Of the Mozart/da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte was the least appreciated until fairly recent times. Some high-minded critics, such as the psychoanalyst, James Strachey (brother of the more famous Lytton), and also a musicologist who pronounced the composer’s name as Moz-ahr’, thought the plot a touch trivial. James Strachey wrote the original programme notes for the Glyndebourne productions of the Mozart operas, and his views were influential. It is within my own lifetime that Così has taken its place in the pantheon of Mozart’s Greatest Hits.
So it’s wonderful that the best production I can remember of the 50 or so I must have seen takes the question of triviality to the extreme, and sets it in a Coney Island style amusement park. Phelim McDermott’s production for his Improbable company is at the English National Opera’s London Coliseum until 6 July and then goes on to its co-producer, the NY Met. The London run is not nearly long enough, but the staging is so wonderful that it’s certain to be revived. It looks expensive, but it’s bound to be a sound investment for ENO, an operatic cash-cow on the scale of Jonathan Miller’s ENO productions, which have kept the company solvent in its most difficult accounting periods.
I can vouch for the historical accuracy of Laura Hopkins’s costumes, as the period is the just-post-War bobby-sox, saddle-shoes and A-line dresses styles of my own American childhood. Tom Pye’s gloriously grotesque, massive funfair sets are also spot-on – though American whirly rides were not usually based (as these British ones are) on teacups and saucers.
Even more heartening, in a way, is that McDermott has found a means to challenge, very politely, the aspects of Political Correctness that nowadays normally dry up the creative juices. Because the Coney Island setting is so corny (with even a cotton candy machine on stage), it comes with inbuilt irony. What we relish about it all is its frisson, however historic, of bad taste. This gives McDermott the moral permission to embrace the dramatically un-PC aspect of the period – the freak show. (In my childhood, those of us brought up not to use disparaging words such as “freak,” said “sideshow.”)
McDermott fills the stage with little people, tattooed musclemen, bearded ladies, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers et al. They eat their torches, ingest their blades and move the sets about. Their presence is joyous – we’re not laughing at them, but at the whole situation, of them being on stage to entertain us, and us enjoying it all the more because it’s become naughty to be entertained by people of restricted growth, doubtful gender or excess avoirdupois. Then the thought strikes you – or at least, it did me, that this production is a boon to these actors, as it provides them with work. And, indeed, the programme contains more than a page of genuine and full credits for these players.
They also perform an unforgettable bit of word play during the overture, holding up crudely lettered signs that spell out hilariously funny plot-summary messages – a bit of verbal wit whose promise is confirmed by what follows.
On press night the surtitle equipment was not working. I don’t know whether this gave extra impetus to the cast to take trouble to enunciate, or whether it was conductor Ryan Wiggelsworth’s visible mouthing of the words of Jeremy Sams’s clever translation, but this is one of the very few times I have heard most of the words of a performance in the huge Coliseum. This alone made the evening near perfect; and whatever its cause, we have to hope the cast continue to deliver the diction.
Among the uniformly fine performances, the one that most delighted was Christine Rice’s deadpan Dorabella. It seemed to me that the director had been watching the American comedy shows of my youth. The staging owed much to the surrealist comedy of the Ernie Kovacs show of the 1950s, but Ms Rice seemed to me to be channelling the greatest American TV comedienne, Imogene Coca, who starred opposite the great Sid Caesar in Your Show of Shows. This is comic body language of the highest order, where a big gesture is never used when a shrug is all that’s called for, and mugging is out of order when a raised eyebrow will do the trick. I’ve long admired Christine Rice, but this is superb acting of a sort we rarely see in opera.
To be fair to Mr McDermott, this is true of the whole cast. Even the boys, with their dramatically thankless roles, manage to make this production funny, and Randall Bills’s Ferrando makes the most of his upper register with a spinto that excites interest. High marks too, to Mary Bevan’s Despina – in this production a spikey 20-something with a beehive hairdo, and a wildly funny and imaginative country-and-western twang for her appearance as the lawyer.
Does this production neglect to visit the dark side of Così? Possibly. But there is something inherently nervous-making in the grotesquery of the Coney Island setting, and something naughty about the sideshow. It’s an improbable staging of a classic – with a lower-case “i” – and that’s its genius.