Notes and Editorial Reviews
“If it is prose it is not poetry. And if it is poetry it is not prose,” exclaims the bemused philosophy master to his obtuse pupil M. Jourdain in Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Would that such simple logic was still applicable, but today we have to add a further linguistic category. It is commonly known as psycho-babble, and there is plenty of it in evidence in the notes for this Così fan tutte, a production by Patrice Chéreau given at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. They mostly take the form of a diary of the rehearsals written by one Clément Hervieu-Léger, largely a paean to Chéreau. Among other things you never wanted to know about Così, we are told that when Fiordiligi puts on the
uniform of her fiancé to seek him on the battlefield, “it is as if she is released from the conventions of society which were compelling her to remain faithful to her fiancé. . . . Breaching a universally acknowledged borderline, the one between the sexes, the actual disguise itself constitutes an act of transgression.”
There’s plenty more of this pretentious (and ignorant) gibberish. Do you want to know about the background to the opera, when it was written and so on? Tough luck. You won’t find it here. Reading this dismal stuff—and Chéreau adds some of his own—before turning to the opera itself is best not calculated to arouse the highest of expectations about the performance of a work especially cherished by the present writer.
When turning to the opera, we find a nice irony, one Mozart himself might wryly have appreciated. Far from being particularly controversial, the performance we encounter is a good, average one in a production whose main problem is to take itself far too seriously. As Peter Hall proved in a memorable Glyndebourne production as far back as 1978 (not as yet on DVD), there is nothing intrinsically wrong with taking Così seriously; indeed, it raises profoundly serious (and unresolved) questions about human behavior. But as Hall, with his long experience of Shakespeare production, recognized, Così is first and foremost a comedy of contemporary manners, a work that juxtaposes irony and passion, wit and heartbreak in a bewildering and disturbing emotional melting pot. Chéreau clearly does not, apparently finding no middle ground between the “bubbly and light-hearted” (which he dismisses) and the deadly serious.
For this reason, Chéreau has chosen to set Così in a drab neutral space, the backstage area of an Italian theater that has seen better days. This allows for all manner of props to be brought constantly and fussily from the performing area by a team of supernumeraries. There is one point where I held my breath as a bench was slid under Despina just as she sat down on it. Fortunately, this “business” is not carried on during arias, which are mercifully allowed to hold our full attention. Also attractive are the costumes, perhaps more early 19th century than 18th, the bright primary colors of which (in the case of the two couples) compensate to some degree for the dreary set. Characterization also suffers from Chéreau’s obsession with avoiding anything that might hint at fun. The biggest loser in this respect is Elina Garan?a’s lovely looking Dorabella, her “Smanie implacabili” (act I) being delivered with no hint of seria parody, and, more extraordinarily, singing her act II “È amore un ladroncello” not as a light-hearted account of the vagaries of love, but as serious commentary. This blurring of the distinctive characters of the two sisters (clearly made by Mozart in their opening duet) is yet another weakness in Chéreau’s conception. To a lesser degree this also applies to Guglielmo (a role, let us not forget, written for Francesco Benucci, a fine buffo baritone who was the first Figaro) and Despina, here portrayed by Barbara Bonney as an unpleasant, manipulating shrew rather than a knowing, pert girl. Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the production comes in the scene in act II where the two boys, accompanied by a wind ensemble and singers, serenade the girls from a decorated barge. Here there is, of course, no barge, and Chéreau turns this delightful scene into some kind of quasi-pagan ritual, having noted the mention in the libretto of the breaking of lover’s flower knots. This is surely a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, the interpretation making no sense in the context.
It would be wrong, however, in such a multilayered work to suggest that there are not moments when Chéreau hits the target, sometimes disconcertingly. Much of the interaction between the characters is very telling indeed. Ruggero Raimondi’s portrayal of Alfonso, if sounding vocally a little worn, is consistently fascinating, part the traditional cynic, but at the same time a man with the humanity to realize that his “social experiment” is getting out of hand. The capitulation of Dorabella to Guglielmo, too, is handled and acted with considerable skill, giving their less profound emotions greater substance than is usually the case, if perhaps slightly undermining the great pivotal point of the opera, the moment at which Ferrando finally breaches Fiordiligi’s defenses.
As is immediately obvious from the clipped chords that start the overture, Daniel Harding’s direction owes a debt to period-performance practice. In general, he obtains neat, well-turned playing from his orchestra, adopting mostly appropriate tempos, although the final ensemble of act I is something of an undignified scramble, and some of the slower arias (“Per pietà,” for instance) drag at Harding’s speeds. But I hear nothing particularly distinctive in his reading, no great feeling of a coherent dramatic approach to the score. This may at least in part be due to a recording that favors stage over pit; in Così, of all operas, I want to hear Mozart’s miraculous wind-writing given more definition than is audible here. The cast is variable. I’ve already mentioned Raimondi’s well-acted, but dry-toned Alfonso, and Bonney’s rather unpleasant Despina, which is decently sung, even if the voice has now lost the bloom that made her so enchanting. The best singing comes from Garan?a’s lustrous Dorabella (a fiery “Smanie implacabili”) and Stéphane Degout’s fine Guglielmo, though he would be still better in a production that allowed the character to return to his buffo roots (“Non siate” is another aria that suffers from a slow tempo and misconceived seriousness). The Fiordiligi of Erin Wall and Shawn Matthey’s Ferrando both provide competent, if hardly memorable performances, the former being tested by both her big arias; “Per pietà” is marred at one point by a particularly ugly portamento. Appoggiaturas and embellishments are added in varying degrees according to the singer, and there are several wildly unstylish outbursts at fermatas, Bonney being a particular culprit in this respect.
A check on Amazon reveals the surprising fact that there are already a dozen Cosìs available on DVD. I’ve certainly not seen them all (there are some I would do anything to avoid). Muti seems like a reliable choice for a traditional production and fine performance, but if your taste runs to a truly beautiful period production winningly sung by an enchanting young cast, the Drottningholm version remains, in my view, unrivaled. While the present issue may attract those interested in Chéreau’s take on the opera, it is not a mainstream recommendation.
FANFARE: Brian Robins
Works on This Recording
Così fan tutte, K 588 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Barbara Bonney (Soprano),
Elina Garanca (Mezzo Soprano),
Stèphane Degout (Baritone),
Ruggero Raimondi (Bass)
Arnold Schoenberg Choir
Written: 1790; Vienna, Austria
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