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Opera Chats: Così fan tutte (Royal Opera House, 2016)

Today’s chat relates to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa Così fan tutte (“Women are like that”), libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, which had its world premiere at the Burghteater in Vienna in 1790. This 2016 production is from the Royal Opera House in London. It was directed by Jan Philipp Gloger and conducted by Semyon Bychkov.

The story is about two young couples. The men, Ferrando (Daniel Behle) and Guglielmo (Alessio Arduini), are firm believers that their girlfriends, sisters Dorabella (Angela Brower) and Fiordiligi (Corinne Winters), would never be unfaithful to them. Their old friend Don Alfonso (Johannes Martin Kränzle) says “wanna bet?” and convinces the men to pretend to leave, returning in disguise to try and seduce the other’s girlfriend, aided and abetted by Despina (Sabina Puértolas). They have 24 hours.

This discussion contains spoilers for both plot and ending.

Set designer: Ben Baur
Costume designer: Karin Jud
Lighting designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Dramaturg: Katharina John
Concert Master: Peter Manning

■ ■ ■

Francis: Another month, another opera! And we’ve been watching Mozart, as we said we would.

Traxy: Mozart in Italian, no less.

F: I know! Best of both worlds! Italian opera and Mozart.

T: You like Mozart?

F: Can you even exist and not have some kind of appreciation for Mozart, however small?

T: Probably, but not very likely.

F: You mentioned once that this was the first opera you ever saw live on stage.

T: I did, yes. I can’t say I recognised any of it, but it was such a long time ago. I can’t even remember things that happened last week, let alone 30 years ago.

F: It happens.

T: Have you seen it before?

F: Not that I can remember. My parents took me along occasionally when I was younger, and then life got in the way. I don’t go to every opera that comes around either, ya know. Not for lack of wanting, but I ain’t got the time.

T: And your parents only took you to see Verdi?

F: Mostly, yeah. To be honest, the plot we’re looking at here ain’t exactly unique. People hiding their true identities, lovers’ misunderstandings, all of that. So forgive me if I can’t remember if this is new to me or not.

T: Sounding a bit like my mum there.

F: But I didn’t say anything about cleaning your room?

T: Haha, no, but there would be a new film on TV and she’ll see a bit of it and go “I’m sure I’ve seen this before” and not be entirely convinced when we point out it’s the first time it’s been shown on TV since leaving the cinema.

F: Seen one, seen ‘em all. I get it.

T: Do you really feel like that’s the case with this one?

F: No, I think this brings something of its own, which also goes for the production.

T: Did you like it?

F: I did! The blend of modern and old was a little out there but it was cool.

T: Yeah, they started out being dressed like you’d expect from a play from the 1700s, and they kept taking bows as if it was the end of the play and not the beginning.

F: And then the main characters showed up in the audience in modern day clothing!

T: Yeah. Don Alfonso kept looking like he was from the past, Despina got changed on stage. It was all kinda weird.

F: The director was inspired to set it in a theater.

T: Really?

F: Says so on the show’s page:

German director Jan Philipp Gloger is inspired by Così’s alternative title, ‘the school for lovers’, to set his production in a theatre, with Don Alfonso as an impresario who leads the four lovers on a role-playing journey full of picturesque settings.

T: Well, how ‘bout that. Guess that explains the whole taking a bow during the ouverture thing.

F: So it would seem. And also:

By the end, everyone has, in Gloger’s words, learnt that ‘love is not a God-given thing, but something that we have to fight for, find, define, create and dream newly, almost every day’.

T: I mean, sure, I guess?

F: You sound real convinced.

T: Like, for starters of course love isn’t a “God-given thing”, but then I’d argue nothing is.

F: Because atheism?

T: Because atheism. And yes you may have to find it, and you have to work on it but if you’re having to be locked in a constant battle to fight for it, maybe you’re actually with the wrong person?

F: Because you shouldn’t have to constantly fight in order to achieve it.

T: Right.

F: You’ve got a point. Anything specific you liked about the way they did this production?

T: Yes, I liked how they were giggling over a mobile phone rather than a picture. That made it seem fitting with the modern day.

F: What seems strange to me is that they make a big deal out of Ferrando and Guglielmo being soldiers and going away to war, but they’re never in uniform. Guglielmo was well dressed. Ferrando …

T: Looked like an art critic, or Steve Jobs, or something.

F: It’s the glasses. Makes you look smart.

T: That and the polo neck shirt with suit jacket. Add some elbow patches and there’s your university lecturer.

F: He seemed solid. Guy playing Guglielmo reminded me too much of one of my brothers.

T: But at least they were good singers?

F: Oh, absolutely. Wonderful performances all around.

T: I also liked that the cast was relatively young, because with some of these operas, you see the characters being portrayed as maybe 20 years old, if that, but the people playing them are at least twice that age, or more. Like, in Il Trovatore, I’m sure the main characters were meant to be fairly young, but the tenor performing Manrico was clearly much older.

F: What was he, fifty? Sixty?

T: Something like that. It’s the same thing you get when you have TV-series and films with people who are obviously in their 30s pretending to be 16-year-olds in high school. Cough, Rizzo in Grease, cough.

F: At least they all seemed to be of a not too dissimilar age here, and that age being relatively young.

T: You can only suspend your disbelief so far if you have a bunch of sixty-year-olds playing incredibly naive young lovers, so yeah.

F: The problem as I see it is when you have a lot of talented performers but don’t get new people coming in. For the art to continue you need fresh blood. If all you had was an ever aging pool of the same performers doing the same roles over and over from when they’re 20 to when they’re 80, that would be a sign of a dying art form.

T: Which would be tragic.

F: It would! So this is great. It’s reassuring to me to see younger performers, because it means opera will live on another generation.

T: That’s a very good point.

F: And you know what? I’m enjoying the acting as well as the singing. They’re good.

T: I agree! They’re animated and lively, but in a good way. They bring life to their characters. And it turns out I’m such a poor judge of ages, much to the surprise of no one.

F: Why, what’s up?

T: I was saying about how I enjoyed the performers being relatively young?

F: Ya-huh? Oh. Did you google them and find out they’re older than you thought?

T: Ah-huh. I was only really trying to find out where they’re from, but Ferrando was in his early 40s when they did this, and Guglielmo was about 30.

F: And the ladies?

T: No idea, it doesn’t actually say. Anywhere.

F: Weird.

T: Little bit. Despina is Spanish, the sisters are both American. Ferrando I guessed would be German going by the name, which is correct, and Guglielmo’s Italian.

F: Were you ever in doubt?

T: He could have been Spanish or something. I mean it’s possible.

F: But unlikely.

T: And boy are people thirsting over him online!

F: Does that surprise you?

T: Well, in part? Not him specifically perhaps, he’s clearly classically handsome. It’s more that when you think “opera” you don’t tend to think “shirtless hunks ahoy!”

F: I’m glad I could help challenge your preconceptions. You thought it was a well-kept secret?

T: Opera providing eye candy? Yes and no. I mean … from the very first one I saw it was clear that those preconceptions were wrong.

F: For sure. But there you go, all kinds of people become opera performers.

T: I feel like we’ve veered off topic here.

F: We have, as we often do. We were talking about how the acting was enjoyable.

T: Yes. It really was. I daresay there was more actual acting here than in several of the other ones we’ve seen.

F: Hey now, are you trying to start an argument?

T: No?

F: Because it kinda sounds like you’re accusing previous performers of not acting on stage.

T: That’s not what I was trying to say.

F: Are you referring to the performers pulling faces in the background in this one?

T: Sort of but also no? It’s just that they seem to do more in the background.

F: Or maybe you’re just thinking about it more because the sets kept changing? Fidelio had the same set for the entire duration, and others only changed with the act changes.

T: You’re saying it kept my attention better, because there were more things going on?

F: Yeah, in essence.

T: … That’s … fair.

F: Don’t conflate changing sets, more costumes and more props into “more acting”. They’re all acting, but some have to make do with fewer external tools at their disposal, ya know? That takes skill.

T: That’s also fair. But yeah, the sets really did change a lot.

F: And the clothes.

T: But that made it seem livelier, and considering it’s a romantic comedy I think that fits really well.

F: The maid became a barmaid, at least temporarily, which I can get behind. It really suited the scene.

T: Despina felt really modern as a character, but I don’t know if that’s maybe more down to the production and how it was played than how it was written. Although Mozart’s known for being quite bawdy.

F: No one will ever admit to liking it, but you gotta admit toilet humor transcends time.

T: Without a doubt. Not a question of toilet humour here, though, but good old fashioned sexism.

F: The whole premise of “all women are fickle” not sit right with you? I can’t imagine why.

T: Right? That’s the whole story right there. “All women are fickle and horny and will go off with anyone who shows them the slightest bit of interest. Men are so much more reliable.”

F: And the way to prove this stupid claim is to play dress-up as Albanian nobles, which are such solid disguises the women don’t see through them in seconds?

T: It’s Lois Lane and Clark Kent’s glasses again, although if you’re used to seeing someone in glasses people do look very different without them, but here we’re only talking about some different clothes and a fake moustache?

F: Even with Don Alfonso and Despina playing along it still feels like it’s stretching credibility real thin.

T: So really it’s not only saying that women are fickle, but also that we’re complete idiots.

F: I dare anyone to tell that to my mother, especially when she’s armed.

T: She’s armed?

F: With wooden spoons.

T: Of course.

F: Still dangerous to get within melee range.

T: Do the spoons have good reach or does she have a good aim?

F: Both when sufficiently motivated.

T: And this would motivate her?

F: Ohhh yeah. And rightfully so. I mean, c’mon.

T: Your mother sounds pretty badass.

F: Thank you, she is.

T: With dressing up, though, at least Jane Eyre sees through the disguise when Mr Rochester dresses up as a gypsy woman. I guess things in Brontë’s time had come along a bit in the almost 60 years since Così was first performed.

F: Or simply because Jane Eyre was written by a woman, and Così was written by a couple of guys.

T: That’s also true, and they were from very different walks of life. And countries. But, basically, it’s fair to say that Così hasn’t aged well in that regard.

F: It would have aged better if it ended with the women genuinely spurning the two interlopers, so their soldier fiancés were proven right, that their ladies were true to them all along. They could have won the bet. Problem is it ends with Don Alfonso winning the bet instead, so everyone shrugs and “oh well, women are fickle, told ya” and then we’re lead to believe that everyone lives happily ever after, que sera, sera. Seriously!? I look at that and wanna say, “uh, I have questions.”

T: Questions like “you thought I’d betray you, so you decided to seduce my sister for a bet? What the fuck is wrong with you?” and “you’ve both now come clean about your massive betrayals and you think we still want to marry you?” Yeah, me too.

F: None of those are good foundations for matrimony. Even li’l old unwed me knows that much.

T: But then I guess it still follows a lot of modern day romantic comedies. They’re not necessarily unproblematic either, when you watch them again after a few years. Just look at Love Actually, that’s a prime example.

F: Times change and society along with it.

T: Or so you hope.

F: So we’re saying the modern staging is a great way of keeping up with the times of a story which has otherwise failed to keep up with the times?

T: Yes. Although when you think about it, it’s kind of timeless at the same time. The only thing that clashes with a modern day setting is the kind of stuff that a lot of modern romantic comedies gloss over anyway, but there’s nothing that says this has to be set in the past.

F: Care to elaborate?

T: Okay. So. Norma is clearly set in Roman times, Aida in Ancient Egypt, Tosca during the French invasion of Rome in the early 1800s.

F: Yeah.

T: You have to change a lot of things around for them to make sense outside of the context of their respective eras, because they’re specifically written to fit into those settings. It’s part of the plot.

F: Sure.

T: Nothing in Così links it to a specific time period. So out of a lot of operas, this one you really can do your own thing with without it being detrimental to the story or having to do too many changes. Did I tell you about what I read Opera North have done to Carmen?

F: Yes. That’s part of why you didn’t buy tickets to see it?

T: Trying to avoid catching the plague was a bigger motivator, but yeah, it made me feel better about deciding not to go, although I think reviews said that the changes kind of worked. Now it’s sold out in Nottingham anyway, so even if I had changed my mind about the plague we couldn’t have gone to see it.

F: Can you still get it on TV?

T: I hope so. Let me check. Yes, yes you can. But yeah, you can set Così in any time period and it will translate okay. Others can’t do the transition without major changes, which is how Madama Butterfly became Miss Saigon and La Bohème became Rent. Or even how Romeo & Juliet became West Side Story, or the novel Emma became the film Clueless.

F: And why Norma didn’t work.

T: Because they didn’t change the story to suit the setting they were going for, so it just seemed confused, whereas Così? Not a problem. Others, you can’t simply put the characters in modern clothes and shove a mobile phone in their hand and think the story still makes sense. Like Jane Eyre. Typhoid outbreak in a boarding school for orphans? Rochester not getting a paternity test for Adèle to make sure? The whole staying married to Bertha instead of having it annulled? Locking her in the attic? Jane refusing to stay with him because he’s already married, because that’s such a big moral dilemma these days?

F: I get it. You can change a horse to a motorbike but she would’ve definitely googled him.

T: Yeah. So, anyway, you fancy doing Carmen next? It has some fantastic music, after all, and we haven’t formally discussed a French opera yet.

F: Or an English.

T: We can still get the drive-in version of La Bohème, you know. That was in English.

F: Nah, we’ll get to La Bohème eventually.

T: All three versions of it.

F: Three?!

T: Yup. English National Opera’s drive-in version in English, Opera Australia’s one on Sydney Harbour, and one from the Royal Opera House.

F: Spoiled for choice.

T: The latter being properly in period costume and everything, and apparently one I’ve previously missed.

F: How many operas have you got on that TV box of yours now, waiting for us to get to them?

T: Umm. A few? I’ve lost count. … It’s ten.

F: Ten glorious productions.

T: Mr T thinks I should work my way through them.

F: And we will! One at a time.

T: Stopping to discuss them is what takes time.

F: Which is why it’s best to stop here so we can get going with the next one.

T: Excellent plan.

F: Thank you, I’m here all week. A presto!

Francis

An old school gentleman in a modern world, longing for the simplicity of days gone by. Definitely not a saint. Enjoys The Sopranos and going to the opera. A meticulous dresser with Strong Opinions™ about Italian food. Wonders why "Fedora-wearing" is an insult, as he doesn't feel dressed without one.

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