Irish National Opera at Gaiety Theatre Dublin, on 23 May 2023

Mozart’s ‘Così fan tutte’ is tricky, and full of tricks—and great to listen to. Not everyone likes it. That title (‘[women] are all like that’) is blatantly sexist, but, like the French comedies that partly inspired it, things are not always what they seem. The questionable social experiment at its heart, justified by the promise of enlightenment, pits men against the women they supposedly love, while threatening their friendship. As romantic comedies go, this one really plays with fire. And it inevitably unravels, to reveal how hard, but also how easy, change and choices can be. If that all sounds too strange to be funny (and there have been some very intense productions of this opera), tonight’s show at the Gaiety Theatre offers much to enjoy, and plenty of laughs.

Anna Devin (Fiordiligi) and Sharon Carty (Dorabella)

Directed by Polly Graham, and designed by Jamie Vartan, Sinéad McKenna, and Jack Phelan, the concept of this new production by Irish National Opera reframes the narrative as a tall tale from pre-revolutionary Ireland. It’s 1914 and change is in the air: rights for women, Irish independence, and the allure of the silver screen all beckon. Stylised to the point of melodrama, with plenty of clownish overacting, the costumes and Gaelic-revival imagery are not the only thing to be given period polish. It’s as if we’re in a big old Anglo-Irish house in the country and they’re putting on a massive show. There’s even a miniature Hill of Tara in the middle of the set, complete with retractable standing stone: it’s all happening.

Anna Devin (Fiordiligi), Sharon Carty (Dorabella), and John Molloy (Don Alfonso)

At the heart of the performance, setting speed and tone, and adding colour and resonance, is the playing of the INO Orchestra. Peter Whelan conducts, keeping the tempo crisp, light, and keen but never over-driven. Almost sounding like a period-instrument band, the smooth lines of the strings work nicely with the colours of the other instruments, while the ensemble sustains a clear balance with the voices on stage. There are few solos, apart from the elegant fortepiano playing of Aoife O’Sullivan, whose discreet presence energises the recitative exchanges.

Dean Power (Ferrando), Benjamin Russell (Guglielmo) and John Molloy (Don Alfonso)

As the two officers, Dean Power (Ferrando) and Benjamin Russell (Guglielmo) bound onto the stage. The innocence of their opening scene – with Power’s amiable grinning almost channelling Fr Dougal – is set off by the professorial presence of John Molloy’s Don Alfonso, the ‘philosopher’ who sets them the infamous bet that they could seduce each other’s girlfriends in disguise. Molloy’s comic instincts and sense of timing are well able for this role, while his voice (warmly darkening with age) adds an admirable illusion of gravitas. Power’s tenor voice projects ardent tenderness in his few solo passages (his aria Un’aura amorosa [‘a breath of love’], always a highlight, is nicely-placed in this scenario), though occasionally with a hint of strain at the top. Benjamin Russell builds into his role as the evening progresses, his voice characterising the second-act aria Donne mie, a fate a tanti [‘Ladies, you deserve so many…’] to good effect.

Sharon Carty (Dorabella), Majella Cullagh (Despina) and Anna Devin (Fiordiligi)

Together with the female artists they form a fine sextet, so crucial here with ensemble singing central to this opera, such as in the glowing trio Soave sia il vento [‘May the wind be gentle’] in the first act. Majella Cullagh, bringing a superb breadth of character and observation as Despina, is hilarious, and yet is so much more than a comic foil. Her Una donna a quindici anni [‘A woman of 15…’] is a masterclass in light, elegant singing. Anna Devin as Fiordiligi brings out her character’s brittle fire brilliantly throughout the evening, with wonderful coloratura singing, especially in her great set-piece arias Come scoglio [‘Like a rock’] and Per pieta [Have pity…’]. Alongside, as her sister Dorabella, Sharon Carty sings fabulously, clearly embracing this role with enjoyable verve, impassioned in Smanie implacabile [‘Implacable longings’]. She is warmly expressive in the duet Il core vi dono [‘I give you this heart’] with Russell, one of the most extraordinary moments of the opera, with words and music creating magic before our eyes.

There is much more that could be said about this rich production, packed as it is with bizarre details and sublime music, and reminders of earlier styles of theatre – and social resistance. There are plenty of surprises in store, with something for everyone, and it’s wonderful to have the season end on a welcome note of comedy.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte
Sung in Italian (libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte), with English surtitles
Produced by Irish National Opera
Director: Polly Graham; Set & Costume Designer: Jamie Vartan; Lighting Designer: Sinéad McKenna; Video Designer: Jack Phelan; Conductor: Peter Whelan
Cast (in order of singing): Dean Power (Ferrando); Benjamin Russell (Guglielmo); John Molloy (Don Alfonso); Anna Devin (Fiordiligi); Sharon Carty (Dorabella); Majella Cullagh (Despina); INO Chorus
INO Orchestra

Photography by Ruth Medjber

Performances continue at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin (with alternating casts) to 27 May, before touring to Leisureland Galway (29 May) and Cork Opera House (31 May & 2 June). For more information, see: