When you walk into the Four Seasons Centre for the new Canadian Opera Company production of Cosi fan tutte the first thing you see is a huge reproduction of Frida Kahlo’s painting Two Fridas.
I imagined what Frida might have said had she seen this. “”HA Diego, see?! This is bigger than any of your murals!”
If you know Da Ponte’s libretto you could be forgiven for thinking that these gory images of blood & surgical instruments are incongruous, as you encounter Mozart’s comedy.
If you’re like me –an incorrigible opera nerd—you probably knew that Atom Egoyan was directing Cosi, that he was attempting something ambitious. I believe what he was attempting tonight was more difficult than either of his previous forays into opera with the COC. Salome is outrageous while Die Walküre is automatically symbolic and deep. Both works are dark, without a shred of comedy.
The old saying, attributed to Edmund Kean on his deathbed is “dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard” and I doubt he got a laugh. I wonder if Egoyan realizes this, as his Cosi fan tutte is often deep, sometimes wildly funny, but just as often, very dark. This is no light romp.
For starters, Egoyan does something that reminded me of Woody Allen. The subtitle of the piece –school for lovers—is taken as a logical departure point for the story. Don Alfonso’s bet with the two men—that he can demonstrate that women are unfaithful by nature—is a kind of illustration for a school. This is no friendly wager (as it has been in some productions I’ve seen), but something darker. Egoyan doesn’t hide from the sexism of the story, indeed he seems to underline it, and thereby to transcend it. The women are all fascinating, because it’s their drama that is in the spotlight, while the men, in comparison, seem to be abusive libertines with all the privileges.
And so yes, I thought of Woody Allen:
- because the women’s parts are all so interesting that the men are more or less blown off the stage, superficial and flawed, compared to these fascinating women.
- And yes, I had that other recollection of Woody Allen, the man recently castigated as a pedophile, who married Soon Yi. We’re all implicated in this production as we stare at a stage filled with what seem to be schoolgirls, two of whom are being pursued in this bet. Oh sure, I know that the singers playing the parts are of age; but the costuming is sufficiently ambiguous as to invite us into a very uncomfortable place. What’s more, the youthful mien of Fiordiligi and Dorabella makes perfect sense, when you look at their innocent fantasies; for all intents & purposes they could be children, considering their meagre understanding of the real world.
Egoyan isn’t content with that simple layer, perhaps because of the dark implications I just mentioned. Remember the huge Frida Kahlo reproduced on the curtain that seemed incongruous? In Act II we’re given ample reason. In Fiordiligi’s aria “Per pieta, ben mio, perdona” the painting that was already seen on the curtain, was now not only front and centre on the stage, but gradually enlarged, until the heart was almost the only thing visible. And then our viewpoint wanders to other disturbing images in the painting, such as the surgical instruments.
It’s a tribute to soprano Layla Claire’s performance that this odd projection gradually growing could not upstage her. As the aria mentions her heart it did follow logically, but the conceptual shenanigans were completely redeemed by the performances. Claire was matched by Wallis Giunta as a very playful Dorabella, their voices blending wonderfully, and looking very much like sisters. There was so much going on at times between them, that I couldn’t take it all in. The stage action was very rich and detailed even without including the work of the chorus.
When I think about this story, which is sometimes so glib in its treatment of genuine human feelings, I like what Egoyan seems to be doing, essentially validating the deeper feelings of all his characters, if not asking us whether true love is even possible. The modern director usually seeks to problematize that which has been straight-forward in the past, but in this case it’s a worthwhile exercise, taking a story that is in some respects (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) heartless. But as I said, the story really concerns the drama of the women and their choices, not the men, who are simply predatory & exploitive. It doesn’t leave you with a bright breezy feeling at the end, because in fact it’s just kicked you in the gut with its truthfulness and integrity. At the first intermission I didn’t think I’d be saying this, because I was a bit bewildered by all the bells and whistles, the butterflies with pins through their hearts, the ships in hats, the loose ends that didn’t seem to be cohering. But not only do they cohere, finally (the butterflies perhaps a reminder that we are all potential specimens to have our hearts broken), but one can even say that it does end happily enough. We’re all challenged & implicated in various ways, so it’s a relief that there is so much laughter. Act II is much funnier than Act I, perhaps because so much of the first act is setting up what’s to come.
I hadn’t laughed once before Tracy Dahl arrived as Despina, but whenever she appeared, the mood lightened. Not only did she manage the usual comic bits, but she brought extra, especially in her scenes with the two young women. It’s good to see her back on the COC stage. I last saw her in one of my all-time favourite productions, the Mansouri Ariadne auf Naxos with Elizabeth Connell & Judith Forst in the 1980s. I am not the only one who thought so (if you’ll excuse a slight digression). I found this reminiscence online from George Heymont (scroll halfway down to the paragraph about Toronto) echoing my sense that Dahl & Connell & Forst were as good as what they offered at the Met that year.
The men were certainly good too, even if I found myself almost embarrassed for my gender. Does that make me –or Egoyan—a feminist? Perhaps, and I’d say that proudly rather than as a critique. By the end all get their reward. Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso is in some respects a waste of such a profound talent, given that he’s more of a ringmaster or master of ceremonies. The voice is as splendid as ever, the delivery full of subtleties. Paul Appleby & Robert Gleadow each had their moments to shine, thoroughly enjoyable to watch.
I’m looking forward to seeing it again, to see how I feel about it now that I know what Egoyan was up to and where it’s going. The COC’s Cosi fan tutte runs at the Four Seasons Centre until February 21st, including the annual Ensemble performance –with a cast comprised of members of the Ensemble Studio—on February 7th.