Così fan tutte
English National Opera
After many productions of Mozart’s bleak comedy Così fan tutte, there has been a hiatus, welcomely brought to an end by ENO, which brought the first operatic production of the great Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami from Aix-en-Provence. Denied a visa by the imbecilic British embassy in Tehran, he had his work restaged by Elaine Tyler-Hall. I have no idea what it was like originally, but it is hard to believe that it was quite as blank as what we saw at the Coliseum, which really was not a production at all, but merely costumed characters strutting around in the way they would if there was no one to tell them what to do.
The staging, however, was a treat to look at. With extremely clever use of film, we had a three-dimensional scene of sea, cliffs, and an approaching boat, and later of the orchestra and the conductor, placed behind the singers. No Vesuvius, though, which is what is specified in the text and what the work cries out for. The cast was mainly of the level one might hope for at a music school, young people with pleasant voices, but not yet with the means of expressing much with them, or of co-ordinating their singing and acting. The exceptions were the saturnine Steven Page, best know as Sweeney Todd, as Don Alfonso, and the superb Susan Gritton as Fiordiligi. She not only coped with all Mozart’s notorious vocal demands — the role was originally sung by da Ponte’s mistress, a specialist in leaps — but added quite a few of her own, and also managed to prevent ‘Per pietà’ from being a longueur. Unfortunately, as happens in these circumstances, she and Page made clear what the others were missing. The less impressive four were not disastrous, but the Coliseum is far too large a theatre for their voices in their present state, and the Ferrando, who has some of Mozart’s loveliest tenor music, just seemed an English bleater.
The best thing was Stefan Klingele’s conducting, which evidently inspired the orchestra. Even the overture, which can often seem all too realistic a portrayal of vapid social patter, was incident-packed, and the pacing was ideal throughout. Klingele probed beneath the surface, as the singers rarely did. Yet they managed to register the pain of the two duets in which the sisters capitulate to the ‘Albanians’, though the ending of the opera was so underacted that the most depressing feature of the piece — that their experience has taught none of them a thing (there was a pretentious and fatuous article in last week’s Guardian Review in which the lovers were said to emerge ‘purified, sadder and wiser’ after their ordeal, when the whole point is that all they have learnt is to mouth nonsense about how guiding your life by reason will make you happy) — quite failed to bring home the point.
It will, nonetheless, be interesting to see what Kiarostami, supposed he is ever permitted to come to the UK, will add to this sketch of a production. And it would be nice if a different translation could be used, one which was closer to the original and less banal in diction.
Opera lovers will want to see Ronald Harwood’s play Collaboration, done at the Duchess Theatre in tandem with his 1995 play about Furtwängler, and centring on the relationship between Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig. Superbly acted, especially by Michael Pennington as Strauss, it presents as convincing a portrayal of this puzzling figure as we are likely to have, and also of the strengths and weaknesses of his music. He was the homme moyen sensual par excellence, happy to write his music, be bullied by his wife, and play skat, but pitched into a political situation he quite failed to grasp, acting at first with outraged decency, then with terrified obedience. Admirers of his later works in particular should make a point of seeing it. See review on page 44.