Review: Cosi Fan Tutte

Easy women aren’t easy to watch

By Stephen Pollard, September 21, 2010

Royal Opera House, London WC2

The Royal Opera House production of Mozart’s misogynist work is both funny and deeply unsettling

The Royal Opera House production of Mozart’s misogynist work is both funny and deeply unsettling

The eighth revival of Jonathan Miller's Royal Opera House production of Mozart's Così Fan Tutte is, if anything, even finer now than when it was first performed in 1995, when most of the interest seemed to be generated by the Giorgio Armani costumes. They have long since been dumped, and have been replaced by "normal-looking" modern dress for this run.

But the clothes are not the point. Così is a troubling opera. It is, supposedly, a comedy. Yet on so many levels it reminds me of a Pinter play. It has jokes and the audience laughs. Should they? Isn't the reality of what is happening on stage deeply upsetting?

Take the story, which is plain old misogyny. Two friends, engaged to a pair of sisters, are persuaded for a bet to pretend to be different people and woo each others' fiancées. The women talk a good game of fidelity but when push comes to shove hop into bed with the latest bloke to ask them.

The title itself - roughly "all women are the same" - rams home the basic idea that women are, without exception, loose and not to be trusted.

Too many productions simply play it all for laughs, skirting over the fundamental problem for a modern audience alive to the repugnance of such ideas. Miller's skill is to take it on its own terms, engage with the comedy (and introduce some hilarious mobile phone jokes), but allow the tragedy of infidelity to unfold naturally. This is not an easy production to watch. I laughed a lot, but I was also very unsettled by the end.

Musically, it was a fine performance, led by the baroque specialist Thomas Hengelbrock in a riveting Royal Opera conducting debut. His period-style phrasing and jaunty rhythms could, in lesser hands, diminish the grandeur of the music. Here it was fresh but with all the sweep of a more romantic interpretation.

Sir Thomas Allen could sing Don Alfonso in his sleep, so it is all the more creditworthy that he seems almost to be improvising his lines, so naturally does he dominate a stage. The comedy, such as it is, is mainly Allen's.

Fiordiligi and Dorabella, Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson and Lithuanian mezzo Jurgita Adamonyte respectively, could almost be sisters - they look similar and their voices blend well. Pavol Breslik has a beautifully mellifluous tenor. Ferrando can often be torture to listen to, but the Slovak has a pefect Mozart voice. The reliable French baritone, Stéphane Degout, completed the lovers.

Despina is a role with which it is almost impossible not to triumph, but that should not diminish from Rebecca Evans's success. She is one of the great Despinas of the moment.

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Last updated: 11:49am, September 21 2010