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Così Fan Tutte review: Captivating singing, sparky music and superb comic timing

Irish National Opera’s clever, laugh-out-loud production, directed by Polly Graham, relocates the story from 18th-century Naples to an Irish big house in 1914

Così Fan Tutte: Anna Devin as Fiordiligi, Sharon Carty as Dorabella and John Molloy as Alfonso in Irish National Opera's production. Photograph: Ruth Medjber

Così Fan Tutte

National Opera House, Wexford

Cancel! Cancel! Cancel!

Where do you start when even Mozart’s title, All Women Do That – “That” being infidelity – is a sexist epithet?

In her director’s note for Irish National Opera’s new production, Polly Graham quotes the music critic Alex Ross remarking in the New York Times that no other opera “is quite so forthright in its contempt for women”.

Which means I feel guilty whenever I laugh, which is often and out loud – extra loud when it bursts out from my efforts to suppress it in case I appear to be demonstrating a forthright contempt for women. But it must be said that Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte, his Italian librettist, are clever and funny. And so is Graham.


As are the cast of six. And then some: superb comic timing, facial expressions and gesture. In fact what they all do, director and cast, is make us laugh at the men. Because they are eejits. They are happily betrothed to two happy sisters and so convinced of their fiancees’ incorruptible fidelity that they accept a wager from their cynical old friend Alfonso, who bets he can make the women cheat. The men must feign departing for war, reappear in disguise and then attempt to seduce the other’s fiancee. To win they only need to fail.

But they don’t. Because così fan tutte.


How dare we laugh? First, blame Mozart, who infuses the story with an irrepressibly high-spirited and sparky musical energy fully matched by the sparkiness of Peter Whelan’s conducting of the Irish National Opera Orchestra.

Then blame Graham. She relocates the story from 18th-century Naples to an Irish big house in 1914, playfully suggested rather than traditionally staged by Jamie Vartan’s designs and costumes, and with oversized projections of the political iconography of the day.

Così Fan Tutte: John Molloy and Majella Cullagh (centre), Anna Devin and Dean Power (front left), and Sharon Carty and Benjamen Russell (front right). Photograph: Ruth Medjber

So Graham gives us the familiar stereotype of Ireland’s landed gentry to laugh at. As for inherent sexism, she told Gemma Tipton in this paper about calling something in, so you can examine it, instead of calling it out and cancelling it. What she examines is the way the two women have more agency than the title implies. The logical conclusion is for her to toy with the happy-ever-after ending. Not gonna spoil it.

Polly Graham: ‘I was five when I saw my first opera and about 14 when my dad started building the theatre’Opens in new window ]

Meanwhile she nails the humour. The men – the baritone Benjamin Russell and the tenor Dean Power – initially threaten the provocative Alfonso not with their swords but with a croquet mallet, that great symbol of lampooned ascendancy.

Once in disguise, both singers hilariously depict men unjustifiably overconfident in the sexiness of their appearance and comportment. As the sisters, the soprano Anna Devin and the mezzo Sharon Carty provide a fine, understated comic embodiment of resolve weakening.

None of this matters, of course, unless all four deliver Mozart’s tunes. And they do, stylishly and with beauty, not only with captivating solo arias and duets but also in their ensembles, balancing their individual voices and sounding like little choirs.

The bass John Molloy delightfully inhabits the smug, well-mannered cynicism of Alfonso, and the soprano Majella Cullagh completes the six with a star turn as Despina, the earthy maidservant and Alfonso’s accomplice.

Irish National Opera’s Così Fan Tutte moves to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, from Tuesday, May 23rd, to Saturday, May 27th; it is then at Cork Opera House on Wednesday, May 31st, and Friday, June 2nd; there are also concert performances at University Concert Hall, Limerick, on Sunday, May 21st, and at Leisureland, Galway, on Monday, May 29th