Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Così fan tutte
Irish National Opera, 2023
Peter Whelan, Polly Graham, Anna Devin, Sharon Carty, Benjamin Russell, Dean Power, Majella Cullagh, John Molloy
The Gaiety Theatre, Dublin - 27th May 2023
For a long time sceptical about whether Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto of farce and misogyny had withstood the test of time and changing attitudes, I've certainly been won around to the true qualities of the work in modern productions that have actually revealed Così fan tutte to be far more layered and meaningful than you would think. I still don't envy any director having to choose how best to bring those qualities out, whether to play it as a straight comedy or whether to mine the deeper attitudes expressed for contemporary relevance. The Irish National Opera production, a touring production directed by Polly Graham, tries to pitch it somewhere in between and doesn't really succeed in doing full justice to either side of the work.
Where it does bring a distinctive touch is in the Irish historical setting. Opera should be tailored to and relatable to its audience, not presented as some stuffy period costume drama museum piece, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be updated and made contemporary. Opera can still speak of contemporary issues if it can be related to a significant period, and such a period in Ireland (and elsewhere in the world) can be found in the early twentieth century. The nature and status of women is a theme worth exploring in Così fan tutte and Ireland has been slow to deal with women's rights which were the subject of interest with the rise of the suffragettes around this time, and that is certainly highlighted here.
War and revolution too since it's revealed that the year is 1914, but that's a little more problematic to add into the farce of this opera, with Guglielmo and Ferrando pretending to head off to fight in the trenches as part of an Irish battalion. It fits well enough though for the purposes of the production, and when the two return disguised as filmmakers with berets and moustaches, making a silent movie about Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, it's a little more meaningful and acceptable than making fun of oriental costumes, customs and appearances. That's fine as far as it goes, but in terms of direction it feels a little forced, flat, haphazard and inconsistent in its approach, gaining neither sufficient laughs nor significance in exploring the nature of women and men or indeed providing a lesson in the vagaries of love.
The resultant production design then was also something of a mixed bag. Sure, it has necessarily has to be basic in terms of set designs and effects, designer Jamie Vartan using projections to open it out a little and establish the period with newspaper articles and a sketched big house on the hill. I never quit grasped what the stately manor was about, other than perhaps how chorus of Irish women were treated as servants and second class citizens by the landed gentry. It wasn't a particularly impressive or eye-catching set, a huge hard plastic looking green blob representing a hill with a tiny 'big house' on top that was picked up and carried around by the cast for no discernable reason. Nor could I figure out the nature of Don Alfonso in this setting, walking around in a long house coat in a somewhat professorial manner with Ferrando and Guglielmo his students. None of it quite hit the mark.
To be fair, as ambitious as the Irish National Opera can be, even with reinterpretations of the standards of the opera repertoire, playing to the darker side of Così fan tutte is perhaps not really what they want to do with an opera buffa, particularly for a touring production. Leave that to the likes of Michael Haneke (Madrid, 2013) and Christophe Honoré (Aix-en-Provence, 2016). What they really want to get across is the wonder and beauty of Mozart, and there is no denying what we have here is a light and enjoyable production that certainly entertained the audience at the Gaiety in Dublin. Even though the Votes for Women scenes felt a bit forced in places, like a well meaning corrective for any misinterpretation of misogyny in the comedy. I have to admit, I enjoyed it more after the interval when I accepted the simple pleasure of seeing an amazing Mozart opera performed well, and was able to put aside any expectations of it having something significant to say.
There was certainly plenty to enjoy in the delivery of the singing performances. Anna Devin and Sharon Carty were everything you could hope for as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, their delivery bright and sparkling, filled with emotional sentiments, even if their predicament wasn't fully brought out in the direction of the acting. The same can be said for Dean Power's Ferrando and Benjamin Russell's Guglielmo. Neither were convincing in their disguises, but the emotional impact of the revelations they have about their girlfriends were wholly felt in their singing, which was powerful and true. The ever reliable John Molloy similarly made a great impression, even if his role as a manipulator was undervalued in the direction. On the other hand, Majella Cullagh delivered a fine comic performance in Despina's various guises and was the prime motivator in bringing the two sisters into the new sisterhood, but was slightly underpowered in her singing. It just shows how difficult all the singing roles are in Mozart - there are no secondary or minor roles here.
All credit to the principal roles then (and great idea of the INO to display the cast names in the surtitles as they took their bows at the curtain call), but you can't have any weaknesses at all in a meticulously constructed opera like this. The chorus played their part and the orchestra delivered the musical delights under the direction of Peter Whelan. The niggling inconsistencies in the setting and purpose were easily put aside then, as was any attempt to seek something deeper in Polly Graham's direction of the INO's Così fan tutte. The 'they're all the same' message here was simply that we all deserve to be loved and treated equally, and that was as truthful a reflection of the opera's intent as any.
Links: Irish National Opera