Cosi Fan Tutte | Opera Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • November 2017
By Ciara Conway • Photos: Patrick Redmond
Last weekend, Belfast’s Grand Opera House played host to NI Opera’s production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s much-loved opera Cosi Fan Tutte (1790). Directed by Adele Thomas and with music from the Ulster Orchestra under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers, the audience were dazzled by the glitz and glamour of Thomas’ 1920s based setting. The overture’s calm andante opening quickly develops into the main presto section we know and love, and as it unfurls a chorus of hedonist young adults engulf the stage. Clad in fabulous 1920s apparel and armed with bottles of liquor, self-indulgence along with the innocence of youth is apparent and subsequently defined as the curtains open and the partygoers’ Charleston is revealed.
Cosi Fan Tutte tells the tale of two sisters, Fiordilligi and Dorabella and their fiancées Ferrando and Guglielmo. Challenged by an older acquaintance Don Alfonso, the men agree to partake in an undercover scheme that will attest to the capricious nature of women. The ladies are led to believe that their fiancées have been called off on military duty and are initially horrified when two Albanians, who are in fact their fiancées incognito, arrive and try to seduce them. As the day unfolds the two ladies succumb to the Albanian advances. All is revealed in the final wedding scene, but the question of who ends up with who is never answered.
The creative team’s efforts deserve high mention. From the Albanian flat-topped qeleshes to the ladies’ dropped-waist tunic-style dresses, most aesthetically pleasing is Hannah Clark’s sexy but elegant costume. The 1920s visual and whirlwind of music, dance and liquor is brought to the fore by the chorus who truly articulate the hedonism in the growing economic climate of post-war America that Thomas is going for. This is further enhanced by movement director Emma Woods whose playfully choreographed chorus numbers and striking vogue-like poses call to mind 1920s based film musicals such as Singing in the Rain (1952). Further complementation of the 1920s aesthetic is evident in Kevin Treacy’s lighting and use of the spotlight. Spotlight used during Don Alfonso’s arioso ‘Oh, poverini’ invites comparative parallels with that of a circus master, in direct control of the stage occurrences that subsequently call to mind Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Circus (1928). Spotlight used in Ferrando’s aria ‘Tradito, Schernito’, very well executed by Sam Furness, highlights his innermost feelings of despair and abandonment reminiscent of Mr Zellophane in the 1926 based musical Chicago (1975).
The vocal performance of the night goes to Kiandra Howarth in the role of Fiordiligi. Seamless are her vocal leaps in ‘Come Scoglio’ and truly revealing of Fiordiligi’s internal conflict is her obbligato recitative ‘Ei parte’ and expressive rondo ‘Per pietà, ben mio’. Belfast’s own Aoife Miskelly does the part of Despina its due vocal justice, however, at times the goofy/drunken outrageousness of Despina feels a bit tired. Thomas outlines in the programme that in approaching misogynist accusations leveled against Cosi within a silent film setting, the comedic nature of this genre encourages the idea that the joke is on everyone and no one gender bears the brunt. She explains that the girls are ‘as gawky as the boys’ and the boys are ‘equally the victims’. This Thomas achieves, however, at times brash and bold poses deem to provoke audience reaction rather than undermine misogynist accusations.
The orchestra is not at all times on form, at times lacking bite and sounding somewhat monochrome. However, Tim Anderson’s linking phrases on fortepiano, especially that into ‘Soave Scoglio’ are sublime. On another note, a pleasant change from NI Opera’s protocol under Oliver Mears is the introduction of vocal performance in the original Italian with English subtitles.
With regard to upcoming productions, December and January look action packed and very exciting. On Monday 11 December, the Northern Ireland Opera Studio programme presents Midnight Vanities at the Lyric Theatre Belfast with performances at The Supper Club, Newry on 14 December and Nerve Centre, Derry on 15 December. Directed by Kate Guelke, written by Judith Wiemers, and starring this year’s NI Opera Studio singers Midnight Vanities promises an evening filled with songs from the Jazz Era and The Threepenny Opera. This in due course brings us to Walter Suttcliffe’s NI Opera directorial debut with The Threepenny Opera from 27 January to 10 February at the Lyric Theatre Belfast. Very exciting indeed!