I had another look at the Canadian Opera Company’s Cosi fan tutte tonight, a production that I enjoyed even more this time in its closing performance.
Last time I was content to have so much fun & so many laughs, but this time I guess I’m trying to be a bit more analytical, hoping to understand what’s different from five years ago. There are a few possible explanations
- In this year’s version did Atom Egoyan see the light? Did he decide to be less pretentious? The overbearing images –Frida Kahlo, butterflies & pins to pierce them, and this heavy-handed “school for lovers”—are all still in the design concept, but feel different this time. Or was assistant director Marilyn Gronsdal the real genius behind this incarnation of the opera? (and the reason I like it so much better) If the director was more of a brand-name to sell the production than a real controlling force (as sometimes happens in revivals), perhaps the singers were able to shake off the original directorial concept (as seen in 2014) and bring the opera back closer to its usual tonal colour as a comedy.
- In this year’s version was the change from Sir Thomas Allen to Russell Braun the necessary catalyst for a lighter reading? When I watched Braun high-five the entire chorus in the curtain call, there was no mistaking the joy in the company. They were having fun, whereas last time there seemed to be something more reverential at work, a pompous self-important tone, either with Sir Thomas or the director. Last time my first laugh was an hour into the opera, at the arrival of Despina. This time I was laughing throughout. While this is a different sort of role for Braun –it lies lower than his usual baritone parts– I daresay he was phenomenal, and the driving force all night. It was a pleasure watching him.
- In this year’s version the women are funnier. Is this the personnel or their direction, I wonder? Wallis Giunta is a talented mezzo-soprano who was terrific last time. But Emily D’Angelo was turned loose in this version, showing a real gift for physical comedy. Last time I recall that Tracy Dahl was more or less on her own as the comic element of a rather serious reading of the opera; this time all three women were funny.
- The chorus seem to be smiling more this time. Again, I know they smiled last time, but there was an energy this time, a lightness of foot and a sense of delight. They have a huge amount of work to do, as witnesses & students observing the lessons they’re being taught by Don Alfonso. Braun’s school for lovers? It is a fun place, where Allen’s school seemed more solemn, so thoughtful as to be well, boring! Yes I almost fell asleep a couple of times in 2014. Not this time.
There are still question-marks, but they’re not for Egoyan or the COC. I love this production but I am reminded as usual: of problems I have with this opera, with the libretto that Lorenzo da Ponte handed Mozart. Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad, considering that Don Giovanni and Nozze di Figaro (the other two operas Da Ponte created with Mozart in that miraculous 5 year period) are arguably the two finest operas of the 18th century. I am still waiting to see a production of Cosi that really balances the genders at the end, holding the men to the same account as the women. Egoyan / Grosdal are busy with other issues, and so at the end we listen to the women apologize, while nowhere do the men really apologize for anything. We come as usual to the “funny” line that always rankles, when Alfonso says “Cosi fan tutte”, a line that surely must apply to the men as well as the women. I have seen productions that aim for more balance than this one. In this one? the quartet of lovers seem estranged at the end. So while the music is fabulous and the performances mostly wonderful –especially the quartet of Canadians—it’s not much of a happy ending. But I guess that’s normal for 21st century productions of this opera.
There are a couple of oddities in this reading. We have a scene where we watch the young women drinking to excess, a moment that felt especially odd today with the news about R Kelly. Drunks (the women have consumed seven bottles of wine) and under-age persons (their clothing suggests school-age… maybe it’s just a metaphor?) cannot give consent. Happily I must admit that those two women –Kirsten MacKinnon & D’Angelo especially –are very good at appearing inebriated onstage. In the next scene they are suddenly sober, perhaps because the scene would be very troubling if they were still drunk. But that’s a tiny quibble.
And there’s something in the 2019 director’s note that I don’t understand at all, where Egoyan claims that the women have a parallel wager. Maybe he’s as troubled by the text as I am? My big problem is how this 18th century story parallels a 21st century double standard I’ve seen in some men, who think it’s okay for them to have affairs and adventures while holding their GF or wife to a different standard, to point fingers at any straying they do, while feeling completely empowered to have all sorts of affairs on the side. What I think I see in Da Ponte’s libretto is a critique of women without any comparable critique of the men, perhaps symptomatic of a culture (in the 18th century) holding women to a different standard than the men, and being bold & revolutionary in suggesting that women might be as capable of infidelity as men. The big gesture on the male side is to admit that they were playing a game, that they were messing with the women. Oh how kind of them to admit that they were screwing around. But where’s the admission that everyone is really the same? I think that would be a much more important objective than all the images of bleeding hearts and butterflies.
As a man it bugs me that we got off easy yet again.