Mozart – Cosí fan tutte

Opéra National de Paris - Palais Garnier, Monday September 26 2005

Conductor: Gustav Kuhn. Production: Patrice Chéreau. Sets: Richard Peduzzi. Fiordiligi: Erin Wall. Dorabella: Elina Garanca. Guglielmo: Stéphane Degout. Ferrando: Shawn Mathey. Despina: Barbara Bonney. Don Alfonso: Ruggero Raimondi. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Our Paris season got off to a good start this week with two strong productions, Cosí fan tutte from the Aix Festival and Hindemith’s Cardillac.

A certain amount of turbulence has surrounded Chéreau’s production of Cosí. It didn’t go down too well in Aix, perhaps because people found it too “drab” for a summer festival, or wanted a “frothier” approach, or simply expected something more startling from Chéreau; perhaps also because Daniel Harding’s conducting was considered “controversial”.

Then, in Paris, probably by threatening to strike, the opera orchestra forced Harding out, and Barbara Bonney was booed on the opening night and hasn’t taken bows since, causing fierce debate (to boo or not to boo) on the web sites... Yet on the whole it has been far more warmly received here, the production being perhaps better-suited to an urban, indoor theatre than Aix’s holiday atmosphere and Provençal nights.

I believe Chéreau’s underlying idea was that Cosí is quintessential Italian theatre, and his aim was to reproduce the “pure” theatrical teamwork, the sense of well-regulated, can-do stagecraft he experienced as a young assistant director in Italy. This was a single-set staging: the backstage area of an Italian theatre, with a couple of high arches, peeling white paint, plenty of openings for entrances and exits, rough balconies to left and right festooned with ropes and pulleys, a wall phone, exit lights and a fire extinguisher, and Vietato Fumare in big red letters on the rear wall, on which the supertitles were projected direct. There were gangways across the orchestra pit to left and right, and some of the action took place in the auditorium among the assembled Paris bourgeoisie.

It was this lack of “realistic” sets that upset some people, who found the staging “gloomy” or “ugly,” but it certainly made it possible to concentrate on the drama, and Chéreau had directed the acting down to the last detail, producing a finely-tuned team effort, often impressively in synch with the music.

His was a sober, adult approach to this ambiguous comedy. The humour was there, delivered with lively charm by the mainly young cast (and all the stage experience of Raimondi) but without farce or gags, and certainly the cruelty and ambiguity of the plot was brought out to the full, with no happy ending. The costumes were period, in a range of subdued, “old master” colours – no frills and flounces, but beautifully tailored; and the stage remained bare.

Props, when needed, were rushed in just-in-time by stage hands also in period garb: Despina was already half-seated when the necessary bench was slipped beneath her bottom; a key was produced the moment the hand was raised to receive it. At other times, the stage hands and “villagers” lounged in the wings, chatting (silently, of course).

The cast was strong and fairly homogeneous. Stéphane Degout and Elina Garanca, however, were the stronger pair: Degout is now an outstanding Mozartian baritone and Garanca was simply gorgeous. Erin Wall made up in commitment for some difficulties with her big set pieces (who, in any case, can sing Come scoglio from tricky top to very tricky bottom?), Shawn Mathey was good enough, and Raimondi’s years of experience enable him to make the best of what’s left.

Barbara Bonney is, however, clearly in trouble: the top notes are still there, but her middle and lower range are barely audible - at times not audible at all – and her recitative is pasty and indistinct. Whether this is a passing phase or the end of her career remains to be seen, but was it a reason to boo? Why not, in that case, boo the orchestra? They may have succeeded in running Harding out of town and getting a conductor they liked, but seemed in no mood for disciplined playing, even for him.

Well, nobody booed on Monday evening, and Bonney, clearly realising something is seriously wrong, took no bows alone, although really she might have – no-one could claim a weak Despina ruined the show. Indeed, it was an excellent start to the season and, I must say, the first time I’ve sat through Cosí without once feeling it was quand même a touch too long.


  1. You ask "who, in any case, can sing Come scoglio from tricky top to very tricky bottom?" Have you heard Dorothea Roeschmann in the role?

  2. No, but I've heard nothing but good of her.


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