Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così Fan Tutte
Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013
Sylvain Cambrelling, Michael Haneke, Anett Fritsch, Paola Gardina, Juan Francisco Gatell, Andreas Wolf, Kerstin Avemo, William Shimell
ARTE Live Web Internet Streaming - June 2013
After attending a performance of Michael Haneke's only previous opera production, a terrific account of Mozart's Don Giovanni for the Paris Opera for composer's 250th anniversary in 2006, I observed that it would be hard to imagine the director finding any other Mozart work with a subject suitable for his particular worldview. It was a matter of interest then to see what Haneke had in mind for what is perhaps the least substantial of Mozart's mature operas, or at least the lesser of the composer's collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. A light amusement at the School for Lovers? Surely not with Michael Haneke?
It doesn't take too long however to recognise a familiar Haneke spin on events in his direction of Così Fan Tutte (viewed via ARTE Live Web Streaming from its Madrid production, but also available for viewing for a limited period via the La Monnaie streaming service) in how the director recognises or places a distinctive twist on the discord between the two couples in the work. Two couples? There would appear to be three couples in Haneke's version, the other one being made up of Don Alfonso and Despina. This unconventional couple don't so much dispense a lesson in love here as exhibit a cruel streak that pits the comfortable middle-class attitudes of complacency towards gender politics in both of the couples against one another. Some 'Funny Games' here perhaps?
Or perhaps 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses'? Haneke sets the production in what looks at first glance like a soirée at a French chateau, where some of the guests wear modern-day formal dinner-party dresses while others wear 18th century costumes. Is it a fancy dress party where costumes are optional, or is the director attempting to make a distinction between modern and rather older-fashioned attitudes towards love and affairs? Whatever the reason for the disparity, the dress, the corrupting behaviour and the attitudes expressed by this Don Alfonso in his assessment that women are not capable of being faithful is far from playful. There's a suggestion rather that he has more sinister motives for setting the couples of Dorabella and Ferrando and Flordiligi and Gugliemo against each other. His partner in crime Despina likewise seems to have a point to prove through her complicity in the events that ensue.
The allusions to a work that is close to contemporary with Mozart might be coincidental (or just in my own mind), but they are certainly in the spirit of the method that Haneke employs here. We might believe that our attitudes are more modern, sophisticated and enlightened than those expressed in the period of Mozart, Da Ponte and Choderlos de Laclos, but are we really all that different? Haneke seems to be suggesting that beneath the surface we are really no different and we just hide better those deeper, darker, less acceptable sentiments and desires that we'd rather not openly acknowledge ('Hidden'). It's significant that Haneke makes no real effort to put Ferrando and Gugliemo into convincing disguises that would fool their partners. Their real feelings and baser impulses in the nature of their seduction of each other's partner is undisguised, and perhaps even the women know it and are complicit on some level too. It's a rather mean-spirited view of the characters in Così Fan Tutte and of humanity in general, but what else would you expect from Michael Haneke?
If there's a characteristic cruelty in Haneke's reading of the work, there is however no violence expressed at all in the musical performance. Sylvain Cambrelling's conducting of the Madrid orchestra is soft, delicate and as beautiful as the score is capable of being. Rather than work against Haneke's intentions, the director uses the gentility of the performance here to complement or enhance the cool cynicism of his Don Alfonso. The delicate musical arrangement and lightheartedness of the libretto create an unsettling and somewhat sinister contrast then with the Master's actual expressions, his gestures and the viciousness of his behaviour. There's a similar dichotomy present in all of the characters and it's in the expression of this - as opposed to a concept that is somewhat questionable - that Haneke makes his own particular outlook on Così Fan Tutte work to some extent.
William Shimell, a baritone who has worked as an actor for Haneke (in the Oscar winning 'Amour') and for Abbas Kiarostami in 'Certified Copy' (and as it happens also played Don Alfonso in a Così for Aix-en-Provence directed by Kiarostami) is really the key player here. He sings well and his acting is strong enough to make this kind of twist in his persona credible. All of the cast however have clearly been well-directed and give strong performances. Haneke however is careful that any 'modifications' should not be at the expense of Mozart's writing and is very respectful of the vocal line. The singers are allowed to sing the roles then with full expression and let the direction carry the concept. The performances are all exceptionally good, with Anett Fritsch in particular standing out in the role of Flordiligi.
In a very interesting interview on the La Monnaie site, Haneke says that he is unlikely to extend his Mozart stagings to the third Mozart/Da Ponte collaboration, The Marriage of Figaro, since he finds its perfection intimidating and couldn't think of a way to adapt it to his worldview without destroying the delicate fabric of its construction. After viewing his imperfect Così Fan Tutte for the Teatro Real in Madrid and La Monnaie in Brussels, I would agree with that and think that my initial assessment on his ability to work with any other Mozart opera was also correct. Le Nozze di Figaro however could very well sustain a bit of a reworking and I'd actually be very interested to see what Haneke could make of it, should he ever put his mind to it. On the other hand, in the same interview he also expresses great admiration for Monteverdi's delightfully salacious L' Incoronazione di Poppea, and that now would be something worth seeing!