Saturday 24 May 2014

Così fan tutte, English National Opera, 22 May 2014


Fiordiligi – Kate Valentine
Dorabella – Christine Rice
Guglielmo – Marcus Farnsworth
Ferrando – Randall Bills
Despina – Mary Bevan
Don Alfonso – Roderick Williams

Phelim McDermott (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Laura Hopkins (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

I hoped I should never live to see a worse staging of Così fan tutte than Jonathan Miller’s; indeed, I should not have thought it possible. It may resemble the proverbial variety of judgement concerning angels on a pinhead – though I have never quite understood the objection to scholasticism as such – but Phelim McDermott’s mindless farrago may well have edged to victory, or to whatever we shall elect to call it. Having deliberately waited a couple of days, to give my initial anger time to cool, I still find McDermott’s ‘entertainment’, for want of a better word, one of the most offensive vulgarisations Mozart can ever have received, even if we include nineteenth- and twentieth-century maulings of the text.

Miller at least spoke about the artificiality of the work being crucial to its understanding, though it was difficult to see how that informed a staging that was merely tacky. McDermott seems to have no ideas whatsoever, whether appropriate or otherwise. The designs are doubtless what had been requested; the problem is the lack of any justification for them or for what unfolded in front of them. This most exquisitely painful of works, in which that artificiality is the only way we can deal with realities that are otherwise simply too agonising to bear, becomes a silly story – well, barely even that – set, for no apparent reason, in a 1950s (?) American seaside resort. Now where Così is set really does not matter; it is in no sense ‘about’ eighteenth-century Naples, though an eighteenth-century understanding of musical form and parody remains absolutely crucial. (How on earth can one perform, stage, or appreciate ‘Come scoglio’ without some inkling of the opera seria it parodies? It is akin to the iconography of saints; some things one simply has to know, in order to understanding the painting in question.) Abstraction tends to work better, as in the case of the Magritte-like Salzburg production of Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann, and/or an exploration of the work’s dark eroticism, as in Salzburg’s unforgettable predecessor, from Hans Neuenfels. At any rate, there is no danger of representation, let alone probing, of musical and/or verbal parody, of eroticism, or of anything whatsoever. Instead, we have a series of scenes whose sole purpose seemed to be to bring on an irrelevant troupe of circus-like artists, the ‘Skills Ensemble’. A moronic audience laughed at everything it did: people drawing words out of a box and holding them up resulted in helpless belly-aching.

Still worse, though, was the applause endured not only between numbers, but within them. I am not sure that I have heard greater violence done to Mozart than by those ‘clapping terrorists’. As for having Despina’s appearance as notary transformed into the appearance of a Texan (the accent…!) entertainer, to which some of the audience elected to clap along, I can safely say I have never experienced anything like it, and earnestly pray that I shall never do so again. In the context, the ‘traditional’ cuts I usually deplore might usefully have been expanded, perhaps to the extent that Mozart’s music were preserved entirely for another occasion. Jeremy Sams’s self-regarding ‘translation’ did not help. Veering wildly between something akin to translation and free composition, it had no settled voice of its own. For some reason, any forced rhyme – for instance, ‘rabbit’ with ‘grab it’ – elicited yet more helpless laughter from the audience. ‘Fifty bucks’ cued yet more hilarity; is it not utterly hilarious that someone should mention American currency? Perhaps the nadir, though, came with a bizarre interpolation of gratuitous racism, one of the men – I cannot remember which – saying that he would rather marry a ‘gypsy on a dung-hill’ than either of the ladies. It must, I think, have been at the exchange ‘Vorrei sposar piuttosto la barca di Caronte/La grotta di Vulcano’. Quite why that would suggest such a slur upon a vulnerable people is quite beyond me; needless to say, the audience exploded.

There was not a great deal to cheer about in the performances either, though, with one exception, they marked a significant improvement upon the staging. That exception was Randall Bills’s Ferrando, quite the worst I have heard: a mixture of strenuous over-emoting on top with persistent weakness of tone and flatness lower in the range. I have not had much patience with the talk in some quarters that ENO should be casting more English artists; it is not, after all, an extension of UKIP.  In this case, however, it is difficult to understand why one would go to the trouble of importing an American tenor who was so clearly not up to the job. Marcus Farnsworth, however, showed a good degree of swagger as Guglielmo. Kate Valentine and Christine Rice had their moments as Fiordiligi and Dorabella. There was palpable sincerity to much of what they sang, though neither quite had the measure of Mozart’s coloratura, and blend sometimes proved elusive. Mary Bevan’s Despina was strongly projected, if some way from a paragon of style. Even Roderick Williams, a singer whom I have always greatly admired, seemed somewhat out of sorts, his first scene in particular weakly sung, almost to the point of inaudibility. No one, however, should have been asked to indulge in the embarrassing finger-clicking that accompanied (I think) ‘È la fede delle femmine’. Maybe, with the exception of the tenor, matters would have improved dramatically with a better staging; maybe some of the cast were just having an off-night. If so, one could hardly blame them.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting proved disappointing too. The Overture was not only taken far too fast; it was brutal. As those of us who are regulars at the Coliseum know very well, the ENO Orchestra is a fine ensemble. Here it sounded dull and uninvolving, picking up a little in the second act. Of grace, agony, wonder, any of the human and divine qualities Mozart demands, and through which his drama develops, we heard little of all. It was not really a matter of tempi, although, more often than not, they were on the fast side. More fundamentally, there was little sense – and of course the staging did not help – of what lay in, between, beneath the notes. Wigglesworth is an excellent musician; Mozart, however, is very clearly not his thing. If only it had been possible to lie back, to think of Sir Colin Davis…