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Così fan tutte

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
English Chamber Opera @ John McIntosh Arts Centre Theatre, London

In this English Chamber Opera presentation of Così fan tutte, in which renowned mezzo-soprano Sally Burgess makes her directorial debut, the budget may be small, but the heart and soul of the production are anything but.

In fact, the simple (but highly effective) set may well be the making of the piece. It forces the audience to focus entirely on what the six singers are doing, and the performance we see has clearly been put together with this in mind.

To describe this production, which sets the opera in 1950s Positano, as lively and dynamic would be almost to do it a disservice. The energy of the performers is not only the making of the drama, but also creates the piece’s visual infrastructure, rendering unnecessary any recourse to sophisticated props or extravagant sets.

In the opening scene Ferrando (Stuart Haycock) and Guglielmo (Edmund Connolly) hardly remain still for a second as they wrap presents for their lovers, rise to defend them against Don Alfonso’s suggestions, or conversely appear carefree as they recline on a bench. Similarly, when the sisters attempt to resuscitate the ‘poisoned’ strangers, the resulting tableaux, which later include Don Alfonso and Despina, are just as effective as any high-tech projections might ever be.

With such beautiful micromanagement of the staging, many a director who (currently) enjoys a far higher standing than Burgess, could learn a thing or two from her attention to visual detail. At the same time, the characters are allowed to flourish, and the sheer extent to which the personalities of the two sisters differ is highly effective. As Anna Huntley’s feisty Dorabella laments the soldiers’ departure, Rebecca Cooper’s Fiordiligi seems almost as bemused by such a melodramatic act as the cynical Despina whom she sits next to. Then, the sheer vehemence with which Fiordiligi initially denounces the strangers seems to shock even Dorabella, suggesting that the latter’s subsequent capitulation may, in part, be a reaction against the brutalism that she sees here.

The production is highly amusing, and even the most basic jokes – such as the soldiers disguising themselves as Teddy Boys or the sisters then pelting them with marshmallows from their afternoon tea – enjoy appropriate context. One comic highlight is the way in which the men’s bodily contortions, as they react to the arsenic they have just ‘swallowed’, are reminiscent of 1950s jives.

From amongst the strong cast, Beverley Worboys’s performance as Despina stands out, as her voice penetrates our hearts and her gestures appear effortless. That she wears a sleeveless top and light trousers, in contrast to the sisters’ relatively old-fashioned dresses, also mark her out as the more intelligent and enlightened individual. Robert Presley is similarly in fine form as Don Alfonso, and as he laments the soldiers’ departure alongside the two sisters, he appears just as emotional as they are on the surface, but still allows us to see that he is simply putting on an act.

With the English Chamber Opera Ensemble, under the baton of John K. Andrews, also putting in a bold show, there can really be only one recommendation. If you’re in the vicinity of Chipping Norton or Wakefield in March 2010, go to see this production.

Così fan tutte will be performed at The Theatre, Chipping Norton on 21-22 March 2010, and at Wakefield’s Theatre Royal on 31 March 2010. Further details will appear at www.englishchamberopera.com in due course.

Read our interview with Sally Burgess

- Sam Smith


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