If you want a symbolic setting for a comedy about love and deception, a fairground is not a bad place to look. The tunnel of love makes an obvious starting point, the big dipper and the helter-skelter do nicely for the disappointments that follow, and any manner of jollity can be had out of the fortune teller, the sword swallower and the bearded lady.
The theatre group Improbable has delivered several of English National Opera’s most imaginative successes in recent years, including Philip Glass’s spellbinding Satyagraha. Così fan tutte, though, is a very different prospect and director Phelim McDermott’s new production clearly feels it has to work overtime to keep up with Mozart and Da Ponte.
The result is a good, clean (mostly), rather hyperactive romp. McDermott sets the opera in a fairground in 1950s America. The opening scene cleverly probes male fantasies in a Playboy Club. A lot of fun is had at the Coney Island motel, where the two pairs of lovers dash from room to room as if they are in a Brian Rix farce. The finale brings on a magician, who causes consternation when Ferrando and Guglielmo seem to be cut in half in his magic box.
All this is inventive and enjoyably done. But the human story too often loses its focus: apart from establishing Fiordiligi as the dominant sister and Dorabella her submissive sibling at the outset, the characters and relationships are bland. The crucial Act One finale passes without either much dramatic impact or much laughter.
A mostly young cast might have profited from a stronger directorial hand. Fiordiligi and Ferrando are the weaker pair, Kate Valentine offering a Coliseum-sized voice but at the expense of fine Mozart style, and Randall Bills succumbing to nerves, promising tenor though he clearly is. Christine Rice’s go-getter Dorabella and Marcus Farnsworth’s frank Guglielmo, both singing strongly, fare much better. The Don Alfonso of Roderick Williams and Despina of Mary Bevan lack bite – McDermott does not really feel this opera’s pain – but Williams does “suave” nicely and Bevan has a high old time disguised as a cowboy lawyer (in more senses than one).
Ryan Wigglesworth, the conductor, keeps the pace swift and the comedy bubbles along, but the human drama of this Così tends to simmer on a low gas.