Così fan tutte review – has wit and hilarity of 1930s screwball comedy

Hackney Empire, London
An elegant setting of 1930s Alexandria, a strong cast and superb singing make this stylish staging the most enjoyable in years

Laura Attridge’s new English Touring Opera production of Così fan tutte relocates Mozart’s great comedy of sexual manipulation from 18th-century Naples to a British expat community in 1930s Alexandria. It’s a witty, elegant transposition that serves the opera wonderfully well, and deftly captures its humour as well as its heartbreak. Unlike many of today’s directors who present it as an uneasy study of emotional failure, Attridge allows us to laugh both with and at the protagonists, even as we sympathise with them, and the dividends are enormous.

Don Alfonso (Stephan Loges) has become a Lawrence Durrell-type writer, meddling in the lives of others in search of a narrative for his latest book. Mills and Boons are strewn over the floor of the villa where Jenny Stafford’s deliciously knowing Despina caters to the whims and tantrums of Sky Ingram’s Fiordiligi and Martha Jones’s self-dramatising Dorabella. Ferrando (Thomas Elwin) and Guglielmo (Bradley Travis, replacing the indisposed Frederick Long) head off to war as uptight, stiff-backed grenadiers, and return disguised as handsomely moustachioed flying aces. Attridge keeps the tone light throughout, reminding us more than once of 1930s screwball comedies, though she by no means shirks the work’s ambiguities and the closing scenes are as troubling as they are hilarious.

Jenny Stafford as Despina in Così Fan Tutte by English Touring Opera, directed by Laura Attridge.
Deliciously knowing … Jenny Stafford as Despina. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Performed in Jeremy Sams’s English translation, it’s well sung and acted by a strong ensemble cast. Elwin, an exemplary Mozartian, is impeccably stylish throughout. Ingram does lovely things with her Act Two aria and her voice blends beautifully with Jones’s in their duets. Travis is an excellent Guglielmo, his swagger barely concealing his vulnerability. Loges masks acid wit behind insidious charm, so by the end we really understand why the other characters, Stafford’s gloriously funny Despina included, have been so easily taken in. In the pit, Holly Mathieson conducts with energy and grace. The downside is that the score has been cut, fractionally too much, to fit the touring format, but even so, this is one of the most enjoyable productions of Così, and certainly the funniest, to be seen in the UK for ages.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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