BWW Review: COSI FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House
I arrived home after over three hours in the strange world of Così Fan Tutte to see the news that Mark Hollis of 80s band Talk Talk had died at just 64. I played his biggest hit, "Life's What You Make It" and, with its title refrain running through it, wondered some more about Così. Maybe the message of Mozart and Da Ponte was simply that, with Don Alfonso doing most - if not quite all - of the making.
That's because he makes a bet with the lads (Ferrando and Guglielmo) that their finacées (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) are - like all women - fickle in their affections. He'll prove it too, if the lads do as he says, playing their designated roles, disguised as Albanians. Soon he recruits the bartender / maid / zero hours contract worker who can turn her hand to anything, Despina - who glories in her own fickle nature - to assist him. Each bf must seduce the other's gf - if she caves, then Don has his bet. Aye, the game's afoot.
You will have spotted that such a plot has something of a neolithic take on women's agency (that said, reports of a recent scandal in the usual sleepy world of English domestic cricket referred to women involved in consensual casual relationships as "conquests" - without the inverted commas - so maybe 1790 ain't so far away as we think).
The somewhat tawdry spectacle of one older man, two younger men and dishy Despina deceiving adorable Dorabella and faithful Fiordiligi (fun though Mozart makes it) is somewhat ameliorated, because (in 2019) the boys step out of their preposterous get-ups early in the game. The girls know the gig - they can pass or play.
Of course, it's all so, so gorgeous - to hear and to see - Jan Philipp Gloger's production making a swift return to the Royal Opera House after its initial 2016 run.
Sir Thomas Allen is all mischievous charm as Don Alfonso, all but twirling his moustache as he schemes and scandalises. Paolo Fanale and Gyula Orendt are blokeishly boisterous as the boys, very funny as they exploit the effects of their sham potion's sham antidote to chase the girls round an orchard (with a snake wrapped round the apple tree in case we missed it).
But the women steal the show - and maybe that's how it should be. Serena Malfi's Dorabella is sexy and never quite submissive, even as she falls for Guglielmo rather more swiftly than Fiordiligi (Salome Jicia, whose voice seems otherworldly at times) eventually, reluctantly, despairingly gives way to Ferrando. Serena Gamberoni is electrifying in every scene as the coquettish, clever Despina - I'd definitely have taken my chances with her back in the day!
For all the rejoicing in hedonistic tendencies and the pleasure of transgression, the boys don't much care for the fact that they were able to seduce the other's intended and the girls don't much care for what they've found out about themselves and their husbands-to-be. We may have been voyeurs at these pantomimes (and we're not without our own wandering eyes - a point driven home by a fantastic coup de théâtre towards the end) but there's a price to be paid when love is not blind.
Don Alfonso has his bet, Despina her pay-off, but the couples look at each other warily - the question is whether the revealing of their true natures will make their forthcoming marriages stronger, or destroy them before they even start.
Life's what you make it I suppose.
Photo Stephen Cummiskey.