Kirsten MacKinnon (Fiordiligi); Emily D’Angelo (Dorabella); Ben Bliss (Ferrando); Johannes Kammler (Guglielmo); Tracy Dahl (Despina); Russell Braun (Don Alfonso). COC Orchestra and Chorus, Bernard Labadie, conductor. Four Seasons Centre, Feb. 5, 2019. Details, here.
The second production of the Canadian Opera Company Winter Season, a revival of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, opened last evening at the Four Seasons Centre. This Atom Egoyan production premiered in 2014. There might have been minor tweaking, but to my eyes the current revival is essentially unchanged, albeit with a different conductor and a largely new cast, the Despina of Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl the only holdover.
Even for the diehard Mozart junkie, Cosi is a bit of a marathon, especially when all the cuts are opened as in this production. For example, Ferrando’s “Tradito, schernito,” almost always cut, is restored here. With an early curtain, two acts nearly 90 minutes each plus an intermission, the show ended at ten minutes to eleven, thanks to Maestro Bernard Labadie’s crisp tempi. You can say the audience got their money’s worth!
A bit of background for the uninitiated — among Mozart’s twenty-two operas, the three “Da Ponte Operas” — Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro — together with Die Zauberflöte, are the most frequently performed. All four make the top 20 worldwide in terms of performance numbers the past three seasons based on available statistics. It’s not hard to see why; these operas represent the composer at his most musically and dramatically inspired.
That said, Cosi fan tutte is seriously problematic for 21st-century audiences. The title can be loosely translated as “Women Are Like That,” underscoring a rather patriarchal and misogynistic worldview, as is typical of the works from that period in European history. The story centers on a wager between the cynical Don Alfonso and two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, in love with their sweethearts, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Alfonso challenges the guys to test the fidelity of their girlfriends.
They pretend they’re going off to war, only to come back in disguise as “Albanians” and proceeding to seduce each other’s girlfriends. Lovely, you say? Maybe in 1790 when it premiered, but not in #MeToo 2019. Given that we live in an era of gender equality and female agency, the thinly veiled male dominance and manipulation in Cosi isn’t so amusing these days. Many directors have introduced twists and turns in the staging, to make it more acceptable and believable to contemporary audiences, with varying degrees of success.
Canadian director Atom Egoyan sets it in a “science lab” in a private school complete with uniforms not unlike the von Trapps in The Sound of Music. Alfonso is the teacher, and the lovers are the subjects in a science experiment on the “nature of love” and “affairs of the heart.” The students walk around with clipboards, observing the goings-on, all visually framed by Frida Kahlo’s Two Fridas painting, modified with two bleeding hearts and a hemostat. And there are more butterflies than you’ll find in a nature conservatory. I find it more whimsical and colourful than logical, but that’s par for the course.
As is typical of unit set design, it’s often awkward to stage diverse scenes in the same setting, in this case a classroom. The two women are sleeping on throw pillows on the floor, getting drunk with six bottles of booze…at school. Really? A certain suspension of disbelief is in order! Never mind the improbable storyline with a worldview two and a half centuries old, but as Anna Russell used to say – “you can do anything in opera as long as you sing it!”
Indeed, reams have been written in popular media and in musicological circles about the gender politics of Cosi. At the end of the day, it helps to keep in mind that the Mozart opera is first and foremost a period piece and a farce, set in an era governed by different social and cultural norms. As such, it doesn’t work too well to put the piece under the cultural microscope. The fact that it’s ranked 16th in popularity worldwide the last three seasons is not because of the quality of its story, but because of the sublime music.
And the music last evening was indeed sublime. Kudos to a brilliant cast, led by the two pairs of lovers. Soprano Kirsten MacKinnon and mezzo Emily D’Angelo are the Fiordiligi and Dorabella of one’s dreams. How often do you find two singers who look like twins and sing like angels? This piece really needs young singers like the four we have here, with youthful energies aplenty. The sophomoric shenanigans they’re asked to do don’t seem forced with these young artists. Soprano MacKinnon, now an Oper Frankfurt “fest artist,” sang both “Come scoglio” and “Per pieta” with silvery tone. Mezzo D’Angelo, who has been winning prizes right and left, was a fabulous Dorabella.
The men are equally fine. I first heard tenor Ben Bliss (Ferrando) sing in Doctor Atomic and Capriccio in Santa Fe, and it’s great that he is making his Canadian debut here. His “Una aura amorosa” among the best I’ve heard. Another significant voice was that of German Johannes Kammler, making his Canadian debut. I remember how impressed I was last summer when he sang in a Munich Arabella. His Guglielmo was engaging, sung with fresh, gorgeous tone. The two pairs of lovers have good chemistry and they looked like they were enjoying themselves on stage.
Kudos to soprano Tracy Dahl (Despina) and baritone Russell Braun (Don Alfonso), both distinguished Canadian opera veterans, for bringing their consummate vocalism and acting chops to enliven the show. Dahl was screamingly funny in the Dr. Mesmer scene and the Notary scene. Braun’s warm baritone remains fresh and vital. He shows he can be every bit as good a character singer as a romantic lead. These two veterans still got it in spades after 30+ years careers.
Quebec conductor-Mozart specialist Bernard Labadie returns to the COC, conducting with style and elegance. The chorus, not heavily taxed in this show, was its usual enjoyable self.
All in all, a fun show that’s a perfect antidote to the Polar Vortex-infested winter.
Seven performances to Feb. 23 at the Four Seasons Centre. See here for show times and tickets details.