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Saturday 9 March 2013

Cosi fan Tutte at the ETO

Hackney Empire

The English Touring Opera launch their Spring 2013 tour with Cosi Fan Tutte, Mozart's most mysterious, amoral, diaphanous, warm and easy going opera. The cruel symmetries, profound human insights and lunacies, ultra suave music and curious blankness at the heart of it are all the cause of much fascination which make writers and audiences return to it again and again. It can be played for laughs, it can be played for tears - its openness allows it to easily reflect back almost any interpretation that one may have of it.

photos copyright ETO and Robert Workman
Samal Blak's designs are mostly bland, but border on the ugly: the set reminds one of the similarly vanilla ROH Jonathan Miller Cosi with its two large cream panels, against a cream back drop and floor; the addition of crude willow stencils and inelegantly shaped apertures are the only adornment we get on otherwise flat panelling. The libretto makes constant reference to nature and the elements, and there's the intimation of a cycle from day to evening to night to morning again - but the relentless fluorescent beige doesn't allow for any of this to be suggested, and the willow design and flowery dresses do not do enough to suggest the beauty and majesty of natural forces or even the Mediterranean warmth and lightness that floods the score.

To continue briefly along the design aspect of the show: why also is the maid Despina's costume grander and more fetching than her two preening mistresses' relatively tame attire? I'll stop going on about it, but I thought this production really suffered from its boring and ungraceful design.

Laura Mitchell and Anthony Gregory

With so little to look at, and with no surtitles to distract* (a good thing!) the focus was squarely on the acting, which is as it should be, but this is a double edged sword. I found most of the acting quite approximate, as if all the singers were doing impressions of the emotions they were meant to be feeling rather than their actions coming from the necessity of genuine emotion. This was confirmed to me instantly when the cast went to bow and instantly we got relaxed, very natural movement, and genuine smiles and interaction with one another. To do this whilst in character is of course the difficulty and art of acting! Paul Higgins' direction offers a light hearted and unradical view of the work, though Despina is given a bit more depth than usual - her motive for leading the girls astray is that she is embittered by a past wracked by romantic disappointment. She is otherwise sarcastic and rather flippant with her mistresses in the first scene, though by the end does feel genuine regret at her part in matters when the deceit is unveiled. There is no "solution" proferred at the end either - the couples first pair up with their original lovers, then with their new ones, then with their friends and no decision is come to.

Vocal honours go to Paula Sides' Despina, with her attractive soubrette timbre, easy fluency of line and ringing top (note that she is not the Despina in the photo above). Fiordiligi is famously virtually impossible to cast entirely adequately even in the biggest houses and Laura Mitchell has a good stab - Her "Per pieta" was  good I thought - the lows almost matching the highs, and with a nice sense of the character's frailty and vulnerability, but her first act aria, "Come scoglio", virtually designed by Mozart to expose an uneven strength of the registers, proved less successful. More worrying throughout was a strong tendency to sing sharp when any force was applied to the chords. Kitty Whately has a more naturally appealing tone and proved more successful in the far less demanding role of Dorabella. The boys' strongly contrasting voices was a nice piece of casting - Anthony Gregory's sweetly sensitive lyric tenor as Ferrando and Toby Girling's less careful, beefier baritone as Guglielmo. The two duets in Act II were vocal highlights, keenly felt by the singers and beautifully accompanied, but the other ensembles were all poorly balanced, each allowing one or two voices to dominate far too much. Don Alfonso gets some of the best arias in the piece, all of very short duration and with the most inspired orchestral accompaniments. Richard Mosley-Evans had the right sort of voice for the role, but sadly got out of time with the pit in every single solo passage.

The highlight of this performance was undoubtedly the contribution from the pit. The overture revealed charming virtuosity from the winds which set the standard for the rest of the evening - nary a note was out of place, and the orchestra, conducted by James Burton, sounded fresh, engaged and unified. The score is cut in Act II.

A slightly disappointing start to the ETO season but you can't win them all and the following evening's Simon Boccanegra was much more convincing.

*sung in English

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