This is standard Mozart at its best – not bog standard but benchmark Mozart – no distracting frills, no self-indulgent gimmicks, no production distortions, no cheap laughs. With his clear sense of the dramatic development of the score and his sensitive concern for the projection of that drama on stage, Mark Wigglesworth gave us the truth (about the universe, human nature, and the power of romantic love) as Mozart intended to impart it.
This long comedy of manners is problematical – especially for recent times. It is blatantly misogynistic, and first-time viewers would be well advised to choose an original language production so that they cannot understand it so tartly as it is conveyed by Jeremy Sams’s excellent and faithful translation. A measure of Mark Wigglesworth’s skills lies in the results of the following test: All Così veterans know that the second half can drag, and each will have identified certain ‘favourite’ arias which might be mercifully cut. As each of my ‘favourites’ popped up, I was struck by the rightness of their place in the drama. I was forced to re-evaluate my view of the whole.
The six principals (Toby Spence, Christopher Maltman, Andrew Shore, Susan Gritton, Mary Plazas, and Janis Kelly) produced the most exemplary balance of voices I have ever experienced in opera. Faultless – or nearly. I scribbled a few notes during the first night performance, but the imperfections I noted pale into insignificance in comparison with the rich feast of singing we enjoyed. Again, perhaps down to the conductor, the particular strengths of each of the principals came across powerfully. It is extremely difficult not to comment on the particular strengths of each of the principals, but it would be invidious to do so in the circumstances.
How refreshing it was not to be transported to some seaside or poolside resort – the usual locus for many recent productions of Così. This staging was set in c.1935 (the fact that Ferrando and Guglielmo instantly return from the ‘war’ throws this dating slightly into doubt). The set was at times slightly claustrophobic – not easy on this vast stage – but not nearly so restrictive or prescriptive as the playbill suggests with its references to surrealist art. This is really a dead end (just as surrealist art was). What ought to have been illustrated is Mussolini’s Italy. The opera sits well there, given the Fascists’ consignment of women to the household while the young men – as they still do! – go out to experience adventure.
This is one of the most coherent and fascinating productions mounted by ENO in recent years. The overall stage design is masterful – especially the wholly believable gentlemens’ club atmosphere (antlers and all) of the first and many subsequent scenes, often inventively sliding apart or together to reveal other scenes based upon strongly emotional and affecting mindsets. The ladies wear the brown dresses of fascist motherhood; the men are dashing in their first appearance, striking in their military kit, and the only relief from the muted tones of the rest of the production in their pastel suits. There are one or two things that don’t quite work, but these are mere quibbles. This is the best modern dress production of Così I have ever seen.