COSÌ FAN TUTTE at the Royal Opera House

by Mozart Cosi fan tutte has always been a work that speaks to us about ourselves. The story of two ill-fated lovers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, and their attempts to prove that their girlfriends, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will be faithful in their absence (and win a bet against their friend Don Alfonso, who believes the titular adage “all women act like that”) is a timeless parable of attitudes towards gender, how we should conduct ourselves in relationships, and what aspects of ourselves we present to the world.

When men feign their absence and dress up as attractive ‘Albanians’, it not only provides a comedic device to trick their girlfriends into infidelity, but also an exploration of what we might do if all was not as it was. seemed, if we had a way through which to express our true selves.

The eventual reversal of the couples – Dorabella falling in love with Guglielmo in disguise and Fiordiligi with Ferrando – has always left audiences wondering if the women could actually see through the disguises, and the Royal Opera House staging, seen for the first time in 2016, makes this reading explicit. of text.

Even if this crucial conceit – that the women understand their boyfriends’ ruse at the start of the second act – could be made more explicit in the direction and staging of the opera, the actors are nevertheless to be commended for their ability to add pathos and humanity to roles that some would interpret as vessels only for prank.

Julie Boulianne’s Dorabella is particularly strong, punctuating the character’s journey from passive monogamy to accepting her sexuality with cries of nervousness or well-timed pleasure, and depicting her pride in her sexual encounter with Guglielmo with empowerment. impetuous of a female pop star. .

The male leads, played by Bogdan Volkov and Gordon Bintner, embrace the play’s physical comedy (their twist to the rhythm of Mozart’s trills after being “poisoned” at the end of the first act is a particular highlight) while not fearing not his darker moments – the minimalist staging of their second-act arias refuses to romanticize their anger and threats of violence against their cheating girlfriends.

Although director Jan Philippe Gloger pointed out in a promotional interview that cosi represented a shift from the playful infidelity and courtly love of the Renaissance to the more marriage-focused approach of the Romantic era, its staging seems to imply that the plot of the opera also applies at all other periods. Ben Baur’s setting dizzies through thematic ideas and historical allusions: Adam and Eve’s tree of knowledge, an Old Hollywood film set, a glitzy modern bar, among others.

While many of these sets offer interesting ideas – the loss of innocence of women, for example, or a metatheatrical touch, mirroring the many fourth lines of Da Ponte’s libretto – the overall impression is that the director and designers are throwing ideas on the wall and see what sticks, rather than creating a cohesive visual aesthetic.

As well as inviting negative comparisons to the highly effective and cohesive 1950s Coney Island setting of recent ENO production, it sometimes feels like the production gave too much thought to the elaborate sets and not enough to the how actors interact with them. . Rather than arranging the six main cast members in striking formations during Mozart’s exquisite harmonic renditions of their various desires, too often the cast is left huddled awkwardly in disparate corners of the stage.

Any doubts about the production’s directing choices are allayed, however, by the ingenious setting of the second act, a scene within a scene that deconstructs during Fiordiligi’s emotional aria “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” ( sung expressively by Jennifer Davis), displaying cameras, projectors, and other cinematic memorabilia.

Revealing Fiordiligi’s confusion over his feelings of being some kind of front or performance breaks the fourth wall and allows audiences to consider their own role as viewers and wonder how much Fiordiligi and the other characters are “playing” their roles as lover and beloved; unlike its predecessors, this decor does not give the impression of emphasizing style over substance.

cosiThe ambiguous ending, in which the women are hastily married to their original lovers, now in disguise, is treated in the same metatheatrical fashion. Rather than taking Da Ponte’s words at face value and accepting the Shakespearean comic-style resolution via marriage, in this production the new couples walk off in a deeply anticlimactic way, glancing at each other. confused and dissatisfied. It’s a bit as if the characters were forced, by the conventions of the genre, into an unsuitable situation, since they spent the last act on their own.

ROHs cosi is keen to play with the work’s flaws and unravel how it reflects its audience’s perceptions of monogamy, gender and identity. The different ways of doing this, both through the performances of the actors and the staging of the show, sometimes fall short, but the production is always very effective in demonstrating that there is more to be done. Cosi fan tutte than stuffing.

Così fan tutte lasts until July 9.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

About Madeline J. Carter

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