Cosi fan tutte, ENO, review: 'Joyfully liberated'

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One of the many good things about Phelim McDermott and his Improbable theatre company is that when they come to the Coliseum they don’t seek the comfort of a house style.

They created spellbinding beauty for Philip Glass’s Satyagraha with the aid of giant puppetry on a kaleidoscopically-changing backdrop, and for the same composer’s Walt Disney opera they found a visual language which was sardonically cinematic.

In Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte they unlock something joyfully liberated, while staying entirely true to that opera’s rueful and ambivalent message.

McDermott reckons that the opera’s biggest challenge is to make the disguise scenes plausible, and his designer Tom Pye’s solution has been to set it amid the fairground rides of a Coney Island resort in the Fifties, where people come to take a holiday from reality: his entrancing sets ensure that the audience do that as well. I won’t spoil the pleasure of the mime-show during the overture by revealing its surprises; suffice to say that Roderick Williams, as Don Alonso, presides over a troupe of circus performers reminiscent of the troupe in Dickens’s Hard Times, and that the sword-swallower – who cut his windpipe near-fatally two years ago – accomplishes his act without self-harm. 

We first meet Don Alonso and his callow pupils Guglielmo and Ferrando (Marcus Farnsworth and Randall Bills) in a casino, where the young men sing their fiancees’ praises and he plots their painful education: Williams doesn’t have Tom Allen’s gravitas in this role, but he’s a cunningly persuasive presence. The rest of the sextet carrying this quintessentially ensemble work are Kate Valentine and Christine Rice as Fiordiligi and her sister Dorabella, with Mary Bevan as the most versatile and bewitching Despina I have ever seen.

Much fun is had in the first act with a row of motel bedrooms which rotate with dizzy speed, and the sight-gags come thick and fast – merry-go-round horses serving nicely for symbolic rumpy-pumpy - even if the business does occasionally obscure the plot. But by taking his cues from the music, McDermott’s achievement is to give us a Cosi which feels fresh and spontaneous while fully honouring – with Ryan Wigglesworth’s support from the pit - the kaleidoscopic beauty of the score and the pathos of the lovers’ predicament, as theatrical emotions become real. 

Most of his risks pay off, as when he packs in an entire comic mini-drama while Fiordiligi sings her long encomium to her own fidelity, or when he sets her adrift in a balloon for her soul-searching aria in Act II. But this is partly thanks to Kate Valentine’s lovely performance: with comparably fine work from Christine Rice’s horny Dorabella and Mary Bevan’s Protean Despina, we get singing of a quality rarely heard at the Coliseum. The young men’s singing may not quite reach this standard, but they make up for it with sheer conviction: Bills’s agony as he absorbs the shock of Dorabella’s betrayal is palpable. But in this show the protagonists are in kind hands, as McDermott’s magical stage-craft brings them smilingly back to earth.

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