The Metropolitan Opera’s 2017-18 season is close to its end, and there are only three productions left to be seen broadcast in South African cinemas. The first, Così fan tutte, by Mozart, in a new production by the British director Phelim McDermott, had its first screening on Saturday evening; the other two, Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Massenet’s Cendrillon, will both begin in May. (The Met has already announced its productions to be broadcast in the 2018-19 season; you can read about them here.) Così fan tutte, Mozart’s final collaboration with the eminent librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, poses a number of heady puzzles to the director of any production of it and, now that I know the opera (that is, the score and libretto) myself, I’ve found it fantastically interesting to check clips of different productions on YouTube to see how the directors have managed their way around and through them. How to understand Mozart and Da Ponte’s attitudes to the piece? Is it a thoroughly cynical, bitterly pragmatic view of romance? Is it a benevolent yet worldly approach to sexual politics? Is Mozart ascending to the loftiest of ironies, or descending to the most rooted and human sympathies, when he sets the sextet of characters’ sordid frolics to some of the most beautiful music written for the stage? And is a harsh moral judgement being passed on any or all of the young lovers, or is the opera a show of deep and tender fellow-feeling with each of them? A director faces the epitomic conundrums of opera stagings, which only become larger and more difficult as times change and audiences develop.
McDermott has chosen a grand concept to envelop his production and scoop these problems right out of the way. He’s set it on Coney Island, in New York, in a carnival setting, during the 1950s or early 60s, at the threshold of America’s sexual revolution. The colourful sets and costumes and splendidly enchanting lighting of the whole show are pleasures to see, and the outflux onto the stage of one clever idea after another is delightful, even if the total cumulative effect is less of a joy than a pleasing diversion. He has cleverly enlisted actual Coney Island sideshow performers as his background (non-singing) cast, and they appear in most scenes, embellishing the settings around the lovers’ arias, or listening with a detached satisfaction to Don Alfonso’s asides, like Oberon’s fairies. I’d heartily recommend that fans of Mozart operas go see one of the remaining shows of the production (check the Ster Kinekor website for details), warning that joyless reactionaries are likely not to have as good a time as the rest of us.
Da Ponte’s plot is driven by the gleefully cynical Don Alfonso’s scheme to prove to his young friends, the two sailors Ferrando and Guglielmo, that all women are frivolous and unfaithful, while his opponents insist and set out to prove that their own fiancées are exceptional and will remain loyal to them under any circumstances. It involves a heap of tricks and deceits, in which Ferrando and Guglielmo disguise themselves and their lovers, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, mistake them for strange foreigners and cads. Their maid, Despina, is similarly sardonic about romance, and, in return for Don Alfonso’s bribes, pushes the young women to faithlessly engage their suitors. Eventually, Fiordiligi and Dorabella both fail their fiancés underhanded tests, but it’s the men who come of looking the worst to me, especially in this production, subtly calibrated for the age of #MeToo, where they seem earnestly to be harassing each other’s lovers for more quasi-sadistic fun than is called for in their game. The young women don’t come of so bad, even as they eventually betray their fiancés, given the heaps of trouble they’re put through in such a short time, and the nasty trick that’s played on them, and especially given the pains they express at what they endure and what it’s done to their emotions.
The libretto does not explicitly state the final arrangement in which the two pairs of lovers end up, after a long ruse involving mistaken identities swaps the men’s fiancées around. McDermott employs this ambiguity as a part of his production, as the Act II finale is sung with each of the six characters not holding hands with any one of the others, but in the arms of the various carnival performers, switching arrangements after every few lines. The other problems that have been brought to the plot by the opera’s critics are, I think, largely modern discomforts arising from the growing establishment of the verisimilitude and naturalism of movies and television. It is indeed possible not to recognise someone close to you when they slap on a moustache and funny hat; people can fall in love in a day, after two brief but impassioned encounters; the ideals of love, wisdom, and grace can resolve the harshest emotional conflicts. Opera is about experiences and emotions that are larger than nature — so large that they cannot be spoken, only sung, and by people who will fill the vast chasm of an opera house with their sound; it is not an art form meant to approximate real or natural situations. The Coney Island fantasy world isn’t necessary to wave away audiences’ disbelief, but it helps for those who have grown used to the contemporary verities and colloquialisms of Broadway productions. In fact, McDermott’s concept is potentially very helpful, in that it neatly correlates with both contemporary realism and the antic goings-on of 18th-century comedic drama.
Yet, for all of the opera’s ridiculous comedy and the simplistic judgements by and of its characters, Mozart, as always, fully invests their parts with rich, tender, and soaring emotions. When considering the emotions of Mozart’s operas (particularly the three masterpieces he made with Da Ponte), it’s difficult to say whether the two poles of comedy and tragedy are at contentment and despair, or joy and heartbreak, or delight and sorrow, or peace and rage. Humour is one of his famous gifts, but, of course, so are each of these other emotions, along with bliss, bitterness, ardour, longing, romance, frustration, and a host of others. The range of deeply textured feelings is as wide here as in the novels of Austen or Dickens, running from great pain to commensurate joy, and taking on the full weight of operatic fury and ecstasy. The story may not be realistic, but Mozart often endeavoured for the emotions to be, and, to achieve the proper evocation of feeling at each moment, he employs and often invents a whole catalogue of musical devices; he expresses in sound what Chaplin and Murnau did with light and movement. (I also discussed a few of the political elements of Mozart’s work the last time I wrote about him.)
McDermott’s production is sparkles with fun and intelligence, and is brightly funny and quite touching by turns (at the obviously appropriate moments set out in the score). It’s also highly gimmicky, however, with many contraptions and loud noises that threaten to overwhelm the music, and that certainly did distract from the drama a little, as the young men and young women spun from one glittering, colourful setting to another, and the Coney Island attractions continued to tumble onto the stage all the way to the final scene. But the stage is cleared every now and then for the right moments, with the usual popular highlights of the opera standing out: The trio “Soave sia il vento” is sung on the softly lit boardwalk, with seagulls and the sea sky overhead; Ferrando’s tenor aria “Un’aura amorosa” is so moving a moment that even Don Alfonso seems momentarily convinced by the sailors’ convictions; and Fiordiligi’s aria “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona” (sung by Amanda Majeski, who blends well with her colleagues but distinguishes herself in this moving set-piece) is sung from a hot air balloon ride that floats high above the stage as the soprano solo is lifted by the orchestra. The quartet of young lovers blended wonderfully, with each shining in their solo moments as well; the Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi, as Dorabella, stands out the best, with a colourful mellow tone to her lovelorn crooning. Christopher Maltman dazzled with humourous rigour and sinister skill in his belly-deep baritone, and the Tony-winning Broadway star Kelli O’Hara brought her full comedic expertise to the maid Despina; she may not be an experienced opera singer or native Mozart performer, but what she lacked in finesse she made for with theatrical flair.
But McDermott does not succeed in solving the full gamut of Così fan tutte’s conundrums. What is ultimately being said by Mozart and Da Ponte with their opera? (We may note, in passing, their possible personal connections to the story: Da Ponte’s mistress and her sister sang the roles of Fiordiligi and Dorabella at the première; and Mozart still had unresolved feelings for Aloysia Weber, his wife’s sister.) Do they mean to say that all women are indeed unfaithful and frivolous, or at least prone to those faults? Do they mean to show that men, when fixating on women’s supposed faults, inadvertently expose their own ugliness and superficiality? Is it all a comic misunderstanding devised to be resolved by their Enlightenment ideals of love, equality, and reason? Is romance more arbitrary than we often care to admit? Where are Don Alfonso and Despina’s places in the final reckoning? For that matter, what is the final reckoning and where are the lovers’ places? Do they unite in unquestioning bliss, despite their disillusionment and shame, or have they grown in wisdom and acceptance? These are questions McDermott means for you to contemplate on your own. I certainly wouldn’t deter you; hours spent with Mozart are invariably fruitful and enriching.