In the first few minutes of Mozart’s Cosi 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 theatre over the last couple of decades and view it, as he clearly does, 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. I hate to say it, but 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 Cosi with 18th century eyes from an 18th century perspective. This audacious piece demands more from a contemporary 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. Like the opening scene where modern day occupants of a side-walk café appear to look on in amazement at the goings-on on stage; or the sail boat appearing to carry off our two anti-heroes where 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 about as predictable and overworked as Martin Fitzpatrick’s rhyming couplets.
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 Gilbert and Sullivanesque enunciation to Don Alfonso’s patter, Sophie Bevan’s splendidly sung Despina is so 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 has to be Susan Gritton’s highly-charged account of her great act two aria “Per pieta”, its tormented intervals encompassed 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.