Opera Australia: Così fan tutte’s engaging salute to love

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Published: 21st May, 2019
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Opera Australia’s current production of Così fan tutte was first staged at the Sydney Opera House in 2016. Visually, it is especially beautiful – in the setting, movement and costuming. Though Mozart’s opera was first staged in 1790, this production draws on the style and fashions of early 1900’s Italy, a time when the work began its serious rise in popularity that resulted in it being a staple of opera companies worldwide today.

The plot is too complex to tell in detail here. Though it seems to read as light comedy, it is more substantial and certainly darker beneath the surface lightness. It is a story of young love goaded into destructive behavior by the cynicism of two older people. It also requires the suspension of disbelief that one could disguise oneself sufficiently that one’s lover would be unable to recognise the person with whom they have been intimate. This is, of course, a time honoured tradition in theater, and as so many themes of human behavior are explored by beginning with a ‘what if?’ proposition, it must be taken on face value here.

All six principals performed their roles with admirable depth, clarity, expression and stamina throughout – for everyone gets some substantial work here, between various ensembles, duos and extensive solos. Fiordiligi was performed by soprano Jane Ede, Dorabella by mezzo soprano Anna Dowsley, Despina – bringing great depth of comic skill – by soprano Taryn Fiebig, Ferrando by tenor Pavel Petrov, Gugliemo – with exceptional acting depth by baritone Samuel Dundas, and Don Alfonso – with a little menace beneath the skilled manipulation by Richard Anderson. Casting clearly made the most of a complementary range of skills and tone colour.

The unseen chorus was also excellent, as were the silent actors in the other support roles.

Orchestra Victoria was led by Keri-Lynn Wilson. From the overture, where the audience’s attention was immediate, to the finale, beautifully judged tempi, appropriate contrasts and balanced accompaniment for the singers were maintained.

Both Da Ponte’s original title and Mozart’s renaming of the work are surely provocative. Translating respectively as ‘The school for lovers” and “So do all women” this work currently suffers from a kind of labeling as “of its period misogyny”, but I think that misunderstands the depth to which the piece explores the dynamics of love. It is true that eventually the women succumb to the advances of the handsome “strangers” (each other’s lover in disguise) proving the cynical Don Alfonso’s assertion, and assisted all too willingly by money hungry Despina. However, the male approach here is one of destroying something to see how it works. To see the anguish and breakdown of the men’s friendship as caused by the women’s perfidy is not enough. These men subject each other’s lovers to the most intense barrage of wooing, and when they remain steadfast, the men resort to pure emotional blackmail – pretending to be so lovesick that they have taken poison. Why? Because being unsure about what love is, they have laid money in bets.

Of course it is a given that the young torture each other while learning about love, but perhaps Così fan tutte is best understood as something one contemplates from a safe distance – much like today’s strange “reality TV” contests where we retreat from the contestants’ behavior behind a screen of “thank goodness we are not like these people!” Or maybe simply “thank goodness we are a little older”. Though Così fan tutte’s protagonists’ behavior is extreme, who among us does not cringe at the memory of an insensitive treatment of a lover in our callow youth?

This leaves one further puzzle: given the delicate and fleeting nature of love thus exposed, there is still the extraordinary depth and ravishing beauty of Mozart’s setting of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, particularly the memorable arias. For all that we eventually see love here as less than meeting the substance of all the young lovers’ declarations, there is no doubt that at the time, they mean them with all their hearts. In this, Mozart’s music supports the emotions, however temporal they are then shown to be.

Mention must be made of the surtitles; the translations were sensitive to the language, and the period in which the libretto was written, yet carried some spontaneity and close to colloquial touches. The audience’s response to this was notable, in terms of engagement. Well done, Andy Morton.

The program notes were wonderfully detailed, with great depth to the discussions of music, drama and the history of the work’s presentations by Roger Covell and Peter Bassett. Così fan tutte has something to say to audiences today, and if anything, the current production by Opera Australia heightens the effect of the message.

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Peter Hurley reviewed Opera Australia’s performance of Così fan tutte given at Arts Centre Melbourne State Theatre on May 14, 2019.