Mozart’s comic opera Così fan tutte was first performed on 26 January 1790. 226 years later, his arie are more alive than ever, and wonderfully staged in a modern adaptation at the Jacqueline du Pré Auditorium, Oxford.
The audience took up roughly half of the Auditorium, the remaining half of which was occupied by the orchestra. This made the show a rather intimate experience, unusual for opera performances, but fitting for this specific production. Under the lead of talented conductor Matthew Reese, the ensemble Consortium Novum provided a splendid accompaniment to the action.
The 18th century opera is given here a ‘mafia’ twist by being set in contemporary Naples. The story of Dorabella and Fiordiligi, put to the test by their lovers in disguise until they finally capitulate (because ‘così fan tutte’, ‘women are like that’), is transposed into a world of fur coats, smartphones, and guns. The choice could have been not be more appropriate: the opera never distorted the original to the point that it was unrecognisable. In spite of being part of the men’s bet, the two women were never objectified; instead what emerged was their active role in controlling the opposite sex. Men were almost the party that came out as ‘defeated’, precisely because they were so dependent on the womens’ choices. While gender dynamics were obviously quite different in Mozart’s time, here original content and modern frame masterfully blend in a credible way, proving that Mozart’s Così fan tutte can still speak to us here and now.
One of the production’s greatest assets was its extraordinary cast. All actors boasted impressive musical training and achievements, and their talent shone throughout the entire show. Sweet Dorabella (Lila Chrisp) and histrionic Guglielmo (Tom Lowen) showcased a singular combination of great acting and top-quality singing; their duet was a true delight. Also notably expressive were Despina (Alice Harberd), the canny and resourceful housemaid, and Don Alfonso (Robin Brown), the self-assured instigator of the bet. Sassy Fiordiligi (Lizzie Searle) and hilarious Ferrando (James Beddoe) completed the picture with their wonderfully intense vocal abilities. The fun the actors were having on stage was almost palpable and the audience could not but match the actors’ enjoyment. Perfectly orchestrated by director Liz Jones, the actors’ energy was fuelled into an exemplary piece of sung drama.
The atmosphere on stage struck me because its spontaneity, fluidity, and easiness. All actors seemed absolutely at ease, without a single hint of stiffness. Even the occasional mishaps were handled with the most remarkable spontaneity, confirming the acting abilities of the cast. The whole performance was lively and sparkling, topped up with passionate gestures (perhaps an homage to the Italian setting?), together with truly humorous moments (such as the poisoning scene). The result was a mixture between a Commedia dell’Arte performance and a sketch from the Neapolitan Comedy of Eduardo de Filippo.
Così fan tutte succeeded in being both truly Mozartian and contemporary Italian at once. It showed that this opera is still alive and kicking, still utterly relevant, and still terribly funny.
For future events at the Jacqueline du Pré, please visit their website.