Mozart's third great collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte, has enjoyed a chequered performance history since its première in the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1790, a year before Mozart's death. Its initial series of performances were interrupted by the death of Emperor Joseph II, and bad luck seemed to dog the opera throughout much of its early performance history. While the audiences in Mozart's time did not find the subject matter of the opera confronting – contemporary reaction was generally positive – during the nineteenth century a more censorious attitude towards the opera emerged, and a reaction to what were regarded as immoral themes, antithetical to the romantic idealisation of women, resulted in several clumsy and ineffectual reworkings of the libretto in an attempt to accommodate sensibilities of a less liberal age.
Audiences and critics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ignored much of the thematic content of the opera, seeing it as flimsy and trivial, preferring to allow the music – and what sublime music it is with its incomparable series of ensembles interspersed with several memorable arias – to soften the more unpalatable aspects of the story, while seeming to miss the sophisticated irony that completely permeates the opera.
Two productions of Così fan tutte that this reviewer has recently seen provide an interesting contrast in approach to this late flowering of Mozart's genius. Most cities in the world would be satisfied with one major opera company, but there are several cities with two or more: London has Covent Garden and the currently embattled English National Opera; New York has City Opera which, after filing for bankruptcy in 2013, has now, phoenix-like, risen again this year, in addition to the famed Metropolitan Opera; while Berlin has three major houses. In operatic terms Vienna is justly celebrated for the magisterial Staatsoper, but there are several other companies, just like Berlin. The Volksoper has long been seen as Vienna's second company, and sometimes poor cousin to the Staatsoper, but it has a long and distinguished history of offering a widely ranging repertoire, mainly sung in German, but often with more innovative and interesting productions than one would find at the more glamorous house on the Ringstrasse.
The Volksoper's current production of Così (★★★), directed by Bruno Klimek and conducted by Julia Jones, uses a device that is not new in opera production – theatre-within-theatre – but which has the effect of framing the opera in a potentially fascinating way. The story of the wager by the two young soldiers, Ferrando and Gugliemo, with their older friend, Don Alfonso, concerning the faithfulness of their girlfriends, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, is fairly flimsy at best, and downright implausible at times. What Klimek has done is to set the opera in the present, staged as a student rehearsal of the work. As the overture commences, the two couples enter, while Alfonso, as director, is accompanied by a young stage manager, Despina, who has more than a professional relationship with him – thus adding another level to the action. With a model of the stage set in front of him, Alfonso mimes what in German-speaking theatre is termed 'a concept discussion' – an often-dreaded occurrence when the singers gradually realise what they might have to endure during the production of the opera they are about to perform as the director attempts to explain his ideas and their realisation to the cast.
As the overture ends and the first ensembles begin, the three men appear to be singing from vocal scores of the opera – the two men bantering with Alfonso, while their respective girlfriends cavort on their laps. All peer at the music scores as the men vaguely suggest the action that occurs in the libretto, where, of course, the two girls and Despina are not on stage at this point in the opera. This at times confusing yet promising conceit continues throughout the first half hour of the performance, but gradually is undercut when a rail of costumes is pushed on stage and the characters don vaguely 'period' costume, the two girls in flowing white dresses, and the men in all-purpose black.
Like many directorial interventions in opera, what seems a stimulating and potentially productive idea at first gradually peters out as it proves difficult to sustain, so the 'authentic' performance continues, subsuming the 'rehearsal'. The costumes that the characters don project them back into the eighteenth century where the suggestion is that more 'authentic' emotions occur. Klimek's somewhat aborted framing device certainly emphasises the artificiality of the operatic art form itself, as well as the inherent element of 'performance' that pervades Così – throughout the work the characters are continually aware of performing for each other while observing each other performing – deception in many forms is at the heart of the work.
The singing in this performance (23 June 2016) was good without being outstanding – the first run of the opera in 2015 had a rising star at the Staatsoper, Australian soprano Caroline Wenborne, as Fiordiligi – but Jessica Muirhead who sang the role in this performance was the standout in a most competent cast. However, one was left with the feeling that the director might have had more confidence in his original concept – the highly provisional ending of the opera, where the final pairing of the couples remains ambiguous as they enter a hastily arranged marriage, could have been used to return to the present and offer some interesting final thoughts on Così itself, and the nature of opera as a viable contemporary art form.
David McVicar's production for Opera Australia (★★★★1/2) suffers from no such lack in confidence in its overall concept and its execution and is the final instalment of his staging of the three Da Ponte operas for the company. After a starkly dramatic Don Giovanni, his staging of Le nozze di Figaro last year was a model of clarity of intention which thrillingly illuminated this most beloved of Mozart's operas. Così is a more difficult opera to stage successfully – not a lot really happens, unlike the helter-skelter succession of events in Figaro and the metaphysical drama of Giovanni. McVicar has made manifest the subtext that lurks within Così but which is often glossed over in productions that emphasise the farce-like elements. He moves the opera out of its late eighteenth-century setting, placing it in the period immediately prior to World War I. Thus the opening scene when the wager is entered into is not in a coffee shop, but in an Italian officers' mess. the action is coloured by a strong sense of imminent upheaval and change. This element of volatility, often barely contained, obtains throughout the opera, mirroring the emotional journey that the four lovers endure.
Just as in Figaro, McVicar uses a spacious and elegant set by designer Moritz Junge in which the action unfolds, evocatively lit by David Finn – all a visual delight and a wonderful space for the action which is aided by slick set changes. McVicar has a consummate grasp of the changing character dynamics, both in the broadly fluid staging, as well as in the small details that illuminate character development. A striking example occurs early on when Fiordilgi and Dorabella are anticipating their lovers' arrival and compare the lockets containing their respective portraits. They playfully toss these lockets to each other – a seemingly trivial bit of stage business but richly suggestive and symbolic of what is about to transpire. A similarly meticulous attention to detail continues throughout the work, culminating in the final, heartbreaking moment as the opera ends and the girls realise the full consequences of what has happened. Mozart's music for the end is a typical rapid culminating summation of whatever moral is to be pointed, but which often works to gloss over this highly problematic ending through musical energy and verve. However, in this production as the final bars unfold, Ferrando and Gugliemo attempt to drag their new spouses off stage while the girls reach out to each other with looks of horror on their faces as their hands are pulled apart – no happy ending this, but a moment teetering on the brink of tragedy.
McVicar has an outstanding cast to work with and the collaboration brings out the best in the singers. Fiordiligi is soprano Nicole Car, an outstanding Countess in last year's Figaro. She delivers some of Mozart's most demanding vocal writing with aplomb – anecdotally it has been suggested that Mozart did not like his original Fiordiligi, Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, who was Lorenzo da Ponte's mistress, and punished her by writing a vocal part that has some gravity-defying vocal leaps – the bane of many a soprano's life. Car makes short work of these challenges in her first act aria, Come scoglio, and in the great second act rondo, Per pietà, sings with superb line and plangent vocal tone. She has garnered much richly deserved success at a relatively early stage in her career, but this is a singer who appears secure and confident in what she can do. As her sister Dorabella, Anna Dowsley – even younger than Car – is not in the least overshadowed. She perfectly captures the cheeky, mischievous aspect of the character, revealing a richly warm yet finely focused silvery mezzo that continues to develop from earlier appearances as Rosina and Cherubino. Just like Car, Dowsley is a singer on an impressive upwards trajectory.
As the two male lovers, both David Portillo and Andrew Jones were excellent. Portillo has an attractively light but full tenor voice that well addressed the vocal challenges of the role of Ferrando. Most impressive was his performance of his first act aria, Un aura amorosa, Mozart's relentless exploitation of the upper reaches of the tenor voice, particularly in the final page of the aria, seemingly holding no terrors for him. Perhaps the musical high point of the opera was his duet with Car in Act Two, where Fiordiligi finally succumbs to Ferrando's advances. When wonderful music like this is sung by two such attractive voices and musically expressive performers, it reveals the deep emotion of this sublime moment. Jones has a strong and incisive baritone and robust stage presence, and enjoyed an excellent reception for his aria Donne mia, sung directly to the audience and reminiscent of Figaro's final act diatribe against the fickleness of women.
The manipulators Despina and Alfonso brought both vocal and dramatic experience to their roles. Taryn Fiebig has been a stalwart of many Opera Australia productions; her knowing portrayal of Despina adds another finely worked incarnation to her impressive list of credits. Hers is a fuller voice than often is the case for this role, and adds more depth to the character. Richard Anderson was a saturnine looming presence throughout the work, occasionally a little veiled in tone and diction, but he brought more emotional depth to the character than is often the case, revealing genuine anguish at the outcome of the events.
The Volksoper Così was enjoyable but musically rather routine – not so the Opera Australia performance. This is certainly one of the best offerings by the company in recent years, gloriously illustrating the truism – often not achieved – that when all the elements in opera come together at such a high level as this, there is no greater performance art form. McVicar has brought a Shakespearean depth and pathos to his staging of this problematic opera; as in all great comedy, tragedy hovers in the background. Opera Australia have done Mozart proud.
Così fan tutte, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is directed by David McVicar for Opera Australia. The season continues at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House until 13 August 2016. Performance attended: 22 July.
Arts Update is generously supported by the Ian Potter Foundation.