Così fan tutte: a sex comedy of manners

In this new staging, Mozart’s opera is as truthful and laugh-out-loud funny as it ever was.

Timandra Harkness

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Ah, Mozart, what a headache for opera companies. Everybody loves his catchy tunes, witty lyrics and ingenious storylines. But since his time, sexual politics has shifted in ways that can leave a modern audience uncomfortable with things we are meant to enjoy.

Take Così fan tutte, for example – even the title is a problem. A literal translation is impossible, but it would be something like ‘women are all the same’. And how do you stage it today, when the central storyline hinges on Don Alfonso’s wager, ‘you think your fiancées are faithful, but I will prove them otherwise’? By today’s standards, it’s hard even to agree what would constitute infidelity. Flirty Facebook posts? Sexting? Being caught in flagrante?

Director Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre goes for an almost-modern setting, resorting to mid-twentieth-century America, where the social rules were a little clearer, though beginning to break down. Indeed, the opening scene looks like an extract from Mad Men, as Don Alfonso (a scintillating Roderick Williams) baits the two younger men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, into his wager while smoking and drinking in a nightclub staffed by bunny girls.

But Don Alfonso’s little empire is the marginal world of the carnival, the freakshow, the motel. Alongside the chorus of singers, this production features a second chorus of performers – acrobats, fire-eaters and a bearded lady – who physically manipulate the onstage world as Don Alfonso manipulates the lovers.

On one level, the carnival setting mirrors the farcical plot, as it’s full of disguises and trickery, and requires huge suspension of disbelief. But it also contrasts with the very genuine emotions so beautifully expressed in the music. After all, if you agree to test your beloved’s feelings by letting your best friend woo her in disguise, are you really ready for what you might discover? If you believe your husband-to-be is away fighting in the war, what happens when you develop feelings for somebody else?

The juxtaposition of comedy and potential tragedy is deftly handled, with lovely performances from all four lovers both vocally and in visual comedy. Mary Bevan is outstanding as the cynical chambermaid Despina, who pops up in an increasingly ludicrous string of disguises to help Don Alfonso’s machinations.

At times, the carnival entertainment can be distracting, as if McDermott is afraid that his audience won’t sit still for just words and music. He needn’t have worried – Jeremy Sams has polished every joke in Da Ponte’s libretto till it twinkles, but the deeper feelings draw us in, too, as harmless fun threatens to end in somebody getting hurt.

Romantic comedies are supposed to end with a wedding, or at least with happy couples reunited. Così fan tutte is messier than that. In spite of its convoluted plot and this production’s fairground setting, it’s among the most human and truthful love stories you’ll see on stage this summer. It’s also laugh-aloud funny. And the tunes, of course… the tunes alone are worth the ticket price.

Timandra Harkness is a writer, performer and radio presenter. Visit her website here.

Così fan tutte is at the English National Opera until 6 July.

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