When Phelim McDermott’s spectacular funfair production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte opened at the London Coliseum in 2014 the consensus was that while it was a joy to look at, it was too keen to skate over the disturbing cruelties that lurk within the piece. Eight years on, the world has moved into an altogether darker place, with quite enough cruelty of its own, so keeping it light and frothy suddenly seems an altogether more attractive option.
This co-production with McDermott’s endlessly inventive “skills ensemble” Improbable brings all the fun of the fair springing on to the stage right from the overture. Fire-eaters, strong men, acrobats and contortionists produce playful placards that tell us that there will be big arias in this story of love and betrayal, so please concentrate – in other words, we are not taking this too seriously.
We find Ferrando and Guglielmo in a Bunny Club, betting with sleazy Don Alfonso that their fiancees would never be unfaithful to them. To prove it they agree to disguise themselves and woo each other’s lover. Cue instant transformation to designer Tom Pye’s dazzling 1950s Coney Island, complete with ferris wheel, candyfloss, hotdogs, fortune tellers and freak-show posters. Sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, in knitwear and bobbysocks, have their stay at the grotty Skyline motel constantly interrupted by their “new” amorous suitors, in the manner of a Feydeau farce, with the circus troupe always on hand to move walls or set in motion a glorious selection of brightly coloured fairground rides. It’s beautifully executed, always eye-catching and thoroughly entertaining, but it sometimes rides roughshod over Mozart’s subtly sophisticated music.
And there is a lack of firepower in some of the cast, with baritone Benson Wilson as Guglielmo and tenor Amitai Pati (making his British debut as Ferrando) both losing necessary heft at crucial moments. But opposite them, soprano Nardus Williams as Fiordiligi and mezzo Hanna Hipp as Dorabella sing with punch and grace. Williams copes well with the dramatic leaps and plunges of her Act 1 aria, even while mayhem is going on all around her, and Hipp develops deliciously from frosty to flirty.
However, the best singing of the night comes from schemers Don Alfonso (baritone Neal Davies, in wonderfully spivvy form) and the mischievous motel chambermaid Despina. Soraya Mafi’s bright, agile soprano really cuts through, and her dancing skills are a wonder to behold. Regrettably the fizz and fun on stage isn’t matched in the pit, with conductor Kerem Hasan’s tempi often too stately to give a proper boost to this otherwise wildly colourful, imaginative production.
The visit to the Barbican last week by the Czech Philharmonic – the first international orchestra to appear there since the pandemic began – was always going to be momentous, but the war in Ukraine raised its significance to boiling point. Czechs know at first hand about Russian invasion, so their impassioned playing of the Ukrainian national anthem felt personal. It drew roars of approval, as did their Russian-born conductor Semyon Bychkov’s short speech in which he condemned the war and dedicated the orchestra’s two concerts to the people of Ukraine.
In his supremely individual Glagolitic Mass, played on the second evening, Leoš Janáček used ancient church Slavonic text (“glagolitic”) to underscore his desire to celebrate all Slavic people. It’s music that knows no political boundaries, and in the hands of the Czechs, with superb support from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, and laser-like tenor Aleš Briscein notable among the soloists, it more than achieved the composer’s wish that it would be “festive, life-affirming, pantheistic, with little of what we could call the ecclesiastical”.
There was everything life-affirming about Bychkov’s joyous reading of Dvořák’s eighth symphony. The orchestra’s famed warmth of tone and clarity of texture glowed throughout, with the lower strings finding a delicious sonority in the romping first movement. Bychkov drew some careful phrasing in the adagio, before bringing an irresistible lilt to the waltz of the third movement and driving the wild folk dance of the finale, with fine solos from silvery flute and blasting trumpet. BBC Radio 3 will broadcast this sensational music-making on 5 May. Put it in the diary; you won’t be disappointed.
Star ratings (out of five):
Così fan tutte ★★★
Czech Philharmonic/CBSO Chorus/Bychkov ★★★★★