Stage Door Review 2019

Così fan tutte

Feb 7, 2019

✭✭✭✩✩

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Atom Egoyan

Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

February 5-23, 2019

Despina: “L’aure incostanti

Han più degli uomini

Stabilità”

The Canadian Opera Company is reviving its production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte directed by Atom Egoyan and designed by Debra Hanson. Egoyan has an overall conceit that guides the production but there are two competing design concepts neither of which helps illustrate Egoyan’s conceit nor have anything to do with each other. This problem existed when the production debuted in 2014 and it is no less irksome on a second viewing. In terms of drama, however, Egoyan has thought more deeply about the opera and has gone some distance to mitigating the perceived misogyny of the plot.

Così fan tutte presents difficulties for a modern audience right from its title. In his Director’s Note Egoyan translates it as “Everybody does it”, but that’s not correct. “Tutte” is plural feminine in Italian so that, the title really mean “All women do it” or “All women are like that”. The fact that this phrase is explained in its most negative form by the Don Alfonso, the most overt misogynist of the work, does not support Egoyan’s innocent interpretation.

The plot is simple and unpleasant. Don Alfonso (Russell Braun) wants to set up a bet with two young men, Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (Johannes Kammler), that he can prove they cannot trust their fiancées to be faithful because “così fan tutte”. To do this he announces to Ferrando’s fiancée Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo) and Guglielmo’s fiancée Fiordiligi (Kirsten MacKinnon) that the two men have been drafted to go to war.

In their supposed absence, Alfonso introduces the girls to two Albanian men who he claims are great friends of his. They are really Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise. Ferrando proceeds to woo Fiordiligi and Guglielmo to woo Dorabella. After despicable tricks like pretending to poison themselves because the girls won’t love them in return, the girls, encouraged by Alfonso’s maid Despina (Tracy Dahl), do finally give in and marry their wooers. Just after the marriage, Ferrando and Guglielmo turn up no longer in disguise and berate the young women for their unfaithfulness. 

Given this plot most stage directors try to find a way to make it more palatable. In his “Director’s Note” Egoyan claims that in his version “The sisters seem to be in on Don Alfonso’s experiment from the beginning”. Yet, luckily, he does nothing of the sort. Even if the women were in on the plot from the beginning it would mean that all the emotion they express in missing their lovers, the misgivings they have when tested by the Albanians and the shame they feel at the end would be feigned. Is showing how well women can feign emotion any better than showing they are all prone to unfaithfulness?

Egoyan’s prime source of inspiration is the subtitle for the opera “La scuola degli amanti” (“The School for Lovers”) that he decides to take literally.  Therefore, he presents Alfonso as a teacher at a school, apparently specializing in biology, and his wager with the two young men is an experiment in biological determinism that the chorus of students will observe.  

Two aspects of how Egoyan carries out this idea are rather strange. In Act 1 Egoyan has the chorus, clipboards in hand, closely follow and observe the lovers’ actions. In Act 2, however, he only sporadically recalls this theme. For the key points that the students should be observing – how the women eventually give in to the men – they are absent, which rather undermines the whole concept. Also, while we assume that the chorus, when present can see the four lovers, how is it that the four lovers are unable to see the chorus?

The second odd aspect is that the primary imagery for Alfonso’s experiment is lepidoptery. Designer Debra Hanson has blow-ups of pinned butterflies projected on the back wall and, with great unsubtlety, the class is armed with giant pins that they threaten to stick into the lovers at the end on Act 1. Butterfly collecting, of course, has nothing to do with observing behaviour since the butterflies are dead. So why do the students threaten the lovers with pins? How do they plan to observe their interactions if the lovers are dead? 

Hanson, well-known for her taste for excess, places butterflies in every scene she can as if they were the primary symbol of the opera. Egoyan says, “While butterflies – the very symbol of freedom – can be caught and pinned down, such is not the case with the human heart”.  How exactly are we to see this relationship especially when Hanson doesn’t use it consistently?  For the outdoor scene in Act 1, Hanson has the sisters wear boaters with little butterflies attached as if flitting about.  At the same time she has huge blow-ups of pinned butterflies flown above them.  When the sisters first consider giving up their vow of faithfulness, Hanson has unpinned butterflies, illuminated from within, flown down as a backdrop.  This time the backdrop accords with the action.  Near the end, however, she has devised wedding gowns for the sisters with such a cloud of unpinned butterflies circling each headdress the two women look ridiculous. How is pinning yourself down for life related to the fluttering butterflies?  At the end when the two couples decide, again, to marry, Hanson lowers the huge pinned butterflies again.

Competing with the butterfly imagery is another source that has nothing to do with them or the idea of the “school for lovers”.  It is instead the painting “Las dos Fridas” (1939) by the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54). The work forms the front drop that we see when we enter the auditorium.  The painting is a double portrait of Kahlo, the likeness on the left wearing European clothes, the one on the right wearing traditional Mexican costume.  The hearts of both are exposed, the one of the European Frida has been sliced open while that of the Mexican Frida is whole.  A blood vessel runs from a locket of Frida’s ex-husband Diego Rivera that the Mexican Frida is holding and entwines the two until it ends in the lap of the European Frida where it is clamped off with a hemostat. Kahlo, who required frequent blood transfusions, would have known quite well about hemostats and their difference from scissors.  

All that Egoyan has garnered from this painting that is relevant to Così is the presence of two women, the sense they are related, a broken versus an unbroken heart and a locket.  Metaphorically, we might receive the notion that every woman has two sides or two choices in life – one traditional, one non-traditional.  

In 2014 my review in Opera News pointed out that Egoyan had mistaken the hemostat, a type of clamp, for scissors. This time, while Egoyan still has Alfonso and Fiordiligi wield a pair of giant scissors, he has Alfonso go behind a backlit painting of “Las dos Fridas” and hold up the scissors in one hand and in the other a giant version of a hemostat exactly like the one in the painting. He has Alfonso shrug his shoulders in silhouette as if to ask, “Which one is it?”, but Egoyan significantly downplays the use of the scissors in the scene. A placard of scissors cutting a red cord or ribbon that lands on Ferrando still appears, but now to no purpose, and Fiordiligi still beheads flowers with scissors but far less ostentatiously than in 2014. 

As if the two exposed human hearts in “Las dos Fridas” were not enough, Hanson has two sacred hearts on pedestals brought out in Act 2 to stand on either side of the screen where Egoyan conducts his close-up survey of Kahlo’s painting.  Since Così has less to do with the supernatural or the divine than any of Mozart’s operas, the presence of these sacred hearts, lit from within, flames bursting from the top, simply adds further confusion to the imagery.  

As a director of opera, Egoyan does not show the assurance he did in Salome or Die Walküre.  Act 1 is marred by one odd decision after another. Egoyan has Alfonso teaching in a science laboratory but has cushions on the floor where Dorabella and Fiordiligi are sleeping. Sleeping in class is not only tolerated by encouraged? During the Act 1 gorgeous trio “Soave sia il vento”, Egoyan thinks he has to make it funny by adding a parade of women wearing aqua blue wigs topped by sailing ships in diminishing sizes.  Since the period has been updated to the 1960s, why does he let Hanson distract us with the famous “la belle poule” wig of the 18th-century style? 

When Alfonso first introduces his good friends the Albanians, they young men meet the girls with their heads covered in fencing masks with faces painted on them and moustaches added, yet no one acts as if this is peculiar. Only long after their introduction do the young men who have been singing while we can’t see their faces take off their masks. When the Albanians take poison Alfonso calls for a doctor, but he already has the galvanic machine the doctor needs to rouse the two from dying. So why call for a doctor? 

Egoyan’s main obsession in Act 2 is with a blown-up version of Kahlo’s “Los dos Fridas” like that on the front drop. Here, however, he allows a camera to zoom in on the painting and rove about it while each of the young lovers is singing. We need no such distraction and the survey of the painting pausing at the two open hearts, the locket and the hemostat do nothing to interpret the meaning of the opera. 

As if the battling themes of of the behavioural experiment, lepidoptery and Frida Kahlo were not confusing enough, Egoyan adds a fourth idea. That is that Alfonso is somehow the stage manager of the action and can with a hand gesture make the curtain rise and the lights go on. The problem is that Egoyan does not use this idea frequently enough for it to have much impact and even if it did, Alfonso’s complete control would totally contradict his other theme of the opera as a behavioural experiment.

Despite this mass of errors in direction and design, in this revival of Così, Egoyan does take an important step toward minimizing the plot’s inherent misogyny. In the revival Egoyan makes it clear that Alfonso cannot actually prove his theory of “così fan tutte” without the help of his maid Despina, i.e. Alfonso needs the help of a loyal woman to prove women are disloyal. Clearly believing that she will be more interested in money than in loyalty to her sex, he bribes her to help him and she cheerfully interferes and gives the girls no rest in lecturing them that they should take lovers while their fiancés are away.

What’s new is that when Despina sees what unhappiness her work has wrought on the two couples, she refuses the extra money Alfonso wants to pay her for a job well done. When he forces her to take the money, she looks at it in disgust and throws it away bill by bill. This helps to emphasize a line often glossed over when Despina sings in her last quatrain, “Mi confondo, mi vergogno” (“I’m confused, I feel ashamed). By emphasizing Despina’s shame at her actions, Egoyan’s points of the serious flaw in Alfonso’s experiment that required so much of Despina’s inside help to work.

As it happens four attractive young voices take the roles of the four lovers. Of the four, the one who makes the strongest impression is soprano Kristen MacKinnon as Fiordiligi. She produces an attractive, pure sound that only becomes more concentrated in her upper register. Her impassioned account of “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” justly won the longest and loudest acclaim of the evening. As Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo exhibited a much more variable tone during Act 1 – bright and strong in her upper register, less focussed in her middle register and rather weak in her lower register. By Act 2, however, she grew in strength and focus in all three registers and delivered “È amore un ladroncello” with a fine dose of irony. It should be noted that MacKinnon and D’Angelo looked so much alike that they seemed not merely to be sisters but twins. Whether intended or not, this likeness certainly helped bring out the opera’s theme of the general interchangeability of lovers.

On the other hand, the two young were quite distinguishable though not of the different hair colours that the libretto specifies. As Guglielmo, Johannes Kammler was master of a baritone very much like that of Russell Braun in its richness and fullness and masterfully exposed the anger that underlies his aria “Donne mie, la fate a tanti”. 

In contrast, tenor Ben Bliss’s mode of singing as Ferrando changed drastically from Act 1 to Act 2. In Act one he sang with noticeably less power and force than did Kammler and with far less rounded tone. In Act 2, however, he sang with an unfalteringly strong, nearly heroic tone and gave a strong and well-shaped an account of “Ah, lo veggio, quell'anima bella” he seemed like a completely different singer. This impressive style he maintained through the cavatina “Tradito, schernito” to the end.

The natural warmth of Russell Braun’s cultured baritone made Don Alfonso seem less like the hard, rabid misogynist that one often sees and more like a fussy intellectual whose misogyny is an unfortunate part of his eccentricity. Even in his aria “Tutti accusan le donne, ed io le scuso” which concludes with the opera’s title, Braun sang as if women’s fickleness were more a pet theory of Alfonso’s than a general principle.

Tracy Dahl, who sang Despina here in 2014, returned and gave a livelier and more richly comic interpretation of the role. Egoyan and Dahl gave particular weight to Dahl’s perfectly sung Act 1 aria “In uomini, in soldati” which decries the fickleness of men and thus helps balance Don Alfonso’s pronouncements. But she adopts a more cunning tone for Act 2’s “Una donna a quindici anni” about women’s power that is meant to impel the two young women to choose new lovers.

Bernard Labadie, known as the conductor of the period instrument ensemble Les Violons du Roy, chose lively rhythms throughout as one would expect him to do for a period band. Yet, unlike some conductors at the COC of operas by Mozart and earlier, Labadie did not encourage the COC Orchestra to produce a lightness of sound that would accord with the fleetness of the rhythms.

Given the confused and unhelpful design and direction, this production of Così fan tutte remains one best appreciated with the eyes closed. Treating the action as a “School for Lovers” with the four lovers as classmates is a good idea and Egoyan is excellent in drawing detailed acting from his cast. But radical decisions need to be made concerning butterflies and Frida Kahlo before before the production reaches any sense of coherence. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This is a longer version of a review that will appear later this year in Opera News.

Photos: (from top) Classroom scene in Act 1 of Così fan tutte; wedding scene in Act 2 of Così fan tutte; Tracy Dahl as Despina and Russell Braun as Don Alfonso; Johannes Kammler as Guglielmo, Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella, Kristen MacKinnon as Fiordiligi and Ben Bliss as Ferrando. © 2019 Michael Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.coc.ca