Canadian director Atom Egoyan's production for the Canadian Opera Company, onstage now
through February 21st at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, asks what it means to grow out of youthful ideals and navigate the difficult roads of love and fidelity. With a captivating combination of smart casting and recurring visual motifs, the production offers a deeply satisfying evening of theater that skillfully combines music and drama in some powerful, haunting ways.
The story of Cosi fan tutte
is simple: Ferrando (Paul Appleby) and Guglielmo (Robert Gleadow) pretend to go off to war, but actually disguise themselves in a bet with Don Alonso (Sir Thomas Allen), to test the fidelity of their fiances, Dorabella (Wallis Giunta) and Fiordiligi (Layla Claire). In the process, each woes the other's betrothed, with the girls aided by their maid, Despina (Tracey Dahl), in the supposed "rules" of love and romance.
Da Ponte's libretto offers a spicy clash with Mozart's sunny, tuneful music. As Egoyan told The Globe and Mail
's Robert Harris recently, “The piece was written at the height of the Enlightenment, at a time in European history where everything was thought to be explainable by reason, where everything from the laws of human attraction to the laws of magnetic forces could be dissected and proved. But the laws of the human heart cannot be reasoned; they obey their own gravity.”
It's the tension between logic ("Of course X loves me and she'll stay faithful!") and the heart ("I'm wildly attracted to someone who is not my partner!"), between the pristine ideal and messy reality, that provides the fuel for a deeply satisfying new production. Egoyan, who previously directed Salome
and Die Walküre
for the COC, uses various tensions -between logic and love, perfect and imperfect, expectation and result -to fuel his vision of the work, one originally inspired by "The Two Fridas," a 1939 painting
by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, done in the midst of her divorce from fellow artist Diego Rivera. The portrait, projected at the beginning of the opera and again in the second act (with skillful close-ups), is made all the more powerful for its history, which bears directly on the world of Cosi
, here presented as a school. (Rivera cheated on Kahlo with her own sister.) The close-ups of blood, veins, a pair of scissors, and a hand holding a small portrait of Diego (paralleled onstage during a particularly powerful moment in the opera involving a portrait) are skillful and affecting, and effectively underline the themes of duality, deception, sexuality, and female identity in the face of the male gaze. It's a smart choice Egoyan made to include the piece, because it provides a perfect, tragically poignant distillation of the opera's troubling subtext.
This subtext is also hinted at in the setting Egoyan has chosen. Loosely translated, the opera's title means, "They're all like that," but its subtitle is "The School For Lovers" and so we find Cosi
's characters as students in a school, with various note-taking and careful observation from pie-eyed, uniformed youngsters looking on in silent curiosity. An immense curio cabinet overlooks the proceedings in the first act, a sort of omipotent symbol containing all the worldly knowledge and logic by which the students can and should use. But perhaps what's most powerful isn't what's contained within the cabinet, but what it reflects, via some cleverly-placed mirrors placed on its frontispiece. By placing the action in a school, there is a heightened sense of transformation and the learning processes the young characters endure, reflected in varying shades of light and dark as the action unfolds and hearts are -literally in the painting, figuratively in the opera -torn asunder.
This sense of piercing through innocent is highlighted literally with the use of giant "pins" the students and their teacher carry around; used in combination with the production's recurring visual of butterflies, and therein lie potent symbols of captivity, stunted transformation, and perhaps even murdered idealism. Set and costume designer Debra Hanson's work is, by turns whimsical, poetic, grand, and alluring. Her "boat" wigs provided an especially enchanting visual when reflected in the curio's immense doors, and the butterfly-strewn fascinators at the wedding scene offer a charming, if thoughtful, subtext that smartly underscores the central tension in the Mozart/Da Ponte world, one that continues
to haunt us.
Smart casting completes Egoyan's vision, with Giunta and Claire, outfitted in Debra Hanson's schoolgirl kilts and knee-socks, perfectly embodying the youthful mix of awkward, passionate, and curious inherent to the characters. At points the two performers are indistinguishable, what with their long, fair locks and skinny limbs — but it feels as if the confusion is intentional here; Egoyan sees the Dorabella/Fiordiligi archetype as a vision of perfect feminine youthfulness: vulnerable, romantic, curious, unknowingly sexy, too trusting, easily bruised. Both Claire and Giunta offer solid performances, with Claire's clear, bell-like soprano especially beautiful during the second act aria "Per pieta."
Complementing the girls are baritone Gleadow and tenor Appleby, who make for an endearing pair. Their moustachioed mischief and broad gestures nicely contrast with the opera's later scenes of heartbreak and betrayal. Gleadow is an especially charismatic stage presence, his rich, chocolatey baritone a scintillating complement to his immense physicality and deft comic timing. Equally magical is soprano Tracey Dahl as Despina, whose doll-like gestures offer a strong dramatic contrast to the steely character she reveals herself as by the opera's close. Sir Thomas Allen is a likeable, avuncular presence whose broad dramatic gestures recall silent film stars while underscoring Don Alfonso's confident authority.
Under the magical baton of Music Director Johannes Debus, the cast ably, beautifully teases out the tuneful poetry of Mozart's score, demonstrating a deep breadth of skill in sounding out the sour, tragic tones between the sweet brightness Mozart is known for. Listening to Debus' masterful handling of this material, one isn' surprised to learned he wrote it under strong suspicions of his wife Constanze being unfaithful to him. Cosi fan tutte
is a complex look at the vagaries of the human heart -and the COC's current production captures this complexity with a clarity that is by turns, sad, funny, and all too familiar. Opera isn't like life? I'd beg to differ.