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Cosi Fan Tutte (The School for Lovers)

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto        

There is a reason why Così Fan Tutte is an opera lover’s orphan child. Its plot has repelled and fascinated audiences for over two hundred years, and yet it has survived our changeling humours precisely because it offers a kind of Gordian knot that we seek to cut, over and over again. The COC’s new production, directed by Atom Egoyan, dives fearlessly into the opera’s problematically misogynystic exploration of female desire. Aided by exquisite sets created by Debra Hanson, and an outstanding young cast that sounds every bit as delectable as they look, Egoyan gives us a Così that delights even as it relentlessly dismantles the patriarchal polemics at the heart of this fascinating and disturbing story.

Così Fan Tutte is a story about swinging, circa 1790. Two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, affianced to two handsome soldiers, find their fidelity tested when their lovers are seemingly whisked away to war. The absence is a ruse  masterminded by the aging mentor to the young men, the cynical Don Alfonso, masterfully sung tonight by the inimitable Sir Thomas Allen. The soldiers return, disguised as moustachioed Albanians who woo the constant young ladies, steadily breaking down their somewhat pathetic resistances. What makes Così disturbing is the underlying narrative of violation, and the fact that this somewhat hideous experiment in manipulating the variables of female desire is really just an enlightened game to be played by a scientific, objective male ego. Composed at a time when Mozart suspected his wife Constanza of unfaithfulness, with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte who was friend to the infamous Marquis de Sade, Così remains problematic in its assertion that women are made beautiful and intrinsically unfaithful.

Egoyan is no stranger to exploring these issues on the operatic stage; his productions of Salome, Die Walküre and Feng Yi Ting have all attacked the issue of male gaze and significantly revised the female subject’s agency and voice in no uncertain terms. Tonight’s production is no exception. The visually exquisite stage is covered in panels of lepidoptera, and if we were in any referential doubt, Don Alfonso struts around the stage with life-sized pins poised to impale the squirming, beautiful Dorabella and Fiordiligi as they are “caught” in the act. The premis is simple enough – we are here simply to observe woman in her natural state, in all her seductive beauty and her natural promiscuity. And yet Egoyan reminds us that this experiment is the construction of a master illusionist. In the sublime “Soave sia il vento,” Don Alfonso conjures a school of ships (masterfully created as Louis XIV Fontanges, with Galleons set atop wigs of billowing blue curls) that pass by Dorabella and Fiordiligi, only to be caught and reflected in funny mirrors that create monstrous illusions of the scene. The entire opera is rife with moments such as this where the image on stage deconstructs the cycnicism of the plot.

But tonight’s performance is not just about astute directing and incredible stagecraft. This show truly belongs to the young talent on stage. Canadian Soprano Layla Claire, makes her COC debut as Fiordiligi, and her astounding range and virtuosity absolutely claim this incredibly challenging role. This is a major talent, watch for her at the Glyndebourne and Tanglewood festivals this year. Wallis Giunta’s Dorabella was just as delightful. Ms Giunta demonstrated a dramatic range that delivered the passionate wilfullness that her role demands. Second to none was Despina, the two sisters’ meddling maid, played with a rare command of bodily humour and vocal subtlety by Tracy Dahl.

While this production of Così delivers everything that an opera lover could possibly want, this evening’s performance was somewhat marred by uncharacteristically sloppy ensemble work from the COC orchestra. The overture sounded as if the wind section had only just made it off the bus – rushed, jerky, not entirely in tune, and not quite in sync. Other strange stylistic choices occasionally flummoxed the listener. Johannes Debus conducted and provided continuo on a piano, which gave one the unfortunate effect of sitting through a rehearsal rather than a performance. Equally distracting were his occasional lapses into musical allusions during the recitatives – most notably from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and the Well Tempered Klavier. Perhaps Mr. Debus intended some abstruse reference to Bach “schooling” his beloved Anna Magdalena in the terms of music and love. But the effect was altogether confusing and caused a distraction from the events on stage.

But these reservations are minor in the face of a rare and entirely delightful production. The COC’s new Così Fan Tutte proves without doubt that Toronto does opera, and then some!

Sung in Italian with English surtitles

  • Opera
  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte
  • Director: Atom Egoyan
  • The Canadian Opera Company with Sir Thomas Allen, Paul Appleby, Layla Claire, Tracy Dahl, Wallis Giunta and Robert Gleadow
  • The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto        
  • Until 21 February 2014
  • Review by Aparna Halpé
  • 29 January 2014

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