Friday, 6 July 2018

Mozart - Così fan tutte (London, 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

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

Purely in terms of the musical and singing performances, the Royal Opera House's 2016 production of Così fan tutte is reasonably good, if not quite exciting or revelatory. Semyon Bychkov conducts an elegant account of the work, but it doesn't particularly fizz with those energised moments of Mozartian brilliance. The singing performances are fresh, bright and vibrant, but don't seem to be able to carry the weightier considerations that are in the opera either. Jan Philipp Gloger's direction has an interesting concept that actually sets out to bridge that gap rather well, providing plenty of visual interest in the sets and situations, but somehow it still never quite coheres the way you might like it.

Making Don Alfonso a theatre director does take the work into a meta-theatrical direction, the opera even opening with the director and the cast of his latest work taking their bows at the start of this performance during the overture. The idea is not just to be clever, but to consider the meaning of Mozart and Da Ponte's opera in the context of art and artifice. It's not real-life, it's an opera. That doesn't mean that it doesn't have a serious point to make, but it can do it through music, theatre and, although it might seem like a contradiction, and is less commonly seen these days in this opera, it can be serious through comedy. As a theatre director then, Don Alfonso uses a number of theatrical situations to put love to the test and illustrate his point about fidelity and constancy to the two unrealistically idealistic young couples.

The Royal Opera House production tries to address the issues of love and fidelity in the opera in a lighter and more playful fashion without having to resort to that darker view of male and female relationships and middle-class ideals that you will find in some other productions (Michael Haneke and Christophe Honoré). It's true that some of the ideas expressed in the opera might be considered rather out of step with modern attitudes towards gender politics and political correctness, but Mozart and Da Ponte's comedy is actually just as challenging of prevailing attitudes. One need only look at their other two collaborations to realise that the same principles are applied to Così fan tutte. The theatricality and forced romanticism of the situations in Gloger's production highlight the fact that Mozart and Da Ponte are satirising such attitudes, regarding the notion of constancy and fidelity as nothing more than an artificial bourgeois construct that prevents us from following the true dictates of the human heart.

And it's true. Don Alfonso and his rather more practical minded co-conspirator from the serving classes Despina are actually correct. Not so much in the idea that it's women who are inconstant (it's taken for granted that men are fickle), but rather what Così fan tutte shows us is that anyone can fall in love, the human heart can be easily swayed and circumstances (or fate if you like) all have a part to play. It's not about fidelity, it's about human nature, and when it comes to exploring the wonder and the mysterious ways of the human heart, there's no-one like Mozart for showing its infinite variety and capacity for love. It might not always work out how we might like it, but in contrast to the cynicism that you can find in some modern productions, Mozart's music actually shows us that rather than leading to disillusionment, he considers this to be something wonderful and something to be celebrated.

Gloger's production then captures both the artifice of romantic ideals where we don disguises and play roles, but in each of the theatrical settings it also shows the wonderful variety of circumstances in which love can work its magic and catch us unawares, breaking down any preconceived ideals. It's a production that is perfectly in tune with the playfulness of the idea and the execution of the original, matching its cleverness, its richness of mood and character. Mozart and Da Ponte tell us to keep an open mind, and the same thing can be applied to this production. Every time you come to a Mozart opera, you can experience and discover something new about this wonderful work, and this one actually extends on some of its themes rather brilliantly, if you have an open mind and no preconceptions.

In execution however, it somehow doesn't quite come together the way it should. It's perhaps the difficulty of maintaining all those levels and trying to provide something for everyone; trying to retain some amount of the familiar with a few new ideas to challenge them. It's also down to the nature of the work itself, which demands young, fresh singers, but expects them to have the experience to maintain those various levels of superficiality and sophistication. Corinne Winters, Angela Brower, Daniel Behle and Alessio Arduini however give engaging individual performances of equal weight that permits them to interact well as a team. Sabina Puértolas is a lively irreverent Despina, and Johannes Martin Kränzle perfect as a generous rather than a cynical Don Alfonso.

The disconnect however appears to be more in the musical performance. Semyon Bychkov keeps the tone deceptively light, and 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. The ambiguity about Così however is what keeps it fresh and keeps you thinking, and this production does give you plenty to think about.

The Blu-ray presentation of the production also gives it a new lease of life, particularly in the High Resolution audio mixes of the musical performance. The extras on the BD are scant, but the introduction covers the all you need to know about the director's intentions for the concept, the characters and the nature of the work itself.

Links: Royal Opera House YouTube