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Opera North: Così fan tutte -The Lowry, Salford

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte

Director: Tim Albery

It is surprising Mozart’s Così fan tutte has not been added to the list of shows like The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew which are regarded as problematic in our sensitive times. After all, the basis of the plot is that women are all the same- untrustworthy and liable to change affections.

Philosopher Don Alfonso (Quirijn de Lang) believes if put to the test all women will prove unfaithful. To prove his point Don Alfonso has a wager with Ferrando (Anthony Gregory) and Guglielmo (Henry Neill) which involves them pretending they have been called-up for military service. They return in disguise as foreign strangers to try and seduce their lovers, sisters Fiordiligi (Alexandra Lowe) and Dorabella (Heather Lowe). If they succeed Don Alfonso will have proved all women are fickle but if the sisters reject their potential new lovers, the friends will win a substantial sum of money. However, as the sisters’ maid Despina (Gillene Butterfield), has already suggested to them the best way to mend a broken heart is to take another lover, it starts to look likely Don Alfonso will be able to claim he is right about the fickleness of women.

Although set in the 18th Century, with suitably lavish costumes and sets from Tobias Hoheisel this is a very modern production sung in English. Director Tim Albery tones down the misogyny underlying the plot partly by demonstrating, in act two, the emotional consequences of taking part in such a thoughtless scheme.

The scientific nature of the wager is emphasised by Tobias Hoheisel’s striking set. Entering the theatre, the audience is greeted by the lens of an old-style black box camera pointing directly from the stage. The action plays out inside the camera with doors sketched on walls in chalk as if the characters are under scientific observation.

Quirijn de Lang’s Don Alfonso is not a jaded roué but an austere scientist /philosopher albeit one who takes an unhealthy pleasure in testing his theories upon other people. He helps to set a knowing tone to act one by regularly breaking the fourth wall to cue the orchestra when to dramatically emphasise points in his scheme and generally tips the wink to the audience the plot is not to be taken too seriously.

The acting at moments of high tension in act one- the male lovers feigning being poisoned – is deliberately amateurish. The overall effect is to create an atmosphere of wilful self-deception which makes it possible to accept two intelligent women would fail to recognise their boyfriends when they are wearing ridiculously inadequate disguises.

There is an ongoing visual pun on the title which opines all women are the same. In the opening scenes both sets of lovers, male and female, are dressed and behave identically to the extent they could have been cloned. A key point in the second act is Despina persuading the sisters to dress more individualistically which marks a distinct shift in tone.

The comedy remains with the characters unintentionally changing partners, but director Albery explores the emotional consequences of the experiment and reminds the audience those involved are people with feelings rather than emotionless test subjects. Alexandra Lowe’s tortured struggle with temptation and guilt is the perfect summation of the second act.

Instead of moving towards a glorious comic mess the second act shifts towards chaos and suggests none of the characters is satisfied with the outcome of the experiment but rather confused and disconcerted.

Opera North’s Così fan tutte is a very modern and accessible version of the classic which retains the comic and farcical elements while exploring the emotional consequences of undertaking such an extreme test of human nature.

Reviewed on 21 March 2024

The Review Hub Score

Comic and chaotic

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The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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