A lack of communication between stage and pit affected this new co-production of Così fan tutte at the London Coliseum. But if the musical performance suffered from some crucial uncertainties, other characteristics of Mozart's opera were beautifully delivered. Pushing the boundaries of theatrical fiction, director Abbas Kiarostami managed to find new - if perhaps uncomplicated - meanings for Mozart's opera.
The staging was, in short, a lesson in elegance and simplicity. Kiarostami directed this production for the first time at the 2008 Aix-en-Provence Festival, in what became a successful operatic debut for this award-winning film director. Set and costumes, designed by Malika Chauveau, interweaved beautifully in a classical atmosphere always well suited to the opera. In the absence of Kiarostami for ENO's presentation of the production, associate director Elaine Tyler-Hall coordinated the stage work with great success.
The peculiarity of this period staging immediately discloses the director's cinematographic background. This Così was a fortunate combination of expressive means: framed by filmed backdrops offering views of a Mediterranean seascape, the opera's characters inhabited a space that overcame the actual stage's limitations, extending into extra-theatrical areas - such as the Neapolitan gulf from where a boat heading for imaginary battlefields sails off.
It was intriguing to read that Kiarostami knew nothing about the opera when he embarked on the project. And if it is true that an unproblematic naivety was perceptible in his interpretation, it was the originality of his approach that made of his first operatic experiment a positive one.
On the other hand, the grace of the stage conception was put to the test by a nuanced musical rendition. All the performers demonstrated their ability to give shape to an elegant web of movements, echoing the Arcadian elements of the setting. But the disparity between the grace of some beautifully executed choreography and the opacity of the musical performance was at times challenging.
From the pit, conductor Stefan Klingele seemed as though he had difficulty finding the vital drive to convey a Mozartian lightness and brilliance. Only a few technical imperfections were audible; yet, some vitality was missing in the flavour of the orchestral interpretation.
It was in the delicate trio in Act I, 'Soave sia il vento', that the orchestra was convincingly expressive for the first time. The singers echoed the music's suavity: wishing for a gentle breeze to bless their beloveds' journey, Susan Gritton's Fiordiligi and Fiona Murphy's Dorabella formed a perfect pair. White curtains gently waving and clouds languidly passing in the sky provided a subtle and delicate frame for a perfectly choreographed number.
Overall, the two female leads offered a consistent performance. If not always vocally perfect, their lines were sung with sensitivity; in particular, Gritton was a vigorous and charismatic Fiordiligi.
The male roles were not quite so uniformly taken. Stephen Page, whose Don Alfonso sounded somewhat uncertain at the beginning, fully exploited his role's potential as the performance went on: his mocking philosopher moved wittily on stage, and his vocal lines were delivered ably with the necessary cunning. In addition, his contribution to the ensembles was always appropriate, as he let his voice dissolve softly into the other singers' melodic lines.
Unfortunately, Thomas Glenn's Ferrando didn't seem comfortable in his solo numbers. Though he was perfect as a companion for Liam Bonner's Guglielmo, quite a few problems of pitch marred his performance, especially in the most lyrical moments.
Liam Bonner, though, provided the most memorable interpretation of the night. His 'Ladies you are always cheating, cheating; please forgive me for repeating' was a masterpiece of cynical comedy: Martin Fitzpatrick's translation for 'Donne mie, la fate a tanti' certainly did the job.
Together with Bonner, Sophie Bevan's interpretation was also outstanding. As her Despina appeared on stage, the orchestra finally seemed to start exploring a whole new range of colours, and she thus revealed herself to be a vital centre to the performance. What is more, she was stunning right from her first note, and her charming phrasing and bright tone truly brought her character to life.
I have to admit that a certain expressive monotony in the musical performance was concealed, at least partially, by an outstanding exploitation of farcical moments. Comic timing was perfect, each player managing to portray sharply etched characters from beginning to end.
It was in the second act, though, that the problems of communication between singers and conductor became more prominent, and thus began to compromise the rendition as a whole. In particular, ensembles were never completely satisfying, and Susan Gritton's powerful timbre was too imposing alongside the lighter tone of the other singers.
In addition, in the last scene the only striking interruption of Kiarostami's period setting took place: a live-projection of the orchestra pit as a backdrop was at first only surprising; yet, it soon became actively distracting. Whether this decision was to emphasise the artificiality of the performance - 'I thought I was at an opera', Don Alfonso sings - or for spectacular purposes, was unclear, at least to this member of the audience.
In the end, ENO's latest production left me with contrasting thoughts, especially since a tottering music rendition made it difficult to enjoy the performance as a whole. On the other hand, Kiarostami's fresh multimedia venture is certainly a strong point: the elegant beauty of the staging, together with a few memorable vocal interpretations, makes it worth a trip to the theatre.
Photo Credits: Stephen Cummiskey
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