Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House

Has opera found its own Ivo van Hove?

By: Jul. 08, 2024
Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House
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Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House The return of Jan Philipp Gloger’s 2016 production of Così fan tutte to Covent Garden begs the question: has opera found its own Ivo van Hove?

The German director is known for an approach which goes from the casually inventive to the cerebral and surreal, casting a modern eye on the psychodrama and social issues beneath the surface of established works. His pandemic-era treatment of the operetta Die Csárdásfürstin at Opernhaus Zürich featured a sea full of beer cans and plastic bags, amd dancing polar bears in a tale underscored by environmental trauma. Dead seagulls fell from the air, a yacht struck an ice floe and, in the final moments, the planet exploded as we see the singers lifted into the air to meet friendly aliens.

Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House
Photo credit: Clive Barda

His treatment of Mozart’s opera buffa is no less iconoclastic. The work has long been criticised for its anti-feminist themes and, short of changing the original libretto, there is little Gloger can do with that accusation. His master stroke is, rather than dwelling on the book’s misogynistic views on the apparently capricious nature of women, to raise the conversation a notch to look at the nature of love and lust for both women and men.

Like van Hove - a Belgian auteur known for his sideways looks at the nature of theatre and its more fusty conventions - Gloger uses the “play within a play” formula to present the standard story albeit with curious twists. The lead actors first appear before the curtain goes up, slipping out onto the front of the stage to take their bows to an audience which is unsure whether to be confused, amused or bemused. No matter how many times they retreat then return with their rictus grins and jubilant bows, there is a very British reaction (i.e. still silence and polite smiles) before the orchestra ploughs on.

Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House
Photo credit: Clive Barda

Phelim McDermott memorably went for a vivid circus/cabaret setting for his ENO version. Here, Gloger goes for a less showy ambience and deliberately mixes his time periods, showing us Despina (Jennifer France in a fetching crimson wig) counselling Fiordiligi (the versatile rising star Samantha Hankey) and Dorabella (Golda Schutz who blazes on “Come scoglio”) from behind a modern bar while later using an 18th century-style landscape as a backdrop. 

For his part, Don Alfonso (a wicked Gerald Finley) is portrayed as a silver-haired svengali in a frock coat. Together, the scheming pair resemble The Rocky Horror Show’s Magenta and Riff Raff as they watch the ongoing shenanigans. Guglielmo (Italian baritone Andrè Schuen) and Ferrando (Daniel Behle, returning from the 2016 production) don disguises (mostly composed of fake Errol Flynn-style moustaches) that wouldn’t fool Lois Lane in their witless attempt to seduce the other’s lover (less Strangers On A Train, more Idiots On A Mission).

Van Hove isn’t afraid of trying his audience’s patience: performed throughout in Dutch, his four-and-a-half-hour long Kings Of War and six-hour-long Roman Tragedies are both testaments to his unique vision. Likewise Gloger’s bouts of static direction sees him extinguish any dramatic oxygen from the stage so we can focus on a single singer for the duration of an aria. It’s an exquisite torture which, even in the vastness of the Royal Opera House, brings a singular focus to some of the finest elements of Così.

Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House
Photo credit: Clive Barda

Gloger, too, likes playing with audience expectations when it comes to scenery. There’s no modern technology here - van Hove is a fan of huge screens and live camera feeds - and, instead, we have two distinctive set pieces. One beautifully poignant scene sees the cast perform in front of a tree surrounded by hanging signs with words plucked from the opera’s text like “divertimento” (pleasure), “allegria” (cheerfulness) and “gioia” (joy). The concept tying them all together is visible on a chalkboard at the front of the stage which, like an Italian Haddaway, asks “Amor cos’e?” 

Poking fun at the conceits of well known dramas is another van Hove trait (his Roman Tragedies included a ticker display counting down to the next major character death) and exposing theatrical innards are another connection. In the same way that this year's disastrous Opening Night had the band and non-speaking actors visible in the background, Gloger deconstructs one stage set layer by layer while the actors are still singing to reveal some of the chorus sat around chatting at the back. This bold move smacks of the meta and the avant garde but speaks to the “play in a play” motif established earlier.

Review: COSÌ FAN TUTTE, Royal Opera House
Photo credit: Clive Barda

Gloger’s most controversial move would surely have been applauded by van Hove. While the latter’s Obsession had Jude Law oiled-up and half-naked wrestling another man on the floor of the Barbican, the German adds some sensational spice to the Act 2 seduction scene. Even with an audience that has in the past shown itself to be rather conservative when it comes to onstage nudity, the boundaries are teased with Dorabella stripping the disguised Guglielmo down to the waist and he responds in turn by pushing her dress down past her bra. It’s a bravura moment that - like Dorabella - is carried off with aplomb. 

Such a radical take on a standard will no doubt invite a variety of responses. Those looking for a faithful by-the-numbers version may, in the Italian fashion, present and waggle one hand and then mutter a verdict of “così, così”. Meanwhile, those who prefer something that takes chances and, more often than not, comes out winning will lap up Gloger’s thought-provoking interpretation.

Così fan tutte continues at the Royal Opera House until 10 July.

Photo credit: Clive Barda




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