At the conclusion here however, the joke seemed to be as much on the two men as their women. Cynical Don Alfonso appeared to want to illustrate that young love blinds us, rather than proving that women are untrustworthy. For me, the warmth and sincerity of Mozart’s woodwind phrases perhaps betrays his sympathies towards these lovers. The plot is ludicrous, but popular TV shows like ‘Too Hot to Handle’ are doing the same thing today: creating a ridiculous premise and watching the action unfold.
Così Fan Tutte Review
The kitschy squalor of Coney Island is the last place many would associate with Mozart, yet in Phelim McDermott’s Così Fan Tutte, the amusement park is the backdrop to Mozart and Da Ponte’s comic opera. Another victim of Covid cancellation, the revival makes a bombastic return to the Coliseum after its initial run in 2014.
Set designer Tom Pye goes to extreme lengths to capture a kaleidoscopic fairground atmosphere with a constantly dynamic set. In the first act doors and walls swing in circles in a 1950s style motel with the four protagonists tactfully weaving in and out. The second act sees the fairground swarming with swirling teacup rides, bobbling carousel horses, and even a tunnel of love. The sheer number of things and people on stage is intoxicating at first, but like stuffing your face with hot dogs and candy floss, you can have too much of a good thing. The stage is often cluttered and is sometimes as dizzying as a Merry-Go-Round.
But the visuals certainly do not detract from conductor Kerem Hasan who makes a masterful debut as conductor at the ENO. He brings a frenetic vivacity, maintaining a crisp tempo throughout, electrifying Mozart’s score to keep the three-hour opera pacy and nimble.
Both Amitai Pati’s Ferrando and Benson Wilson’s Guglielmo artfully balance their characters’ infantile antics with a heartfelt longing. It would be easy for their characters to become unsympathetic given their treatment of Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Despite tricking them into infidelity, they remained enchantingly endearing. Perhaps this is because Neal Davis’ Don Alfonso, with slicked back hair and a garish yellow zoot suit, is made into a cartoonish villain, channelling the aura of a used car salesman as he swaggers around the stage. In making Don Alfonso a slimly and unlikable manipulator, he absorbs the cynical aspects of Così Fan Tutte, an opera that at its core is about deception, duplicity, and dishonesty. Ferrando and Guglielmo are his victims as much as Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Despite Davis’ sometimes crunchy and coarse timbre, his performance is delightfully devilish. He even adorns a red sequined suit for the finale, the kind of thing Satan would wear if he was in Las Vegas for the weekend.
Hanna Hipp’s Dorabella and Nardus Williams’s Fiordiligi complement each other’s performance perfectly. Hipp’s animated physicality lets her find moments of slapstick comedy, whereas Williams’ more restrained presence focuses her vocal performance on drawing out the sweetness and warmth of her character’s emotional torment. Together they are well balanced and bring stability to the frenzied world they inhabit.
Soraya Mafi’s droll Despina vocalises each line with crispness and precision, deftly delivering each of Despina’s witty retorts courtesy of Jeremy Sams’ bawdy translated libretto. She even manages this whilst singing in a faux American accent dressed as a rhinestone cowgirl. Why was she dressed as a cowgirl? Well, that’s Coney Island for you.
Così Fan Tutte
ENO at the London Coliseum Monday 14 March 2022
As anyone who has seen the film Nightmare Alley knows, circuses and fairgrounds are scary places. People go there to have fun, but risk encountering the darker side of human nature and getting emotionally damaged. Just like the characters in Così Fan Tutte, perhaps. Phelim McDermott’s revival of his 2014 production puts them in a 1950’s Coney Island fairground and pleasure garden. Tom Pye’s sets provide a suitably gorgeous and sinister backdrop, with merry go rounds, ferris wheels (against ravishing sunsets), candy stalls, fortune tellers, and advertisements for circus attractions. There are also some comically ghastly motel rooms, where Despina and Don Alfonso are seen during Come Scoglio to be enjoying a post coital cigarette.
Under Kerem Hasan’s musical direction, momentum is sustained without rushing, leading to exactly the right feeling of mounting exhilaration during the ensemble numbers. This vocally talented cast proves well able to surmount the difficulties – and exploit the vocal opportunities – provided by Mozart’s glorious score. It’s interesting how the opera’s surface sexism – with its emphasis on the unfaithfulness of women – soon breaks down into something much more interesting. Its brutal way with romantic illusions is seen to apply just as much to the men. Such is their complacent entitlement that, when they embrace the idea of seducing each other’s financées for a bet, they don’t see this as undermining their own faithfulness.
Here, they are smart naval officers in double breasted suits (costumes by Laura Hopkins) who disguise themselves as long-haired, leather-jacketed heartbreakers. They are nicely sung by Tenor Amitai Pati (Ferrando) and Baritone Benson Wilson (Guglielmo). Nardus Williams does a splendid job with Fiordiligi’s exacting coloratura, although in an ideal world, I would have liked a stronger lower register to go with her gleaming top notes. Hannah Hipp is an ideal Dorabella and Soraya Mafi’s sweet toned Despina is anything but innocent. Neal Davies provides a musical, but convincingly sleazy, Don Alfonso.
There are some good comic gags, particularly during the overture, as the Improbable Skills Ensemble all emerge one by one from the same small box of tricks to provide circus turns, move the set, and generally function as Don Alfonso’s enablers. It looks fabulous when Fiordiligi is carried into the sky on a hot air balloon during Per pietà, but does precious little to illuminate her emotional condition other than giving her something unnecessary to do during her aria. The production seems to be more interested in visual decoration than character development. I suspect that, with stronger direction, these singers might make more dramatic impact. Fine though it is, I’ve seen funnier and more emotionally searing Cosìs than this one.
Carol J Jones – Don’t be distracted by the teacups
Fire eating, contortionists and giant swans. Phelim McDermott’s Così fan tutte is back at the English National Opera, in this reimagining of Mozart’s classic tale of love and infidelity. It’s a visual delight, complete with a ferris wheel, spinning teacups and a “hot air balloon” if lacking substance.
McDermott transports us to the bright lights of 1950s Coney Island, brought to life by a talented “Skills Ensemble” that add some much-needed circus magic. The cast has their work cut out for them navigating Tom Pye’s rotating sets in addition to the giant set pieces. They spend so much time interacting with the sets that you almost forget there’s an opera going on. Laura Hopkins candy-coloured costumes thrill and surprise, with special mention to Soraya Mafi who masters the art of the quick-change
Turning to the cast, Neal Davies shines as the meddling Don Alfonso. His rich voice cuts through the orchestra as he smirks and simpers through the different ‘tests of love’ he sets for the cast. Meanwhile, there are not one but three ENO Harewood Artists that appear here: Soraya Mafi makes for a delicious Despina, with a voice that sparkles; Benson Wilson’s booming voice glides across the auditorium, charming the audience as Guglielmo; and Nardus Williams as Fiordiligi, proves her grit as she sings her Act II aria suspended inside the “hot air balloon”. Elsewhere Hanna Hip and Amitai Pati make for an admirable Dorabella and Ferrando and the ENO chorus bringing their characteristic vivacious vitality.
Kerem Hasan makes his ENO conducting debut here, and this is where Così starts to stumble. This is a slower, quieter Così to the point where you struggle to hear much of the first act, something some of the cast are sadly drawn into. A delayed opening night due to Covid and an overly wordy translation by Jeremy Sams may have had a part of play here, but it’s disappointing from an opera that is normally bursting with energy.
More pressing is McDermott’s failure to address the sexual politics that are central to Così. In Act I where Guglielmo and Ferrando, disguised, chase Fiordiligi and Dorabella through the motel in an attempt to woo them, an audience member behind me audibly said “That’s so creepy”. It was. And it wasn’t the only time. Così fan tutte has a darker side to it and there are questions about whether it should still be in opera houses repertoire in the #MeToo era. McDermott’s Così attempts to gloss over these issues with tricks and treats. But with frustratingly quiet music and an overly busy set, the uncomfortable truth is plain to see.