Così Fan Tutte, London Coliseum


Originally written for Exeunt.

How to solve the silliness and dodgy sexual politics of Mozart and De Ponte’s comic opera? Director Phelim McDermott’s answer is to embrace and subvert both at the same time, while gleefully transplanting the whole thing to the fairground. In this new ENO production, created in partnership with Improbable, the two pairs of lovers are vacationing in 1950s Coney Island, surrounded by the vivid swirl of the carnival. In this environment, where nothing is quite as it appears, it hardly seems surprising that the two men would reappear to their beloveds in the guise of teddy boys in the plot’s central test of fidelity. Here, the usual rules are suspended and all bets are off.

This colourful framework established, the concept allows McDermott and his creative team to riff playfully on their theme, balancing invention upon invention. From its joyfully witty curtain-raiser onwards, this Così Fan Tutte is a dazzling sideshow of visual ingenuity. Tom Pye’s stunning design, complemented by beautifully evocative lighting from Paule Constable, is every bit as enchanting as Mozart’s music – all brilliant colour, twinkling fairy lights and dramatic sunsets. McDermott’s direction has fun with the pliable playground that Pye has created, finding cheeky solutions to the story’s subtext. The lovers bounce euphemistically on carousel horses, while the revolving chambers of the motel where sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are staying hint mischievously at the women’s fickle passions.

The performers, too, inject an infectious sense of fun into Da Ponte’s story of love, confusion and deceit – none more so than Mary Bevan, whose sparkling Despina is deliciously manipulative in her nudging of the two women being cruelly tricked by their fiancés. Christine Rice’s spirited Dorabella is wonderfully unapologetic in the swift transferral of her desire, while Fiordiligi’s eventual submission to her feelings is made all the more affecting by the journey that Kate Valentine takes us on. The men lag behind both vocally and in the vividness of their characterisations, although Marcus Farnsworth and Randall Bills both attack the seduction sequences with energy and brio, and it’s a neat touch to have Roderick Williams’ charismatic Don Alfonso as the scheming ringmaster of the ensemble of circus performers.

But it’s not all about the fun of the fair. Beneath the amusement and allure, there is a grubby underside to the Coney Island setting, offering a necessary counterpoint to the candyfloss silliness of the plot. There’s an uncomfortable sleaziness sitting under the opening scene between Don Alfonso and the officers, hinting lightly at the misogyny implied in the opera’s central wager. Improbable’s skills ensemble, meanwhile, provide a brilliant visual commentary on events from their hovering presence in the background of scenes. As Fiordiligi and Dorabella expressively grieve and swoon, stall-tenders roll their eyes and chew gum; the saccharine romance of the seduction scenes is offset by sword swallowing and bearded women.

The function of this constant undercutting is to question the normalised wooing and manipulation deployed by Guglielmo and Ferrando and prevent the main thrust of the plot, which is gorgeously funny in this telling, from becoming a mere harmless comedy of disguises. There is certainly an emphasis on the lighter, more amusing aspects of the opera in McDermott’s production, enhanced by the sparkling wit of Jeremy Sams’ English translation, but the use of contrast also points up the ridiculousness and cruelty of the central plot device. In the fairground workers and sideshow performers, we find a foil and an alternative.

And the fairground itself, like one of Shakespeare’s forests, acts as a liminal, magical space – an arena in which anything can happen. Just as we delight in the surface humour and beauty of McDermott’s production, we might relish the escape that this space can offer, but grey, complicated reality always waits just around the corner.

Thebans, London Coliseum


Originally written for Exeunt.

Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban plays, charting the fall of Oedipus and his doomed offspring, carry their fair share of cultural baggage. They are now more historical documents than dramas, presenting a challenge to modern adapters seeking to inject them with new life, yet the turmoil and tragedy of Oedipus’s famous fate continues to fascinate and inspire.

Julian Anderson’s first opera seizes on this material and gives it a shake, achieving an impressively fresh rendering of this trio of tragedies. Anderson and librettist Frank McGuiness have condensed and reshuffled Sophocles’ three plays, transforming them into three swift acts and disrupting their chronology. First, under the subtitle “Past”, we see the familiar revelations of Oedipus the King, before being catapulted into the “Future” in the second act to witness Antigone’s destruction at the hands of Creon. Finally, the action rewinds to the “Present” and Oedipus’s death at Colonus, closing on an anguished note of lamentation from the daughter soon destined to come to her own bitter end.

Dramaturgically, the episode at Colonus offers a much more satisfying conclusion than that of Antigone, allowing the action to end on a shattering howl of grief. But beyond this dramatic effect, Anderson and McGuiness’s rearrangement of chronology offers an intriguing examination of fate, at times enhancing and at others unsettling the inexorability of events. Themes and emotions periodically resurface, creating the impression less of a tragic slide to destruction than of a viciously repeating cycle. Score and libretto also contain interesting internal tensions, the tussle of voice and music reflecting a struggle throughout between will and destiny.

Despite distinct resonances across the acts, Pierre Audi’s production strikingly shifts mood for each episode of the trilogy. The curtain first rises on a classical scene, the white-draped bodies of the chorus held still like statues against Tom Pye’s simple but imposing stone-grey design. White gives way to black in the tense second act, as a militaristic state has been established under Peter Hoare’s Creon (as smoothly persuasive in voice as in politics), its discipline outlined in the sharply uniform movements of its subjects. Colonus, in the final scene, is an other-worldly wasteland, eerily echoing with the disembodied voices of the chorus – for whom Anderson has written by far the strongest part.

It is in its narrative economy, however, that Thebans disappoints. Anderson and McGuiness have hacked away plenty of dead wood from Sophocles’ tragedies, but with it too has gone some of the essential foliage. Shorn down to its bare essentials, the plot loses any prelude to tragedy, failing to forge a connection with the protagonists before their fortunes violently plummet. In the succinct second act especially, character is sacrificed to atmosphere, with Antigone dead before we are offered any opportunity to feel her misfortunes. McGuiness’s libretto, meanwhile, is direct to the point of bluntness in its trimming of Sophocles.

Anderson’s score cannot quite compensate for these gaps in character, rarely communicating the full tragedy and despair of Oedipus’s downfall. It is better instead at conveying unease, be it through the disquieting bass tone of Tiresias’s prophecies or the mounting tension of the second act. Only in the closing moments, as Julia Sporsén’s bereft Antigone devastatingly grieves for her father, does the impact of events finally land its punch – by which time, it is too late.