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.