Love at its most playful, sex at its most dangerous. In Mozart’s last Da Ponte opera, what starts as a bit of rather male-chauvinistic fun ends up as a journey of self-discovery in which the facade of conventional relationships shatters, and all four members of the two couples stand revealed, to themselves and to each other.
The opera Cosi fan tutte (thus do all women) shows Mozart at his most Oscar-Wilde-like, dismantling the fragile structures with which our Western society attempts to tame sexual relations in an even more thorough-going way than he did in Don Giovanni. This subject was addressed by Goethe twenty years later than Mozart’s opera, in his novel Elective Affinities, also with two couples, though without any of the comedy and little of the irony that makes Mozart’s opera so delightful. While the 19th century could tolerate Don Giovanni – after all the Don gets dragged to hell for his licentiousness – they couldn’t cope with the mirror image of so-called fidelity that Cosi presents to us, and the opera had to wait until last century to establish its place in the operatic canon.
The plot is simple, perhaps the simplest in the entire operatic repertoire. In response to a bet, the two men of the couples test the “fidelity” of their fiancees by, in disguise, attempting to seduce each other’s fiancee. They hope to fail (thereby demonstrating the loyalty of their own fiancee), but, unfortunately, they both eventually succeed.
The production by Opera Queensland which opened last night is a triumph for its director Patrick Nolan (who is also of course artistic director and CEO of Opera Queensland itself). The first act races along in caricatures of the stereotyped characters that derive ultimately from those in commedia dell’ arte – the clever servant, who becomes both a doctor and a lawyer, and the young couples. The “intimacy director” Michelle Miall made great play with the naked legs of all four main characters, to highlight that this was a production in which sex was going to play a big part, and not to be taken for granted. Presiding over them is Alfonso (Shaun Brown), the worldly-wise man who has seen it all, and is the author of the bet. For me the most memorable image of him is the moment he plays chess with the maid Despina (Leanne Kenneally) in front of a kitsch version of Michaelangelo’s David, while the drama he has set in motion plays out front of stage, in splendid caricature.
This air of caricature revealed to me what I had never noticed before, and for this I thank Nolan personally. Mozart’s music in the first act is also caricature – he takes off contemporary opera, even his own, just like for example Benajamin Britten does in Midsummer Night’s Dream. He doesn’t send himself up as blatantly as he does in Don Giovanni, when the stage band plays a tune from his own Marriage of Figaro and the Don tells it to stop playing it as he is tired of hearing it everywhere, but musical gestures and motifs from both those operas, and even from Idomeneo, pervade the score.
This was well understood by the conductor Zoe Zeniodi, who coaxed a velvety sound from the orchestra, particularly its string section. She directed the many vocal ensembles with precision, and the singers’ intonation was immaculate throughout. Anna Dowsley as Dorabella, and especially Samantha Clarke as Fiordiligi, sang their arias with vocal colours that perfectly matched their characters, where the vibrato that many young singers have nowadays developed sounded to advantage. I have to say though, that this vibrato did not serve the ensembles well. These numbers – duets, trios, quartets, quintets and sextets between the singers – just don’t work well musically with this kind of unchanging vibrato. These ensembles were always dramatically exciting in this production, and extremely well rehearsed, but compared to, say, Pinchgut Opera’s productions, they lacked that meltingly gorgeous quality that such ensembles sung in the way singers of Mozart’s day sang – that is, with a much straighter sound – can convey.
In the second act the fun quickly slips away into the serious consequences of sex. Gone is the element of caricature, both in the music and on the stage. First Dorabella yields (we always knew she would), saying “having a bit of fun while our lovers are away isn’t infidelity, is it?” (A word of praise for the surtitlist Narelle French, by the way.) Jeremy Kleeman as Guiglemo complements his golden voice with engaging acting throughout, and when Guiglemo’s ego is inflated to maximum by having seduced Dorabella and learning that Ferrando hasn’t seduced Fiordiligi, his self-congratulation was perfect.
This moment, when Ferrando discovers that his fiance Dorabella has slept with Guiglemo, while he himself has failed to seduce Fiordiligi, is the moment of greatest tension in the opera. Brenton Spiteri sang his aria at this point with superb elan, negotiating Mozart’s extraordinarily complex music with verve, and brilliantly portraying the myriad conflicting emotions of the situation, of which the dominant one was that he felt that he had lost his fiancee but not gained the other woman, and was simply unloved. When he redoubles his efforts of seduction, however, he does succeed, and now it was the turn of Samantha Clarke to portray Fiordiligi torn in two by the conflicts in her desires. Her aria here drew the loudest applause of the evening from the audience, deservedly, for she delivered this virtuosic exploration of all her vocal registers with a passion worthy of great tragic performers.
The staging for the second act faithfully reflected this shift from comedy to tragic mode. The sets for gorgeous but somewhat kitsch Neapolitan villa of the first act lifted, and all that was left against the black backdrop was a single fountain, whose function changed from lavish decoration to a symbol of sexual exploration. The characters felt naked, and the audience was drawn into their interior worlds. The orchestra, which in the first act was almost too fast and too soft to listen to, was allowed to flourish – after all, what is music for if not to explore those inner worlds which words can only hint at?
There was just one aspect of the musical side of this production at which, however, I must protest. I hope I will not be thought too much of a purist (though I would find it hard to defend myself against such an accusation) if I say that the function of the harpsichord in the orchestra was simply not understood. Mark Connors (who was not even named in the orchestra list, only in the music credits) played only the secco recitatives (those without the rest of the orchestra), and played these without the essential other half of the 18th century continuo, a cello. Then when the recitatives changed, as they frequently do in this opera, to accompagnato (played by the orchestra), he was silent, as he was during the rest of the score. The continuo, as its name implies, should play throughout. To me this was a solecism completely out of keeping with the care, love, and skill lavished on the musical side production.
And how did it all end, you may be asking? In some productions the marriage celebration of the finale is between the original couples; in others, including this one, between the couples generated by the seductions of the second act. But then what? The final sextet was sung against the background of the bare, self-revelatory second act set, with the debris of its catastrophy littered over the stage. Despite Mozart’s perhaps over-conventional music in the finale, in Patrick Nolan’s production there is no going back. One does not play around with love, as Alfred de Musset said (On ne badine pas avec l’amour).
All in all, this is an evening of great fun and profound questioning, in which music and theatre constantly interweave and complement each other. Not to be missed!
Opera Queensland presents
Cosi fan tutte
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Director Patrick Nolan
Venue: Playhouse | QPAC, QLD
Dates: 10 – 26 August 2023