Cosi fan tutte, English Touring Opera Hackney Empire, London

 

Embarking on its spring tour with a new production of Cosi fan tutte, ETO offers its audiences a typically provocative essay by the late Edward Said, as a way of intellectually limbering up.

Sor Said, the ‘aggressively inconsequential’ plot is a dazzling façade behind which Mozart hints at a ‘universe shorn of any redemptive or palliative scheme’. Said is one of many commentators and directors who have been tantalised by the inscrutability of this comic opera’s cruel symmetries, whereby bosom pals are manoeuvred into seducing each other’s girl-friend.

The music of the final scene may bowl sweetly along, but it gives absolutely no clue as to what the future holds for the protagonists: through the disposition of the characters on stage after the volcanic denouement, every production can indulge in its own particular speculation.

Director Paul Higgins has an unusual agenda for this production with its versatile single set by Samal Blak, and the first surprise is the casting of Richard Mosley-Evans as Don Alfonso. This Don seems more like a sturdy farmer than the sophisticated charmer whom Sir Tom Allen incarnates in Jonathan Miller’s Covent Garden production, and it takes a while to believe in him. On the other hand, by casting the brilliant Paula Sides as Despina – and by setting her up as the dominating intelligence - Higgins turns the drama’s conventional dynamic on its head.

We were warned that Sides was suffering from a whiplash injury, but you wouldn’t have known it from her charismatic first-night performance. With impeccable comic timing and a delicate beauty of vocal line, she became the drama’s diamond-hard heart, aristocratically out-classing Fiordiligi (Laura Mitchell) and Dorabella (Kitty Whately), who came across as silly teenagers rather than as the embattled and tormented creatures they really are. Meanwhile the men’s progress towards chastened maturity is underlined by the way they are transformed from silly coxcombs at the start to warily-knowing adults at the close.

Along the way there is much to admire and enjoy, with assured singing throughout, most notably the sweet tenor of Anthony Gregory as Ferrando; he and Toby Girling (Guglielmo) suffer searingly, and on their entry as ‘Albanians’ they effect a more convincing disguise than I have ever seen in this work. If the final emotional twists are too brisk to carry total conviction, the evening still passes pleasurably, and as though in a trice. 

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