Unexpected Mozart in the bagging area: Così fan tutte, Merton Street Opera

Baseless Fabric Theatre have taken Mozart’s Così fan tutte to the streets this summer, in the most literal sense. Their exceptional cast of five fantastic singers, and three brave instrumentalists, have created Così from nothing at all in nine locations across the borough of Merton, using the existing urban landscape as their theatre, stage and set, moving from pub to market to shopping centre, and playing to the passing (and pausing) public as their audience. A stripped-down version of Mozart’s game of infidelity focuses purely on the dangerous relationship adventures of our four lovers, as masterminded by Don Alfonso (and it works surprisingly well without a Despina), sung in a beautifully natural, contemporary English libretto by Joanna Turner, who also directs, carries the all-important music stand, and encourages the gathering crowd to “follow the story this way” at the end of each scene. In a total inversion of our normal theatre experience, instead of scenes changing before us, we all troop off to find the next scene in the next location (it’s never very far to walk). On our way, the musicians playing before us like a trio of Pied Pipers, Mozart’s music attracts more passers-by to join the procession, and we arrive at the next scene to the astonishment – and widespread delight – of people innocently sitting there first, who might not have woken up that morning thinking that, today, they were going to hear some live Mozart.

I have to admit that, although I was expecting a dynamic production of Così, I suspected it might feel imposed on Merton: opera transported into a “different” place, and feeling ‘different’ as a result. What amazed me about the Baseless Fabric experience is how naturally this production fits into its locations, a testament to the scrupulous research work which must have gone on beforehand, as well as the quality of everyone’s performances. In Mitcham, the action opens in the beer garden of the King’s Arms Pub, where three men sit in the sun with their beer, idly chatting, like the rest of us. Suddenly, there’s a flourish from the small trio of instrumentalists (Leo Geyer with his bassoon harnessed to his chest so he can play as he walks, Olivia Jarvis on the violin, and Bartosz Glowacki valiantly representing whole of the rest of Mozart’s orchestra with his accordion), and Merton Street Opera’s Così has begun. One of the three men casually breaks into song, and we realise we are looking at Ferrando (Simon Gfeller) and Guglielmo (Tom Stoddart) – in this production, modern-day bankers in crisp white shirts, slacks and trainers – bragging about their sweethearts’ fidelity to the worldweary, sceptical Don Alfonso (Philip Smith). His challenge, and their resulting bet, comes about so naturally in this context that I began to wonder why every Così doesn’t start in a pub beer garden: the setting feels so utterly appropriate to this moment of blokeish ego and challenge.

We set off to Mitcham Market (just over the road) to find Fiordiligi (Claire Wild) and Dorabella (Felicity Buckland) out shopping, where their lovers passionately apologise, and explain they’ve been called away on a sudden business trip to New York for “four to six months – it’ll be ok – though we know Skype and Facebook are not the same…” Heartbroken, the girls head off (as do we) straight to the next pub, the White Lion of Mortimer, for a consolatory drink, where both get tearful, and Dorabella becomes so brilliantly hysterical about “dying alone” that Fiordiligi hilariously pretends to hush her stratospheric grief because “other people might hear”. We’ve all been that friend. The bankers, now disguised as hippies with wigs and sunglasses, turn up as “new” would-be lovers and flirt with the girls, who storm off in horror (and we follow) to the comfort of Morrison’s, where they have a glorious soprano heart-to-heart in the makeup aisle, to the astonishment of anyone using a self-checkout. Philip Smith’s urbane Don Alfonso finds them in the supermarket and persuades them back to the pub on the basis that a little harmless flirtation will only cheer them up, and do they really think their boyfriends will be faithful while abroad in any case? His magic combination of calm reassurance and implied doubt works its spell on the girls, who dry their tears, smooth their hair and return to the pub. Flirtation, at first hilariously awkward, soon gets serious, and as the emotional temperature soars, we have stormy recriminations outside Boots, before a final denouement back in the marketplace. Mitcham has probably witnessed these human scenes many times before; the only change is that, this time, Mozart is involved, and everybody sings.

Claire Wild’s magnificent, febrile Fiordiligi is a masterclass in passionate intensity, her focused, detailed characterisation never wavering and her smooth, agile soprano exhilaratingly powerful even in the open air. Felicity Buckland’s tender, emotional Dorabella is also capable of plenty of fire, with beautifully observed gesture, natural comic instinct and a warm, lovely tone to her expressive soprano. Simon Gfeller’s endlessly generous tenor, skilful acting and talent for improvisation makes a superb Ferrando, while Tom Stoddart’s honeyed bass and confident presence is luxury casting for Guglielmo. As the mischievous, cynical Don Alfonso, Philip Smith did much not only to propel the action of the opera, but also to engage the audience, turning to us with conspiratorial smiles of glee as his plan wreaked its intended havoc.

At the end, after tumultuous applause from an astonished audience which by now included people of all ages, various enchanted children and two fascinated, occasionally vocal Jack Russells, an older man came up to me. “Nice for a change, this,” he commented warmly. “Bit different. Normally, round here, we just get gospel music.”

Reviewed in Mitcham on 4 August 2017

Rating: 5 stars

A Baseless Fabric Theatre production

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