Phelim McDermott is among the very top tier of opera directors and, with this welcome revival of his 2014 interpretation of Così fan tutte, it is easy to see why.
Mozart’s classic opera buffa (comic opera) sees the love of two couples tested to the limits by cynical friends. Don Alfonse bets two young naval officers Guglielmo and Ferrando that their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are not as loyal as they think they are.
With a couple of days to prove his case, the wily Alfonse sets in motion a plan whereby the two men disguise themselves and attempt to seduce the other’s beloved. Meanwhile, the siblings are encouraged by their maid Despina to broaden their romantic horizons.
This collaboration between McDermott’s Improbable and the ENO is a perfect introduction to opera and to McDermott’s seminal approach. Jeremy Sams‘ English translation is highly accessible and it expertly brings out both the superb wit and deep emotion from Lorenzo da Ponte’s original libretto.
The 1950s Coney Island-like set by Tom Pye, encompassing a funfair, a bunny bar and a sleazy motel, is spectacularly conceived. True, it is not entirely original (Peter Sellars set his Così in a Florida seaside diner) and its location perhaps makes light of the problematic misogyny and misandry spouted by Alfonse and Despina respectively – all women are untrustworthy, all men are monsters – but the detail and execution is a welcome reminder of ENO standards after the nadir that was The Valkyrie.
For this latest outing, there’s a mouth-watering international blend of established singers and a selection from the ENO’s Harewood Artists programme. Polish mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp returns to the role of Dorabella and partners with Nardus Williams as Fiordiligi; opposite them, Benson Wilson (a revelation in La Bohème earlier this year) plays Guglielmo while Samoan tenor Amitai Pati takes on the part of Ferrando.
The central quartet – superbly aided and abetted by Neal Davies and Soraya Mafi as Alfonse and Despina – are joined by a “skills assemble” of cabaret and circus performers. Featuring some of London’s top artistes like the award-winning drag queen Lilly Snatchdragon and the model, belly dancer and sword-swinger Leah Debrincat, they broaden McDermott’s visual vocabulary and lend the proceedings an immersive quality rarely seen in modern opera; Improbable returned to this concept in 2016 when McDermott fused the Gandini Juggling troupe with Philip Glass‘s music in the iconic Akhnaten.
Of the singers, Hipp and Wilson are the standouts. The latter is a Harewood Artist and is an exciting prospect to keep an eye on, while Hipp has acting chops for days and is a vivacious presence whenever she appears. Davies and Mafi are excellent too, milking Sams’ script for comic mileage at every turn. Down in the pit, conductor Kerem Hasan leads with bravura, opening the night with a moving rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy i slava, i volia” (“The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished”).
The director’s visionary approach raises this art form to a new level and his productions are must-see shows. Those who prefer experiencing Così in the original Italian should wait until June for Jan Philipp Gloger‘s more prosaic take at the ROH but, in terms of sheer entertainment, McDermott’s is this generation’s definitive version.
Così fan tutte continues at the London Coliseum until 22 March
Image: Lloyd Winters