“I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to think that there could be a Happy Ever After after such cruel games….”. That’s director Orpha Phelan speaking, in her programme note for Dublin-based Opera Theatre Company’s new staging of Così fan tutte. Many, if not most, productions of Così now factor in that element of discomfiture at the opera’s conclusion, and Phelan’s is no exception. There is no “bella calma” in her dénouement - the two women flounce off truculently into the wings, body-language bristling with outrage, while the three men and Despina attempt to rustle up a modicum of insouciant merriment as Da Ponte and Mozart, with uncomfortable promptitude, lower the curtain.
It feels appropriate, and satisfying: the arm-wrestle between the sharp cynicism and mysogyny of Da Ponte’s wickedly pointed libretto, and Mozart’s tendency to bathe the action in music of warmly sympathetic fellow-feeling and humane benevolence, is the opera’s biggest unresolved conflict, and a major endurer of its continuing fascination. One aristocratic observer of the Viennese premiere called Così “rather amusing”. Not if you’re Fiordiligi or Dorabella it isn’t – we need other ways of making the opera “speak” to contemporary audiences, for most of whom emotional Schadenfreude is no longer a comfortable option.
This OTC Così speaks, for the most part, with marked articulacy. Like Welsh National Opera’s recent revival, it has an end-of-pier feel about it, the stage-band (a piano sextet performing Cameron Sinclair’s skilful arrangement) sporting straw boaters and resembling ice-cream vendors, and Don Alfonso, re-branded as an itinerant fortune-teller, peddling his predictions from a colourfully emblazoned fair-booth, with twinkling fairy lights halo-ed above it. A narrow, planked pontoon demarcates the front-stage area, somewhat cramping the singers’ movements on occasion, especially as they enter and exit.
Orpha Phelan’s production is particularly strong on distinguishing clearly between the female characters. There’s no doubting, for example, the sheer feistiness of this particular Dorabella: we first encounter her lolling in a deck-chair, page-flicking through her iPad’s photo-app, and drooling over snapshots of her sailor-boy Ferrando. In the chair beside her is a paperback of Fifty Shades of Grey, which Alfonso (ever the interested student of sexual heterogeneity) pockets furtively when she isn’t looking.
Martha Bredin, a combustible red-head, is clever casting as Dorabella. Her fiery mezzo-soprano, while imperfectly controlled and modulated, is dramatically very effective, though she has an unsettling habit of squaring up for her arias like an All-Black rugby player impatient to perform the pre-match haka. You wouldn’t mess with her, that’s for certain, although Ferrando does, of course, comprehensively.
Bredin’s sassiness is starkly contrasted by Phelan with the deeper, more conflicted emotions of Mairéad Buicke’s Fiordiligi. She’s arguably the only character in the opera who genuinely suffers, most obviously in her Act Two set-piece “Per pietà”, which Phelan choreographs with the smooth clarity of classical sculpture, eventually leaving Buicke horizontally prostrated as she wrenches forth the final measures of the aria from some pained place in her inner being.
Oddly Phelan pays virtually no attention at all to Act One’s “Come scoglio”, which Buicke sings (impressively) in default stand-and-deliver fashion to the audience, the three men and Dorabella looking on impassively. The same thing (i.e. nothing) happens in Ferrando’s “Un’ aura amorosa” a few numbers later – it’s mellifluously rendered by Danish tenor Sune Hjerrild, but he stands rigid as a statue, Guglielmo and Alfonso gawking at him featurelessly like mutes at a funeral.
On both occasions the production’s forward trajectory scrunches judderingly into the buffers, but fortunately they’re not typical of Phelan’s direction. She works particularly resourcefully with designer Madeleine Boyd, transforming Alfonso’s den into the sisters’ girly domestic interior, then stripping it to bare scaffolding during the interval, providing a framework for the quayside boardwalk where the manouevrings of Act Two unravel.
Phelan’s conception of Alfonso (sung with solid tone and excellent diction by Simon Wilding), as part-showman, part-necromancer, enables her to field a startlingly large magnet for “Doctor” Despina to play around with, and the poisoning episode to be done literally, without seeming ridiculously hammy to a modern audience. Full marks, also, for Phelan’s decision to permit Colette Delahunt, the pert, soubrettish, wise and likeable Despina, to actually sing her cameos as doctor and notary properly, rather than squeak them out irritatingly (as often happens) as though she’d just inhaled industrial quantities of helium.
Both Owen Gilhooly (Guglielmo) and Sune Hjerrild sing reliably throughout the evening, and it’s not their fault that their classically poised style of voice production sorts a touch uneasily with the wider vibrato and more explicitly rhetorical approach of the two ladies. They don cosy-looking ushankas and impressively developed Movember-‘taches when disguised as foreigners, and perform an amusing piece of trompe-l’oeil trickery on arriving in their Act Two love-gondola.
Andrew Griffiths directs a graceful, elegant account of the music from the piano, setting excellent, clearly thought-through tempos for his team of singers. Some cuts are made, most obviously in the Act One finale, and the excision of the brief episodes for “military” chorus (signalled by Alfonso on a plastic keyboard instrument concealed in his clothing, which sounds like a giant kazoo when he plays it).
In cleverly placing the rank tomfoolery involved in parts of Così’s plot within the context of Alfonso’s status as something of an exotic fairground attraction, Phelan’s production manages to be both faithful to the original Mozart-Da Ponte conception, and satisfyingly contemporary in clearly framing the difficult moral and emotional questions we nowadays view the opera as raising.
It’s a thoroughly entertaining but also strongly thought-provoking staging, and shouldn’t be missed by audiences as it moves away from Dublin on a thirteen-date tour of the Irish provinces. OTC is currently a company in flux - artistic director Annilese Miskimmon has recently moved on to Danish National Opera, and CEO Kirsty Harris is also departing. You’d never guess it: with this new Così vigorously up and running, and new productions of The Rake’s Progress, Wozzeck, and L’Elisir d’Amore (a collaboration with NI Opera) in the offing, the prospects for 2013 are looking decidely upbeat for this admirably plucky and resourceful company.