Mozart’s “Così fan tutte,” a drama giocoso in two acts, was performed in Geneva, Switzerland’s second-largest city, during the first half of May 2017 to popular and media acclaim. The staging, scenery, costumes, and accessories were produced entirely by the Grand Thèâtre de Genève, a pillar of the city’s bustling and diverse cultural life.
Opera has thrived in Geneva since the mid-18th century. The Grand Théâtre, a venerable opera house, was built in the 1870s and has since become one of the downtown’s landmarks. Since 2016, it has been undergoing large-scale transformations and refurbishment, which have seen all productions move to a temporary home.
Dubbed the Opéra des Nations, the theater built entirely of wood and located in the leafy surroundings of the European headquarters of the United Nations, is serving as the city’s opera house until 2018.
Due to its smaller size – the temporary venue seats 1,118 people –reduced orchestra pit, and exceptional acoustic quality, which has been described as Stradivarius-like by the Tribune de Genève, the theater is focusing on contemporary works and operas from the 17th and 18th centuries, which do not require symphonic productions. This somewhat unusual setup has provided the perfect backdrop to Mozart’s opera, a work of chamber music with a cast of six characters and a small chorus.
Interestingly, the opera’s title “Cosí fan tutte” remains in Italian no matter where it is staged. The five-syllable phrase, which translated literally means “All women do this”, is clear enough and yet enigmatic. What is it that all women do? Are they all forever branded unfaithful, unreliable, and frankly a little stupid? Is it a farce, a joke that is funny or perhaps less offensive to the modern feminist ear when told in Italian?
The contrasting undercurrents in this apparent charade can be perceived from the opera’s very description as a drama giocoso, itself a contradiction in terms – dramatic yet joyful.
The work’s subheading is “The School for Lovers,” which although innocent enough, is subtly reminiscent of the “Philosophy in the Bedroom,” a dramatic dialogue written by Marquis de Sade virtually at the same time as “Cosí fan tutte,” in which dissertations on morality, history, and religion mingle with outright pornographic fantasies.
The ambiguous erotic story told by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet who wrote the libretti of three of Mozart’s greatest operas – “Don Giovanni,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and “Cosí fan tutte” – combined with Mozart’s radiant music provide an intriguing contrast, brilliantly showcased by David Bösch, the German director of the Geneva production.
Bösch, whose professional career is rooted in theater, directed Handel’s “Alcina” as the opening performance of the Opéra des Nations in 2016. He made his opera debut in 2010 with “Orlando furioso” in Frankfurt and “L’Elisir d’amore” at Munich’s Staatsoper. He has since worked at numerous high-profile venues such as the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (“Il Trovatore”) and Opéra de Lyon (“Simon Boccanegra,” “Die Gezeichneten”) where his interest in the dark side of human nature and subtle transitions between light humor and outright tragedy have resulted in unusual yet highly acclaimed productions.
Bösch’s staging of “Cosí fan tutte” takes the contrasting effect between luminous playfulness and shadowy chaos to an unexpected level of disturbing brilliance.
As the opera’s famous overture begins with a subtle andante played by an oboe before moving to an electrified presto, the curtain is slowly opened by Don Alfonso, subtly played by renowned French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, to reveal a dark bar. The shelves contain vast numbers of bottles in all imaginable sizes and colors, a cigarette vending machine, and a table football game readily available. The sideboards helpfully inform the clients that the signature cocktails are Summer Breeze and Love Potion. All this set against dark-green and somewhat shabby walls.
Philosophy in the bedroom
The overture continues and the circular revolving stage, produced by the Grand Théâtre’s carpentry, metalwork, painting and decorating workshops, turns to expose the bedroom of Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who are dressing to impress. Dorabella, played by willowy Ukranian mezzo-soprano Alexandra Kadurina, sports Brigitte Bardot-inspired messy blond up-do, striped blue and yellow shorts and is trying to turn her flesh-colored bra into the push-up variety. Soprano Veronika Dzhioeva, originally from South Ossetia, a partially recognized state south of the Russian Caucasus, is Fiordiligi, Dorabella’s dark-haired pinup sister.
Great attention to detail is given not only to the set but to the costumes as well. The chorus and Despina, the sister’s older maid-turned doctor-turned notary, are dressed in 50s’ fashion with full skirts, defined waistlines, stiff hair, and fascinators, whereas the Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s carefree spirit and playfulness are emphasized by the looser, more youthful fashion of the 60s.
In the orchestra pit, the wind section converses with the strings under the baton of maestro Hartmut Haenchen, a major name in orchestral direction, and the overture ends on the six-chord melodic phrase announcing, “co-sì fan tut-te”!
The story, which has now begun in earnest, revolves around the love of young officers Guglielmo and Ferrando for Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively. Don Alfonso, the group’s old philosopher is somewhat skeptical of the officers’ feelings and the ladies’ professed undying commitment, and challenges the men to disguise themselves and attempt to seduce one another’s beloveds. With the reluctant help of the chamber maid Despina and thanks to significant financial incentives, the ploy eventually works. The bet has been won but the game is lost as each seemingly forgives the behavior of the other.
Italian mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli is arguably the production’s most brilliant solo performer. Her Despina is a creation of comic genius with a rich vocal range. Veronika Dzhioeva (Fiordiligi) and Alexandra Kadurina (Dorabella) impress by their technique but especially by the partnership between Dzhioeva’s dramatic soprano and Kadurina’s warm undertones.
Italian baritone Vittorio Prato as Guglielmo and Malaysan-born Australian tenor Steve Davislim as Ferrando play the scheming lovers with great energy and theatrical commitment. A recognized bel canto specialist, Pratto makes full use of his powerful voice, which combined with a strong physical presence, contributes to the humor of the first act and the electrifying sexual atmosphere of the second. Davislim’s performance is somewhat more subdued vocally but is a rewarding addition to the numerous duets, quartets, and quintets. In general, the arias are the production’s strongest, most energizing and enjoyable moments.
All’s well that ends well but does it?
At the end of a shambolic wedding, the brides realize they have been tricked and the grooms know their fiancées, who had proclaimed their eternal affection, have been unfaithful. Assorted lace undergarments and shiny pink bras had flown around the stage earlier and had inadvertently appeared around the wrong man’s neck to amply make the point.
The opera’s final lines are sang by the wedding guests who proclaim that,
Fortunato l’uom che prende
Ogni cosa pel buon verso,
E tra i casi e le vicende
Da ragion guidar si fa.
Quel che suole altrui far piangere
Fia per lui cagion di riso,
E del mondo in mezzo ai turbini
Bella calma troverà.
(Happy is the man who looks
At everything on the right side
And through trials and tribulations
Makes reason his guide.
What always makes another weep
Will be for him a cause of mirth
And amid the tempests of this world
He will find sweet peace.)
In true masonic manner, he, who is guided by reason and knowledge, will find sweet peace. But in this production, despite the general farcical demeanour and playfulness, darkness has eventually prevailed. The characters, so engaged physically throughout both acts, do not make eye contact and are distant from each other in the final scene. Reason may have been restored but turmoil has not subsided.
The light romp with an entertaining educational twist announced at the beginning ends on a sad note. It is perhaps the director’s personal preference or maybe it is a fitting finale to a masterpiece written six months after the French Revolution, when long established traditional European order was coming to a crashing end and “bella calma” was a long long way away.