Coney Island Cosi

17 May

The ENO’s new Cosi fan tutte was originally announced as being directed by Katie Mitchell. I’m not a great fan and, when she was quietly dropped, I felt some relief – this would, at least, not be a dimly lit Cosi in shades of beige with lots of extras doing impentrable things.  I was, however, a bit surprised that she was replaced by Phelim McDermott and his Improbable troupe. Cosi is a comedy of manners, an intimate drama and it seemed, so to speak, improbable that they were really suited.  On the other hand, the Coliseum is not that well suited to intimate drama (though I remember the old John Cox production managed it brilliantly) and nor is the Met, with whom this was a co-production.  I saw the performance on 16th May, the first night and, if the reaction of the audience is anything to go by, it should be a hit.  I probably don’t need now to say that I felt much more ambivalent.

It’s set on Coney Island in the 1950s with the characters on holiday and Despina the chambermaid at the motel they’re staying at.  That needn’t of itself be a problem: David Freeman did a brilliant beach holiday Cosi in the late 1980s and it’s suitable for this Midsummer Night’s Dream of an opera.  It all depends on how the director and characters interact.

The overture is a dumb show for Alfonso, Despina and the troupe doing a circus “roll up, roll up” for the opera, with some amusing captions and a very slick routine.  It certainly did its job of stopping us listening to the music. The first scene is in a restaurant where Alfonso and the men do the traditional things for the first scene pretty well surrounding by a gaggle of extras as waiter, waitresses and bunny girls. I noticed appreciatively the excellent diction (surtitles weren’t working, apparently).  For the second scene we are at the fair with fortune teller and candy floss seller to act as props for the girls. Again, it carries on traditioanlly enough. After the farewells, the set begins to join in. The motel rooms swing round so we can see inside and outside. This provides a nice bit of farce and enables McDermott to treat Fiordiligi’s aria as the comedy number that, deep down, it is.  The rest of the act proceeded amiably enough with Despina as one of the circus acts for her disguise as the doctor. I found myself enjoying it – the first act of Cosi is farcical, witty and we should laugh.  I admired the very slick execution.

The second act struck me as much more disappointing. The test of a good Cosi, for me, is how serious it becomes, how convincing the emotions and how the game turns nasty.  Here, we had lots of gimmicks as the lovers experienced the funfair, but I believed none of the emotion and the surface was never tapped.  It’s a long time since I was so bored in a Cosi.  In short, the gimmicks and the extras seemed to be a way of distracting the audience from the emotion rather than helping them engage with it. I’m in a minority here: the audience cheered it to the echo.

The music was good, if not great.  I very much admired Ryan Wigglesworth’s quicksilver conducting – fleet, intelligent, considerate and sounding “right”.  He’s a serious talent.  I couldn’t help feeling that some of his cast would have sounded and looked a lot better in a smaller theatre.  Kate Valentine was stretched to the limits as Fiordiligi – Per pieta went better than Come scoglio – and this felt like a really promising first stab at the role.  Randall Bills did a splendid and very beautiful Un aura amorosa and he has a nicely naive, witty personality: I just wasn’t convinced that he was able to plumb the depths fo Tradito schernito.  Marcus Farnsworth was a good Guglielmo though, again, sounded stretched by having to project it into a theatre of this size.  He’s a good actor.

Christine Rice had huge potential as Dorabella – vocally, she was gorgeous and conveyed the daffiness and cynicism of the role – I just wish that she had been helped more by the director.  Roderick WIlliams made a splendid Alfonso – singing marvellously and in command of the stage.  Mary Bevan was a lovely, witty Despina – probably the best drawn of all the characters though, again, without the depth that I’ve seen in other performances.  She sang with character and, again, it was a really promising performance.

There is an outstanding translation by Jeremy Sams which worked for the production and woulnd’t need much alteration to fit any other.  The rhymes were delightful and he caught the elegance and intelligence of the piece.

At the end, the lovers returned to their original partners with little to suggest that this was anything other than a gentle game with no consequences.  This was absolutely right for this production which treats the piece as little more than a holiday game: what I found unbelievable and alienating was the idea that these people could go through all this and sing this music with so little apparent effect.

It’s a jolly romp, no more.  I hope that they appreciate it in New York.



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