Mozart - Così fan tutte

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday March 8 2020

Conductor: Antonello Manacorda. Production and costumes: Jean-Philippe Clarac, Olivier Deloeuil (> Le Lab). Sets: Rick Martin. Lighting: Christophe Pitoiset. Video: Jean-Baptiste Beïs, Timothée Buisson. Fiordiligi: Lenneke Ruiten. Dorabella: Ginger Costa-Jackson. Guglielmo: Iurii Samoilov. Ferrando: Juan Francisco Gatell. Despina: Caterina Di Tonno. Don Alfonso: Riccardo Novaro. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.

So, as I was saying last week... The idea at La Monnaie is to present the Mozart-Da Ponte operas as three episodes of a single work, in a single set and with the same cast, setting it in present-day Brussels and attempting at least to raise contemporary sexual and gender issues. As La Monnaie's programme is issued in French and Flemish, I thought it might be useful to translate a selection of phrases from an interview with the directors.

'What interests us as we work on the repertory is to give it a contemporary dimension, to lead audience members to rethink - or discover - the political, social and cultural issues of their immediate environment. (...) Our production takes place today, in Brussels. A city where #MeToo demonstrators, transidentity demands, class conflicts and, as in the late 18th century, the eternally unsatisfied need for love, all find expression. (...) We want an evening at the opera to be a way of "testing our present", encouraging audience members to question things, as opera lovers but also as citizens. Our productions are therefore always "in phase" with current affairs. (...) We have written a plot to structure the 24 hours in which the Trilogia takes place and lead all the characters to cross paths. (...) we have emphasised the revolt of women in Le nozze, the redefinition of gender in Così and issues of sexuality in general in Don Giovanni...'

As there are already some family relationships between characters in these works, they have invented some more (e.g. Cherubino is the son of Don Giovanni and Elvira) to intensify links between the plots, and even offer a family tree in the programme to help you find your way round. The production 'recycles' singers between operas in the same way as Mozart did with his original casts, so characters from one show up in the next, even if they have nothing to sing (e.g. the Countess buying a dress in Despina's shop and the Count/Ambassador watching TV in Così), and a colour code - blue for Le nozze, yellow for Così and red for Don G. - helps you identify references between the works, whether in video clips or acted out somewhere in the single set by extras or other singers (so the dress the Countess buys is blue).

The rotating set - a capacious, three-storey modern building with many rooms, windows and staircases behind a white façade - is good-looking (especially by Brussels standards), ingenious and effective. The main, in this case 'yellow', action moves effectively from room to room and floor to floor as the house turns, while offstage business goes on to the side or the rear, coloured red or blue when referring to the other operas (e.g. Giovanni's red and definitely louche downstairs nightclub). As in the same team's Mitridate in La Monnaie's temporary tent home a couple of seasons back, breaking news is flashed up, CNN-style, on screens (e.g. 'Sex scandal at Spanish Embassy'); but here sets and costumes are slicker - in the tent, it all had a definite 'low-budget' feel. The boys are firemen about to go off on a life-threatening mission, the girls are internet influencers, one giving online yoga classes, the other giving beauty tips; they sunbathe on the roof, Despina has a chic boutique on the ground floor, the boys, now in Galatasaray strip, poison themselves with the cleaner's bleach... It's fresh and youthful and fun and the audience laughs in all the usual places: a bright and successful update.

Where the production falls down is in its socio-political rethinking. I'm just an opera customer, not a director, but it seems to me that to make serious concepts of the kind intended here work, you have to weave them subtly but tightly into the whole production. For example, in plots involving close male friends (e.g. Don Carlos) you may indeed develop a 'bromance' concept to make a point, but you need to do it organically, throughout the work. Here, in Così, out of the blue and just once, the music stops for a few seconds to allow Guglielmo's hand slip down to Ferrando's bottom, a sexual gesture at the least likely moment in the plot, when he's comforting his friend over Dorabella's easy unfaithfulness. Despina's occasional physical intimacy with Alfonso was as unlikely as her lesbian relationship with Dorabella, hinted at just once, behind a curtain. The brief stand-off, in the street, between anti-gay-marriage chorus members and a gaggle of drag queens was as limp and unconvincing as the feeble #MeToo demo had been in Le nozze ; and what appeared to be a Muslim wedding party (I'm not making this up) was a barely relevant attempt to bring in one contemporary issue too many. It's a wonder they didn't somehow slip in ten seconds of COVID-19.

Don Alfonso was, it's true, played as gender-fluid throughout. But he was got up as Quentin Crisp, camp as a row of tents, and his universe, among pole-dancing, flouncing 'transgender' extras in Giovanni's red-lit nightclub, was straight out of La Cage aux Folles. This steered the plot perilously close to an insulting cliché of cynical old queens seeking to 'corrupt' handsome, upright young men. What could be raised as serious issues were trivialised as superficial daubs of woke-washing on an otherwise straightforward, if neatly updated, buffo comedy.

Antonello Manacorda's tempi were fairly brisk (Klemperer fans should abstain). Some attempt had been made to 'HIPify' the orchestra: natural trumpets though not natural horns, no string vibrato. They sounded a bit rough round the edges, and with the cast all over the various levels of the set, keeping everything together was sometimes a struggle.

The cast was a typical La Monnaie Mozart one: a tightly, well-rehearsed team of singers, all roughly the same age as the characters they're playing. I've read that Lenneke Ruiten hasn't been well recently. She sang beautifully, as usual, with all the notes on pitch. This in itself, in Fiordiligi's unreasonable arias, is quite a feat. But on Sunday she didn't have the oomph needed to sustain her projection through those long, meandering lines in the lower registers. The stars of this particular show were, therefore, Ferrando and Dorabella. I'd already been struck by Juan Francisco Gatell in the same rôle and the same house but in Michael Haneke's more troubling production, in 2013. He was at least as good this time round, and I should hope his Ottavio will be less weedy than usual. Ginger Costa-Jacksons' lush, rich, percussive, even edgy, voice, which contrasted well with Lenneke Ruiten's more silvery timbre, suited me fine, though I suspect that edginess wouldn't suit everyone.

La Monnaie is now 'closely monitoring the (COVID-19) situation before deciding to cancel any showings.' The March 10 performance went ahead. It will be a shame if next weekend's Don Giovanni doesn't(1). I was looking forward to hearing Alessio Arduini and Björn Bürger again, and it would be interesting to see if Elvira suits Lenneke Ruiten better than Fiordiligi. Fingers (carefully washed) crossed.

(1) Now cancelled.

Meanwhile, in this clip Maestro Wenarto demonstrates how tricky 'Come Scoglio' is.


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