In ENO’s new production of Così fan tutte, director Abbas Kiarostami showed us just how uninteresting Mozart can be in the wrong hands. With no developed conception of the piece this production hinges on the use of sterile video backdrops.
Così fan tutte is among the untouchable trio of works that Da Ponte worked on with Mozart, saving the composer from what could have easily been a slew of saggy and shallow texts unworthy of the great composer. But this is the least satisfying of the three operas, being a twenty-minute conceit played out over the course of three hours with no twists or jolts. For this reason it needs to be booted out of complacent tradition; either with an audacious interpretation which exposes a new layer of the work, or with a veil of visual freshness that can lift the piece out of inevitability.
The opera begins with the two young upstarts arguing with their philosophical friend about fidelity. The backdrop was a film of actors drinking and chatting outside a bar. Although the actors do appear to respond when the live action gets a little more heated, the device is flat and charmless for a few reasons. On a visual level the film didn’t look dazzling or arresting, but more importantly it never offered an interpretive angle on the action or the characters. To make such conservative use of such a limitless tool was a minor catastrophe.
Throughout this opera the filmed backdrops were used in the same way as a drably painted backdrop would be – the most obvious angles, the least exciting imagery. The impression from the beginning was that this was an unthinking, perfunctory Così and not much changed as the night dragged on. In front of the film screen were two large, unmoving, beige pillars. They were the only conceptual element of this opera; standing, I suppose, for staid tradition and unflinching predictability.
Another slightly grating and thoughtless element of this production were the costumes. The palette was consistent, but the tones used were bland and dour reflections of the omnipresent pillars. Nothing captured the eye and there was no contrast between individual characters and no whiff of energy or wit that good costumes can often inject.
Sadly the drama was lacking in boldness and originality too, with characters not really acting until Gugliemo and Ferrando are in disguise and are then the whole ensemble are allowed to ham it up. The more over the top the better, since the production was so muted in general. The most vibrant and engaging performance came from Sophie Bevan as Despina, rattling off comic lines in strong and sparky voice, giving friction and vim to the proceedings. The sisters were played by Susan Gritton and Fiona Murphy who almost became moving whenever the narrative froze and emotions were lingered upon, but they were swallowed up by the production as a whole and fade from memory as a result.
Oddly enough the most gripping moments were when the screen came down to hide minor set changes and characters sang in front of it. The contrast of the neon blue screen and period costumes was a thrill that lasted at most ten seconds, and seemed to be a happy accident.