Don Alfonso and Despina disguised as a lawyer
Last night I saw Così fan tutte performed by Opera North. This was the first time I had seen Mozart's 1790 opera buffa (or comic opera), and hearing that the production had had excellent reviews and was elegantly staged in a period-appropriate setting, I looked forward to seeing it. And the production didn't disappoint, even if we were up in the balcony at an angle that induced mild vertigo in my boyfriend and which apparently did not have the benefits of the costly new airconditioning system that has recently been installed. No matter when the actors are accomplished, the music is elegant, and the laughs are genuine and unexpected.
The production was performed in English, which will displease purists but is quite a common trick for Opera North, who like to make opera accessible to a wider audience. Often, of course, operas being sung in English are not actually that readily understandable, but the enunciation of all the singers was very good, and the conversational quality of much of the music (if that makes sense!) means that it is easy to follow.
The essential storyline of the opera is (to borrow Opera North's synopsis): "Ferrando and Guglielmo, two army officers, are convinced of the fidelity of their sweethearts, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Manipulative philosopher Don Alfonso, on the other hand, claims all women are fickle and bets the officers that the sisters will prove unfaithful if put to the test". Don Alfonso enlists the help of Despina, the sisters' maid, and disguises Gerrando and Guglielmo as Albanian travellers (!) who attempt to win the hearts of Fiordiligi and Dorabella. The women ultimately give in, thus proving that cosi fan tutte - all women are the same!
Such a cheerfully misogynist message can be difficult to stage nowadays. Directors who stage The Merchant of Venice can find presenting it as a comedy problematic; Cosi is not as riddled with difficulties as that play, but it does pose some of the same issues: how do you keep the spirit of the piece whilst also ensuring it is appealing to a modern audience? This production of Cosi relied a great deal on the mathematical principles involved in the complex partner swapping of the opera, with the play being staged as a drawing room inside some kind of camera obscura, and the positions of the movements of the furniture (and thus the players too) marked out carefully on the floor. I was not quite convinced by the programme notes which tied the opera into Enlightenment era scientific developments, but the staging did emphasise that not only is this a game to the quixotic and rather callous Don Alfonso, it is also a scientific experiment, conducted with an eighteenth century philosopher's curiosity and rigour.
The costume also played a part in establishing the mood of the production. At first the four lovers were dressed in matching costumes. As the play progressed, their clothes changed. The women, who had worn identical pale dresses and wigs, ended up in constrasting and richly coloured outfits, whilst the men went from the grey formality of their uniforms to the bright and ludicrous fun of jewel-toned robes and false moustaches. It felt as if this experiment actually made them start becoming individuals, with more really felt emotions. In the first act, the quintet Sento, o Dio, che questo piedo è restio was played for laughs, as the four lovers show affected and dramatic feeling. By the time Fiordiligi sings Per pietà, ben mio, perdona, the aria where she wrestles with her conscience, conventional platitudes have given way to expressions of real emotion. The experiment makes the lovers reassess themselves and their feelings; the men are forced to realise that the women they love are human beings, not unresponsive angels, and the women are left wondering that if they can fall in love in a day with a stranger, what value did their original love have?
It is this journey that makes the ending work, because the final scene has an uneasy quality that can sit oddly with the lighthearted atmosphere of most of the rest of the opera. You do not see the four lovers wed; it is assumed that it will happen, but Mozart does not supply the complete reconciliation you might expect. I get the impression that this is what Mozart wanted, and rather than necessarily being a wholly cynical comment on the nature of women or love, it is instead a fitting end to an opera that delivers the surprisingly modern message that it is better to be uncertain in truth than certainly deceive.
This all sounds very serious. In fact the opera was a delight, the six performers all showing fine comic skills, particularly Amy Freston as Despina and Geoffrey Dolton as Don Alfonso. It's not often there is full and wholehearted laughter at the opera, but we got it in spades last night. Being made to laugh and then being made to think - I can think of few better ways to spend an evening.