Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti, K588 – Opera in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte [sung in English as ‘Women are Human’ to a new translation by Amanda Holden, with English surtitles]
Fiordiligi – Anna Patalong
Dorabella – Idunnu Münch
Guglielmo – Marcus Farnsworth
Ferrando – William Morgan
Despina – Lizzie Holmes
Alfonso – John Molly
The Barefoot Band
Lesley Anne Sammons
Sam Brown – Director
Naomi Kuyck Cohen – Designer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 1 July, 2021
Venue: Longborough Festival Opera, Longborough, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, England
Transliterated as ‘Women are Human’ in this wonderfully witty and idiomatic translation by Amanda Holden, Sam Brown’s brilliant new production of Così fan tutte might also be said to demonstrate ‘men behaving badly’. In other words, just as Mozart and da Ponte’s masterpiece ingeniously subverts the conventions of opera buffa at almost every turn, so this production – dramaturgy, text, and musical arrangement – lovingly plays with, questions, and reinterprets the original with intelligent, razor sharp precision. Hence the set (arranged in the round, in a specially erected circus-like marquee for social distancing reasons) is populated with pure white replicas of Classical statues, exalting an ideal form of physical and spiritual human beauty (which, of course, cannot be attained in reality) and two empty pedestals tellingly remaining to be filled. Around this the characters disport themselves, clearly dispelling the delusions which lovers tend to entertain during the throes of romantic passion – shown with hilarious irony, for instance, as the young men engage in ribald laddish behaviour during the duet in which Fiordiligi and Dorabella laud their charms; or when, as their exotic suitors, they consume Toilet Duck in desperation when their romantic overtures are rejected, perhaps in knowing reference to Donald Trump’s notorious suggestion to inject disinfectant as a cure for Covid.
In the midst of the pandemic, is it fanciful also to suggest that a potent point is being made when the cleaner Despina suggestively cleans the statues with a disinfectant spray, hinting at the aridity of perfection, and also the infectiousness of real but flawed human sexual love? In any case, where the threads of da Ponte’s drama are all tautly drawn and contrasts effected, so this is paralleled in Brown’s production where the social laboratory of Don Alfonso’s ‘school for lovers’ becomes a somewhat more lurid casino (where the initial bet is hatched) and later a disco as the deceptions take shape; and the stark nudity of the statues stands opposed to the extravagant disguises of Guglielmo and Ferrando respectively as Renaissance and Roman era soldiers with their fancy dress additions evoking Superman and the Incredible Hulk. Ultimately we learn that the unadorned and perfect – but intransigent and severe – beauty represented by the statues is perhaps not as desirable as the irrational whimsy of flesh and blood humanity after all, as experienced in the cut and thrust of real relationships. Mozart’s ravishing score surely prevents us from casting judgement on the characters, and rather provokes empathy with their passions as they come under emotional duress. For instance, through playing affectionately with the tropes of female anxiety – the women’s hysteria and binge eating once they are told of their boyfriends’ supposed departure for battle – Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s behaviour is reclaimed from the traditional misogynistic aspersion impliedly cast upon it by the usual English translation of the opera’s title as ‘Women are like that’, which this new transliteration skilfully sidesteps.
The score itself also survives the subversion (if one were purist enough to see it that way) of Lesley Anne Sammons’s zesty arrangement for The Barefoot Band’s jazzy line up of recorders, clarinet, accordion, (electric) keyboard, double bass, and percussion. It hardly matters if several of these lack the same quality of nuance as more traditional acoustic instruments, because this ensemble shakes up all the elements of the music by redeploying them kaleidoscopically in new timbral patterns. The sounds of the recorder, clarinet or accordion can invite sympathy or pithily underline a joke according to how it alters Mozart’s original instrumentation (which itself was fairly original in its time for extensive use of woodwind) whilst preserving the integrity of his melodic and harmonic invention.
Sammons’s energetic direction of the score lends real bite and vigour to this interpretation, which the cast of singers take up with alacrity, following the jazzy accompaniment to the action on stage as the audience take their seats, before the performance proper. Where Idunnu Münch’s Dorabella is steely, even sassy, Anna Patalong exudes a more controlled, tonal richness, rising to the occasion for gripping accounts of ‘Come scoglio’ and ‘Per pietà’ – those moments in the opera where satire and revelry seem explicitly to stop and Mozart stabs the listener with his disarming call to compassion and identification with the character’s emotional ordeal.
Marcus Farnsworth and William Morgan both project winning swagger as Guiglielmo and Ferrando as they parade their ‘masculine charms’, both before and after they assume their disguises. Morgan could relax into more tenderness for ‘Un’aura amorosa’ but that is a minor quibble. Lizzie Holmes is a bubbly Despina, fully on cue and up for the role set out for her by John Molloy’s unflappable master of ceremonies, Don Alfonso.
I understand that some elements of the production had to be toned down before public presentation to bow to delicate sensibilities, and the fact of a trigger warning on the pre-performance information provided to the audience together suggest that Così’s unflinching dissection of the human heart is as necessary as ever in removing the scales from the eyes of those who persist in their sentimental delusions about the hard, messy reality of the dynamics of erotic relationships among human beings, which defy neat and clean schemata (the point of the work’s parody, through Despina’s disguised caricatures, of the disciplines of medicine and law as systems to define and order human behaviour). This is one of the best productions of Così I have seen, and except for the fact that it evidently works better ‘up close and personal’ in the round as presented, it deserves to survive the passage of a single summer festival’s season and be presented in bigger houses.