In the first few minutes of Mozart's Così fan tutte, Don Alfonso turns to the audience and says: "What a palaver. I thought I was in an opera!" You had better believe it: an 18th-century opera, in 18th-century clothes, behaving the way 18th-century opera used to behave. The trouble with Abbas Kiarostami's staging (and it won't have helped that the man himself wasn't around to ease its passage into London) is that it asks us to forget everything that's happened in opera over the past couple of decades and view it from a position of innocent fascination. The great Iranian film director has never directed opera before and one has to wonder how much of it he has seen. This terminally bland rendering (put creakily through its paces by associate director Elaine Tyler-Hall) strikes me as the work of someone who – in operatic terms at least – doesn't get out much.
Essentially, we can no longer view Così from an 18th-century perspective. This audacious piece demands more from a director than respect; it demands wit, social awareness, and a healthy degree of scepticism. It isn't an innocent piece – it's a devilishly knowing one. And it takes more than a couple of filmed backdrops to hint at the reality of our 2009 perspective. In the opening scene modern-day occupants of a sidewalk café appear to look on in amazement at the goings-on on stage; and a boat appears to carry off our two anti-heroes while we share their fiancées' perspective and watch them waving from the quarter-deck. There's a Forrest Gump conceit about these "superimpositions", but everything on stage is predictable and overworked.
You can, however, add at least another star to the two above for the sterling efforts of those on stage. Steven Page brings his immaculate enunciation to Don Alfonso's patter; Sophie Bevan's splendidly sung Despina is much more than a rebellious comic turn; and Thomas Glenn has the honesty, if not the sustained vocal rapture, for Ferrando's most heartfelt moments. But the musical and emotional highlight of the evening is Susan Gritton's highly charged account of the aria "Per pieta", which is sung with the meaningful intensity of a truly international singer. Conductor Stefan Klingele's unremarkable account of the great score is notable more for its virility than its sensuousness. But at least that score is indestructible.
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