Review: Così fan tutte


This is a production of Così by German director, Jan Philipp Gloger, that deals ingeniously with the difficulties, for a twenty-first century audience, presented by the opera's very eighteenth century misogyny. It is also incredibly stylish visually.

The one or two jeers that greeted the production team, when invited on stage to take a bow, were therefore misjudged, indeed, unfathomable. They should have been cheered to the rafters. This review will attempt to explain why (spoiler alert).

Gloger employs the conceit that what unfolds on stage is a performance being staged by eighteenth century performers (who take a bow, in eighteenth century dress, during the overture as if to take premature praise for the presentation which is to follow); the performance which they stage, however, is the tale of two very twenty-first century couples of the sort that might be found anywhere in the House itself.

Indeed, to make the point, the two couples arrive in modern attire, applauding while running down the aisles of the orchestra stalls, giving all the appearance of being just two couples arriving at the end of the overture, a tad late for the start.

They get on stage and the modern-dress performance begins in which they are couples appearing in a traditional performance of Così at Covent Garden itself (selfies are taken, pre-performance, in the old Crush Bar). So that's a play within a play, within a play.

Before explaining how that helps with the misogyny, a quick recap of the traditional story: Ferrando (Daniel Behle) is engaged to Dorabella (Angela Brower) and Guglielmo (Alessio Arduini) is engaged to Fiordiligi (Corinne Winters).

The mens' friend, Don Alfonso (Johannes Martin Kränzle), wagers them that the women's professions of fidelity will be falsified if tested. The men agree to the wager, sure of their women's faithfulness. The men then announce their departure for war and return in disguise as Albanian noblemen, each to woo the other's woman.

Dorabella falters first and professes love for Guiglielmo's Albanian character and Fiordiligi, though holding out at first, ends up professing love for Ferrando's. They even agree to marry the Albanians, which is arranged by Don Alfonso enlisting the help, as he does throughout, of the women's maid, Despina (Sabina Puértolas) who mocks up as a notary (this all takes place in Naples after all).

In a traditional production, all that the women exchange with the "Albanians" is a token of their love; in this production, the audience is left in no doubt that what Dorabella and Guglielmo's character exchange is bodily fluids. It happens offstage, granted, but it clearly happens.

What this adds to the drama, of course, is that it is not merely Guglielmo's character that has had sex with Dorabella but Guglielmo with his best friend's fiance. Behold, Guglielmo the love rat and sex cheat. This means that, when Guglielmo later misogynistically rants about women's faithlessness (once he has heard of Fiordiligi's) and, in doing so he turns one of the stage lights on the audience, it is his rank hypocrisy which offends rather than his misogyny. The sting is thus drawn.

Indeed, the light which he shines on the audience, intended by him to make the women in the audience take a good look at themselves, has the effect of making the men examine their consciences too. And driving the point home, the opera concludes with a backdrop which spells out in dressing-room bulbs, at first, "Così fan tutte (thus act all women)" and then, when some of the bulbs blow (those making the three horizontals of the final E), "Così fan tutti (thus act all)".

The principals were uniformly excellent, vocally and in terms of characterisation. In the final line up (which brought Winters on last, as though this is Fiordiligi's showpiece, which it is not), Winters and Behle got the biggest ovation but any such distinctions were unfair. If anything, Winters's Come scoglio lacked force in those chest notes which really cash out Fiordiligi's resolve but that is to quibble. All, including the orchestra under Semyon Bychkov, were excellent. The sextet at the end of Act I just fizzed along."

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