Kitty Whately (Dorabella) and Laura Mitchell (Fiordiligi), English Touring Opera // Mozart, Così fan tutte, photo: Robert Workman

Women Are Like That: Or Are They?

Così Fan Tutte: Review of the ETO Production

When you read that this review is of an opera by classical music legend Mozart you may switch off. You shouldn’t. Contrary to popular conception, opera is an accessible, dynamic and relevant art; none more so than Così fan Tutte and especially in the English Touring Opera  translation. While I am not a classical music or opera connoisseur, many years ago I stumbled upon this opera on TV. My parents patiently explained to me the very simple plot and at once it came alive. So taking a lesson from my wise parents, I’ll briefly detail the plot of one of Mozart’s most fascinating operas.

Così fan Tutte tells the story of two sisters, both engaged to a couple of dashing young soldiers who boast of their lady’s fidelity. Queue cynical old man and the classic ‘wager’ narrative. Inevitably the soldiers’ idealism is challenged: one thing leads to another and they find themselves pretending to leave for active service. They adopt disguises in an attempt to seduce each other’s woman in order to demonstrate the absolute loyalty of their own fiancée. Needless to say, after much trickery both women cave. A fake double wedding ensues, followed by the revelation that indeed, ‘Così fan Tutte’ – ‘women are like that’.

The title itself attracted my attention, hinting towards the complexity of the narrative underpinning this seemingly comic opera. On the surface it is unquestionably entertaining. Initially, Ferrando (Anthony Gregory) and Guglielmo (Toby Girling) dominated the show with brilliant comic timing and on-stage chemistry, with the recognisable traits of cheeky (yet clueless) adolescent boys. The sisters, Fiordiligi (Laura Mitchell) and Dorabella (Kitty Whately), developed from hilariously melodramatic girls to sexy, flirtatious women. The comedy of the production was enhanced by the ETO’s translation, which included colloquialisms resulting in the slightly bizarre use of ‘playing the field’, ‘plenty more fish in the sea’ and even more oddly placed ‘shaken not stirred’. These conspicuous additions felt somewhat jarring, though for its time the translation was innovative and modern.

However, you would be right in responding sceptically to the story of blatant manipulation and gender stereotyping and the ETO’s production did accentuate  these elements of the problematic tale.

The figure of Fiordiligi, through Mitchell’s fascinating portrayal, explored all of these poignantly. I was expecting a melodic yet simplistic portrayal of a young, infatuated woman. While I was correct about her beautiful voice and impressive vocal acrobatics, Mitchell developed her character in a wonderful, captivating way. The soprano bridged the gap between naive and loyal fiancée to disloyal pretend-wife during her aria Per pietà, ben mio, perdona—”Please, my beloved, forgive”. This intensely emotional aria conveyed the complicated issues of gender, human nature and manipulation. During this solo the lighting designer Ace McCarron struck gold by casting the simplistic set with a dark red wash. The angle of the light threw a large shadow of the slumped Fiordiligi, who poured her heart out to the accompaniment of soaring music from the ETO orchestra. This image of a lone woman and her silhouetted double gave a stark visual accompaniment to the sense of a vulnerable woman divided in anguish. Similarly, the appearance Ferrando, unregistered by Fiordiligi, accentuated the painful and morally dubious manipulation to which these women were subjected under the instruction of Don Alfonso.

This turmoil experienced so dramatically by the sisters comes from feelings of confusion about their sexual impulses and societal expectations of gender. These ideas could not be more contemporary or fascinating in a world that seems to be perpetuating these paradoxes. Throughout the opera the conflict is prevalent; gender stereotypes permeate the narrative. From the title, to its treatment of women who are shown as sighing, fainting or crying waifs, the message is comic yet concerning. The opera’s conclusion confirms the ‘reality’ of woman’s nature as untrustworthy and fickle.

The ambiguous matter was how the audience was supposed to react to these gender representations. Although initially worried, I couldn’t help but be struck by the interpretation. The subtlety of the acting was astounding. The production tackled the more problematic resolution by highlighting the issues through the women’s performance, and by playing-up the pastiche and gauche angles of the opera. The production achieved a perfect balance between maintaining the comedy while suggesting its darker complexities.

My lasting impression of the evening was the near-perfection of the operatic voices and music. The Baritone voice of Tony Girling was a highlight, though even more enjoyable was the playful melodies performed by the entire cast. The opera was a creative exploration of melody, duet and harmony; each member of the cast brought their own tone to this dancing musical score. The symmetry in song was matched elegantly by the paired period costumes, neat staging and beige set. During the encore, it was also a delight to see the conductor, Carlos del Cueto, invited up onto stage. His enthusiasm and comedy added to the night’s enjoyment of Così fan Tutte.

The ETO is touring with their repertoire of Spring operas and will return to Warwick Arts Centre in Spring 2014.


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