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Così triumphs over directorial onslaught

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
01/18/2014 -  & January 24, 29, February 1, 6, 7, 9, 15, 18, 21, 2014
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte, K. 588
Layla Claire (Fiordiligi), Wallis Giunta (Dorabella), Paul Appleby (Ferrando), Robert Gleadow (Guglielmo), Sir Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso), Tracy Dahl (Despina)
The Canadian Opera Company Chorus, Sandra Horst (chorus master), The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, Johannes Debus (conductor)
Atom Egoyan (director), Debra Hanson (set and costume designer), Michael Walton (lighting designer)

R. Gleadow, P. Appleby, W. Giunta & L. Claire (© Michael Cooper)

Musically this new production goes along very well but Atom Egoyan has overburdened the work with huge, thumping directorial metaphors.

The subtitle of the opera is “the school for lovers”, so here it is set in an actual school. At first I was reminded of the The Belles of St. Trinian’s, but this school is coed. (There seems to be a direct reference here to Egoyan’s 1994 film Exotica which is set in a striptease bar where one of the dancers wears a school uniform to satisfy a customer’s fetish.) Here Don Alfonso is portrayed as a somewhat mad science master and a group of pupils (the chorus) keeps popping into scenes, clipboards in hand, to take notes.

Così is rather lengthy (each act just over 90 minutes long) and has only six performers (with a few short interjections from the chorus), so staging it is a challenge: just how much stage business is needed to liven things up and forestall audience ennui? In this case, in addition to the school setting, huge butterflies occasionally descend from above; they are pierced with giant pins like lab specimens. Don Alfonso and his pupils also brandish giant pins. In Act II, when three of the principals sing of feelings of the heart, we are treated to a close examination of a giant blowup of Frida Kahlo’s “The Two Fridas”, a double self-portrait where her heart is exposed - twice - one bleeding, one intact. At the same time two oversize monstrances have been hauled on stage, each displaying a heart in flames. (Not to mention Don Alfonso’s huge, cluttered curio cabinet. So much stuff!)

In addition to the visual barrage there is all sorts of stage business, such as during the beautiful trio “Soave sia il vento” (for Don Alfonso and the two sisters after their lovers have departed) when five “pupils” silently glide across the stage; each wears a huge blue wig on top of which is the model of a sailing ship. Later, while Fiordiligi sings her bravura “Come scoglio” there is a all sorts of byplay as Despina tries to get Dorabella and Guglielmo to canoodle. Such busyness reveals mistrust of the source (as happened during the 19th century when entirely new plots were superimposed on the supposedly immoral trivialities of Da Ponte’s libretto).

Even though the stage picture often overwhelms, Debra Hanson’s designs are very attractive indeed. The butterflies (there are two separate sets of them, one of which lights up) are stunning, and the garden scene early in Act II has especially beautiful projections.

Musically the performance is very strong. The usual COC TLC (“tender love and care”) has been applied; Johannes Debus, conducting the 44-member orchestra from the piano, ably guides everyone through the many challenges presented by the score. The strongest impression is made by the two sisters as Layla Claire and Wallis Giunta make for an absolutely magical pairing. Tenor Paul Appleby seems tentative at times, although basically he has the right voice for the role. Robert Gleadow makes the most of his opportunities to show Guglielmo’s sardonic side. Thomas Allen may have the occasional dry patch in the voice, but provides an object lesson in projecting every vocal and gestural nuance. Tracy Dahl, in a welcome return to the COC, displays her marvellous scene-stealing abilities.

Atom Egoyan’s program notes state that in this production the sisters seem to be aware of Don Alfonso’s plot (or “experiment”) and are thus allowed to “set their own agenda”. There is nothing in the libretto that indicates this and, as far as I could make out, their reactions to the unfolding events (the fake poisonings and recoveries, the eventually successful attempts at wooing, the interrupted wedding) are the same in this production as in every other I have seen. It is unsatisfactory to end this opera with either the original pairs of lovers reunited or with the new pairings. In this production, while the ensemble sing “Happy is the man who looks on the bright side”, it is clear that they are not happy, but sadder, wiser - and solitary. Thus, in the end, the many strengths of Da Ponte’s plot seem to have survived the director’s ministrations.

Upcoming is a terrific chance to revisit the production at bargain prices: the February 7 performance will feature all 10 of the singers in the COC Ensemble Studio, with Gordon Bintner as Don Alfonso and Claire de Sévigné as Despina; each act will feature a different quartet of lovers: in Act I, Aviva Fortunata (Fiordiligi), Charlotte Burrage (Dorabella), Andrew Haji (Ferrando), and Cameron McPhail (Guglielmo); in Act II, Sasha Djihanian, Danielle MacMillan, Owen McCausland, and Clarence Frazer respectively.

Michael Johnson



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