What a refreshing novelty! A production of Così fan tutte that actually places the action in its original eighteenth century setting! It almost seems unusual to find one today, but Harry Fehr proves that it is far from necessary to utilise a single mobile phone or video projection to produce a conceptually clever, brilliantly dynamic and ultimately relevant evening for a twenty-first century audience.
Fehr and designer Alex Eales make the sisters’ room the nucleus of the action in every respect. Although in reality it is a round conservatory, from the moment that Don Alfonso raises a bell jar during the Overture (superbly conducted by Thomas Kemp), the implication is clear enough. Along with the chorus who sit at the sides throughout, we as the audience are about to be Big Brother-style observers of a scenario that Alfonso will ensure unfolds.
The central room is surrounded by a corridor. Its walls may not be visible to us, but the division enables the drama to possess a strong ‘in one door, out the other’ element as the characters move from one area to other. It also allows Despina to sing the vast majority of ‘Una donna a quindici anni’ in front of the sisters, but finish the aria alone out of their ear shot. While no-one standing in the corridor can see what is happening inside the central room, the chorus and audience, who are entirely outside of the area, can. Each chorus member reacts throughout as befits their own character, while Guglielmo by joining them witnesses far more of the scene where Ferrando steals Fiordiligi than in most productions.
The strong concept is aided by some superb performances that clearly delineate the various characters. As Dorabella, Julia Riley’s mezzo-soprano is strong, sumptuous and lively and her performance of ‘Smanie implacabili’ sees her hunched sideways on a bench as she wears her heart upon her sleeve. This contrasts starkly with Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Fiordiligi whose grief is more internal and reserved, and who consequently appears to want to explode during her ‘annoying’ sister’s aria. Vocally stunning, her performance of ‘Come scoglio’ is excellently measured, combining harshness towards the strangers, an element of rationality as she calmly explains that she loves another, and high comedy as she nearly faints and deprives the intruders of their tea and cake. Even after she submits to Ferrando, she looks profoundly uncomfortable at what she is about to do.
Joana Seara is an excellent Despina whose strong arm gestures and even tone emphasise the story’s social hierarchies, and leave us to sympathise with her own position as an intelligent but down-trodden maid. Andrew Staples and Dawid Kimberg as the male lovers do not come across quite as strong vocally as the women, but their sound is pleasing enough, and both contribute to the ensemble dynamic as much as anyone. Kimberg, in particular, gives a comic, yet convincing portrayal of a Guglielmo who thinks rather too highly of himself. Nicholas Garrett is an intriguing Don Alfonso who, with his strong aristocratic air, combines a playful mischievousness with a far more sinister streak.
In fact, both the beginning and end imply that Alfonso instigated this game out of personal sorrow, and to see others genuinely suffer. We are left feeling that the characters may have learned a lesson, but one that they would have been better off not knowing. Indeed, the two final couples end up at different stages of reconciliation, which feels highly appropriate for a production that does so much to mark Dorabella and Fiordiligi out as very different characters. This Così fan tutte may be a laugh a minute, but it is also remarkably bitter sweet, and all the more effective for being so.