Welsh National Opera's Cosi Fan Tutte, 2011.
WNO's Cosi Fan Tutte, 2011. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.
Turandot's 2004 revival, photo: Brian Parr.

Returning to Birmingham Hipporome this week, Welsh National Opera brought two triumphantly modern-dress productions – of Turandot and Cosi Fan Tutti – which could hardly have been more different.

Although it doesn’t look it, Christopher Alden’s production of Turandot is 17 years old, and finds Puccini’s hard-edged allegory of an icy Chinese princess and her suitors transplanted into a nameless Fascist state. Those who expected a floaty fairy-tale Peking might have been surprised by the oppressive green-tinged set, covered by black-and-white photographs of Turandot’s slain suitors (all of them, in reality, past WNO crew members).

Sometimes we felt we were in China; at other times, Mussolini’s Italy, but all of it worked – especially the eerily identikit costumes of the Chorus, and the sinister, sharp-suited Ping, Pang and Pong (David Stout, Philip Lloyd Holtam and Huw Llywelyn, respectively). Turandot’s big entrance in Act II found Anna Shafajinskaia sporting a 1980s power-suit that wouldn’t have shamed the Iron Lady, while the climactic scene – where the hero correctly guesses Turandot’s three riddles – is observed by the Chorus from a windowed gallery above the stage (imagine Wimbledon as a theatre of cruelty and you’re not far off).

There was plenty to admire in the music, too. Rebecca Evans, as the girlish Liu, and Gwyn Hughes Jones, as Calaf, were perfectly matched – both voices capable of a heart-breaking sweetness (and Jones’s Nessum Dorma was just the spine-tingling affair you’d expect) – while the WNO Chorus rose to the challenge of the opera’s massive set-pieces. The only slight disappointments were the occasional brashness of Shafajinskaia’s voice, and the faults of the opera itself – especially its strange, heartless ending, which Alden didn’t quite manage to pull off satisfactorily.

We could hardly have been on more different territory with Benjamin Davis’s brand new production of Così Fan Tutte, set in a 1950s British seaside town. Hi-de-Hi! meets Mozart, it’s a slick production that delivers plenty of entertainment value.

WNO's Cosi Fan Tutte, 2011. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.

Max Jones’s set – half funfair, half bed-and-breakfast – perfectly creates a world in which nothing is quite what it seems. Like the funfair itself – splendid by night, tawdry by day – Così Fan Tutte is a story of viciousness masquerading as comedy. Davis has an extremely promising knack for comedy, and although this production side-steps the shadows, this is unlikely to affect its popularity with audiences. With the visual gags coming thick and fast, and some really fine comic acting from the cast, it was certainly a hit at the Hippodrome.

The cast were uniformly excellent, but special mentions go to Neal Davies (as bowler-hatted spiv Don Alfonso) and Gary Griffiths (a braggart lover Guglielmo). Camilla Roberts and Helen Lepalaan were just glorious as the soppy sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella – without their whining, the brutality of Don Alfonso’s prank would have tipped the whole piece too far into tragedy. A scene where servant Despina (a spirited Claire Ormshaw) lectures the naive pair while cleaning the toilet was just one of the humorous touches that made the piece fizz. With some lively playing under conductor Daniele Rustioni, this is Mozart transformed into a cheeky seaside postcard – a world of windswept piers, dimpled thighs and cups of tea. Davis has taken a risk here, but it looks like it’s paid off.

Annette Rubery

A media and communications professional with ten years’ experience on Metro newspaper and a passion for web development and social media.