Thursday, 20 October 2016

Mozart - Così fan tutte (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte

Royal Opera House, 2016

Semyon Bychkov, Jan Philipp Gloger, Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle, Alessio Arduini, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Sabina Puértolas

Cinema Season Live - 17 October 2016

Così fan tutte has never quite been treated with the same love and affection that is given to Mozart's other two collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, Le Nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni. Perhaps it's because Così fan tutte is more overtly a comedy, but there are comic elements in all three operas. Perhaps the same weight of insight into human feelings and behaviour just isn't there or just gets lost amidst the farce, but that depends very much on the choices made in direction. In recent years for example, Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré - both filmmakers - have explored the very dark side of human behaviour in Così fan tutte to a largely successful degree.

Perhaps all Haneke and Honoré really did with Così fan tutte was find a way to connect the audience to an emotional reality within the opera that the comic side doesn't achieve quite so well, but that raises the question about whether or not this betrays the true intent of the work. Like Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni all sides of human behaviour are explored, and there are also dark and disturbing aspects that are there to be drawn upon in Così fan tutte. The answer would seen to lie in achieving a human balance between the comedy and the darkness and, if nothing else, this search to reveal the true worth of Mozart in Così fan tutte means that the work is always a fascinating challenge.

Jan Philipp Gloger's production for the Royal Opera House takes the challenge head-on by recognising that, perhaps even more than the other two Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, art and artifice are at the heart of Così fan tutte and part of its very nature. Even if it's entirely in the spirit of the work, placing the emphasis on the artifice in the opera with an openly theatrical presentation is however a risky gamble as it tends to place even more distance between the situation and the truth behind it. The real test of whether the work can reveal its deeper human predicament lies more with the performers here, but despite truly great performances from an impressive young cast, the production does seem to work against them.

By using and emphasising theatrical devices as the basis for the production, Jan Philipp Gloger adheres to the comic principles that are at the heart of the work, and the means by which Mozart and Da Ponte make their case. The subtitle of Così fan tutte - A School for Lovers - tells you of this intent. The plot of the opera, like the opera itself, relies on the artifice of art to get its message across. Art is a means of arriving at a truth about inner sentiments that outside 'realism' might not be capable of reaching. Just as Mozart's music is a means of expressing those feelings in relation to love and fidelity in Così fan tutte, so too the use of theatre has the power to invent situations that put those feelings to the test.

The lesson that Don Alfonso has to impart to his students Ferrando and Guglielmo is not just that all women are by nature inconstant and unfaithful in their love, but rather that love is not some romantic ideal that we can choose to bend to our will. The heart has no master. The meaning and intent of this lesson is a serious one, but presenting it as a comedy does pose some problems that often tend to overshadow the truth of the work. Rather than play it straight with the two men donning stupid disguises as moustachioed Albanians that would fool no-one, there has to be some sort of complicity in going along with the game on the part of both men and their partners, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. It has to be seen as a role-play on some level that delivers the truth.

Gloger's idea of having Don Alfonso as a theatre director then has considerable merit, not least for the conceit of the two men dressing up and behaving out of character as they try and woo their respective fiancées into being unfaithful. As the theatrical sets and situations are levered into place, it is however clearly a high-level concept and not one could bear any realistic scrutiny. Suspension of disbelief is necessary, but at some level surely we must all realise when we go to the theatre or the opera that we are never watching realism on the stage, but just people acting. But acting for a good reason, which is to get to a deeper truth, and, let's not forget, to entertain. This production entertains and impresses and it even gets the all-important human message across through its art, but it does still feel a little too artificial.

It's through no fault of the singing or the musical performance. On every level this is an outstanding performance. While the characters are by no means interchangeable (other than for the necessities of the plot evidently), I often find that it's harder work to distinguish or perhaps care enough to consider what are the defining characteristics of the four main characters. They might not be as multifaceted and complex individuals as those in The Marriage of Figaro, but they can still have depth and personality. Genuine attention to the music and the arias show that this is the case and if it doesn't come across it not as much an issue with Mozart and Da Ponte's depiction but more likely with the direction or the singer's ability to bring something to their role. There is no issue at all with the singers here in the Royal Opera House production, but perhaps the direction doesn't do enough to highlight the contrasts and differences.

As far as singing and characterisation go the performances however are outstanding. Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle and Alessio Arduini are just delightful as the confused lovers, each of them bearing equal weight, each of them meeting the challenges of the work, all of them bringing considerable youthful personality and sympathy to the roles in their individual arias, in their duets and ensembles. It's marvellous to see such a team interacting, working with each other in a way that illustrates all the points of the music and the drama. Sabina Puértolas too is one of the best Despinas I have seen, her singing performance impressive, bringing a lively fun personality and a sense of pleasure at mixing things up on the stage. The wonderfully versatile Johannes Martin Kränzle is comparatively rather restrained as Don Alfonso, but dressed in period costume as the 'director' (as Lorenzo da Ponte?), it was hard to really grasp his real nature here.

Musically too, there's a good performance here from the orchestra under Semyon Bychkov that keeps the tone deceptively light, but it's this tone that dominates without either connecting meaningfully or contrasting with what is going on up on the stage. While Gloger's sets carry the sense of game play and role play, each of the 'actors' playing their allotted roles, it all feels a little detached and doesn't find a way to carry through to the ambiguous feelings that linger with the revelations made at a very confused resolution. There's an effort made to end on a wistful note, but you never get the sense that there is anything serious at stake here and no one really gets hurt, which, for all the criticisms you could make about it, is not something you could say about Christophe Honoré's devastating conclusion in his production for Aix-en-Provence and Edinburgh.

Links: Royal Opera House