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La scuola degli idioti

06/16/2024 -  & June 19, 22, 24*, 26, 28, 2024
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Così fan tutte, ossia la scuola degli amanti, K. 588
Federica Lombardi (Fiordiligi), Emily d’Angelo (Dorabella), Filipe Manu (Ferrando), Peter Kellner (Guglielmo), Christopher Maltman (Don Alfonso), Kate Lindsey (Despina)
Chor des Wiener Staatsoper, Martin Schebesta (chorus master), Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Philippe Jordan (conductor)
Barrie Kosky (director), Gianluca Falaschi (set designer, costumes), Frank Evin (lighting), Nickolaus Steitzer (dramaturgy)

(© Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn)

Nothing is less cool than someone attempting to look or sound cool. This was the feeling one had in this staging of Così fan tutte as a play within a play. Supposedly, the opera is transposed to the present time in a theatre where two young actor couples are subjected to the ploy of mismatching by a jaded old director. The young actors were dressed in a supposedly fashionable way: shorts, overalls and caps, and the stagehand was permanently wearing headphones to block out ambient noises.

In removing the opera from its traditional setting, the plot sadly fizzled. The naturally light‑hearted humour in Da Ponte’s timeless libretto evaporated and was replaced by something else that could not be called humour. Australian director Barrie Kosky’s “humour” was so thick you could cut it with a knife. This is a pity as most of the singers were truly first-rate. As for Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan’s direction of the Wiener Philharmoniker, it could not have been better; he excels in this repertoire.

Of the many productions I’ve experienced of Così fan tutte, the most brilliant have chosen Naples as its setting, as written. Witness Ettore Scola’s dazzling staging for Turin’s Teatro Regio, where the late gifted filmmaker and stage director also made the regional capital of Campania a protagonist. Some productions, this one included, ignore Italy’s third‑largest city as a primal influence. Others pay lip service by featuring pretty Mediterranean scenery, which at least affords the opportunity for aesthetically pleasing sets. However, Naples and its sardonic, often cruel sense of humour are a crucial element of the work, which Da Ponte did not choose fortuitously.

Instead, we’re subjected to a theatre or opera house and its backstage area. Despite the clearly sunny nature of some of the work’s music, there was no hint of it or the Mediterranean in Kosky’s dull production. We may as well have been in Chemnitz, Bielefeld or Indianapolis.

Così fan tutte can either be seen as a lighthearted farce, or as a deep contemplative account of love and fidelity. In a Neapolitan café, Ferrando and Guglielmo, two young officers, vaunt their fiancées’ eternal faithfulness. Their cynical older friend, Don Alfonso, has his doubts, and makes a wager with the young men to prove their lovers’ fickleness. The ploy is to pretend the young officers have been called off to war and to reintroduce them disguised as young Albanian friends of Don Alfonso’s. Each is to attempt to seduce the other’s fiancée.

Kosky dispensed with the Albanian disguise as Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not duped victims but consenting participants in the experiment. In eliminating the exotic “Albanian” disguise, which offers some dissimulation and plenty of humour, featuring extravagant mustaches, turbans and exotic clothes, the director also dispenses with a large portion of the humour. Likewise, Despina, a jack-of-all-trades stagehand, originally the sisters’ chambermaid, no longer resorts to the disguise of a pedantic old doctor of la scuola Bolognese coming to rescue the rejected young men from the “arsenic” they drank in despair. Instead, she arrived as a quasi‑fire fighter, dressed in red and yellow. Again, poof goes the humour. Instead, some forced laughs are introduced when Despina wrapped the men in electrical wire and electrocuted them to “expel” the arsenic. Judging from the facial expressions of fellow spectators, there wasn’t the faintest smile.

In Act II, Dorabella falls easily for the advances of her new suitor. Ferrando is desperate, but eventually Fiordiligi is also won over. In the process, Kosky “innovates” by having the men crossdress in frocks similar to those of their sweethearts. This fake audacity is either to appear “woke,” or to provide some laughter in seeing Ferrando and especially deep‑voiced Guglielmo in drag. In either case, it is de mauvais gout. Perhaps it was a psychological experiment in sexual ambiguity by the perverse old director. However, given the total absence of such nonsense in the libretto, this lame idea couldn’t have been further stretched.

A double wedding is arranged, with Despina disguised as a notary singing in a falsetto voice. As it always does, this travestimento elicited laughter from the public. Given all four young people’s complicity, the fake notary seemed unwarranted, unless the message was that though all were complicit, they still fell prey to the game. If so, a clearer indication was needed. In Da Ponte’s libretto, Don Alfonso reveals the deception, wins the wager and the two couples are reconciled. In this train wreck, the four throw their scores at Don Alfonso and exit, casting doubt at their future as potential couples. It would seem that this production’s director is infinitely more cynical and perverse than Don Alfonso!

Even more than Don Giovanni or Le nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte is the perfect marriage of text and music. One needn’t ask the eternal question: “Prima la musica o le parole?” on whether music or the text ought to predominate. Da Ponte’s brilliant text, at least equal to Mozart’s sublime music, requires a sextet of singers that can relish the beauty of the Italian language and give life to the natural grace and irony of the text. Alas, this is a rare feat with non‑native speakers of Italian. I recall a performance in Brescia’s modest opera house with average young performers that erased from my memory several stellar casts and grandiose productions in leading non‑Italian opera houses.

In the present production, all singers enjoy sufficiently good diction, but only Federica Lombardi, Christopher Maltman and Peter Kellner sounded like natives. Young Tongan Filipe Manu came close. American Kate Lindsey was understandable but not proficient. Canadian mezzo Emily d’Angelo was distinctly sloppy in this regard.

Italian soprano Federica Lombardi, as Fiordiligi, was monumental. She has a beautifully distinct timbre, natural trills, extreme technical ease, good looks and excellent acting skills. The challenge is in juxtaposing such colossal talent with mere mortals (and sub‑mortals); this can only emphasize their weaknesses. Mercifully, the overall cast was of high vocal calibre. Previously admired as Fiordiligi in the aforementioned Ettore Scole production in Turin, Lombardi dazzled in “Come scoglio,” where her high notes were both comfortable and brilliant. Almost exactly six years after that Turin performance, Lombardi continues to be the best Mozartian dramatic soprano of our time. She’s an ideal Fiordiligi, Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro), Elettra (Idomeneo) and Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito). “Come scoglio” is a supremely difficult aria in which the soprano continuously changes gears from high notes to low. It’s alleged that Mozart had an extreme antipathy for the creator of the role, Adriana Ferrarese (1755‑1804), who was also Da Ponte’s mistress. Ferrarese had a tendency to drop her chin and throw her head back when singing either low or high notes. Thus, the frequent leaps from high to low were meant to make Ferrarese look like a chicken. Fortunately, Lombardi doesn’t share Ferrarese’s fowl tendency.

Canadian mezzo Emily d’Angelo ably acted the role of Dorabella. She is the more frivolous of the sisters, the one more easily seduced by the newcomer. However, her timbre was often unappealing and lacked sensuality. Given the glamorous entourage, her deficiencies became more apparent. Nonetheless, her “Smanie implacabili” was more than vocally adequate and dramatically bang on.

American mezzo Kate Lindsey’s voice is impressive, ranging from a creamy, warm low mezzo to a light soprano‑like mezzo. Admired in an earlier production of Il barbiere di Siviglia in this same venue, one wished she were cast as Dorabella rather than Despina. Her voluptuous voice would have blended better with Lombardi’s than d’Angelo’s low‑octane instrument. Her arias, “In uomini, sperare fedeltà” and “Una donna a quindici anni” were well executed, though the latter was comical for lack of credibility. This Despina is no teenager, but rather a healthy, attractive woman in her late thirties, despite the hip‑hop outfit.

Young Tongan-New Zealander Filipe Manu was a revelation, as Ferrando. Fresh from winning the 2024 Tenor Vinas Competition, Manu is already in demand by major European opera houses, mainly for Mozart and bel canto roles. His Act I “Un aura amorosa” was a masterclass in Mozart. He managed to be movingly heartfelt in “Tradito, schernito,” while maintaining Mozartian elegance. His Act II duet with Lombardi, “Fra gli amplessi,” was the vocal and stylistic pinnacle of the evening (together with Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio”). The young lyric tenor’s diction isn’t yet at par with native speaker Lombardi, but it’s only a matter of time. Watch for this exceptional singer who’ll soon sweep the opera world.

Slovak Peter Kellner was an unusual choice for the role of Guglielmo, as it’s usually assigned to a baritone. This is especially the case when Don Alfonso, also usually a bass, is assigned to a baritone singer. It’s to be noted that in Mozart’s time, the delineation between baritone and bass and between mezzo and soprano wasn’t as stringent as nowadays. If one forgets the baritonal voice of Don Alfonso, Kellner was an ideal Guglielmo, endowed with beautiful diction, a beautiful and virile voice, and with charisma and style onstage. Despite his less incandescent partner, his duet with Dorabella “Il cor vi dono” was charming.

English baritone Christopher Maltman was the perfect choice as the old cynic Don Alfonso. This role requires great acting more than superlative singing. His diction was exceptional for a non‑native. Like a Lieder singer, he relished every word. Highly charismatic, he managed to remain endearing, despite his role having been transformed to one of a sociopathic, predatory puppet‑master.

Despite moments of vocal brilliance in this performance, it fell flat. In Da Ponte’s libretto, Don Alfonso’s perverse cynicism is secondary to the limits of endurance of all human emotion, rather than the supposed fickleness of women. In this time of “MeToo”, the liberties taken by a cynical, over‑the‑hill director getting his kicks at the expense of the young actors he directs is both offensive and implausible. By implicating all four young protagonists in the director’s psychological game, they’re painfully aware of the ploy, and cannot believably fall for it. Either the viewing public or the actors are supposed to be mentally deficient. Otherwise, how could there be intrigue if all four are complicit? Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte is dubbed La scuola degli amanti (the school for lovers). In this insipid take, with these young people willing participants in the masquerade, it deserves another sobriquet: La scuola degli idioti.

Ossama el Naggar



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