A Theatrical Coup Hoping for a Political One: Serebrennikov’s Così

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists and Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Cornelius Meister (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 4.11.2018. (CCr)

Così fan tutte (c) Monika Ritterhaus


Fiordiligi – Ruzan Mantashyan
Dorabella – Anna Goryachova
Guglielmo – Andrei Bondarenko
Ferrando – Frédéric Antoun
Despina – Rebeca Olvera
Don Alfonso – Michael Nagy
Sempronio – Francesco Guglielmino
Tizio – David Schwindling


Director (in absentia), Set designer, and Costume designer – Kirill Serebrennikov
Assistant director and Choreographer – Evgeny Kulagin
Stage Assistant – Nikolay Simonov
Costume Assistant – Tatiana Dolmatovskaya
Lighting – Franck Evin
Video designer – Ilya Shagalov
Choir director – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy and Russian interpreter – Beate Breidenbach

There’s historical flooding in Italy this week which, exacerbated by climate change, is corroding the foundations upon which great cities rest. There’s a ruling coalition in Italy right now that is promising a flat income tax and flirting with Putin. There’s an extraordinary Italian movie running in European cinemas right now, Dogman, that makes no bones about brutality and fear and our route to ruin. And there’s a Mozart opera set in Naples that is playing in Zurich right now, an opera that sends its heroes off to war so that they can lie to their girlfriends, catch them in a cruel trap, and prove how deceitful women – all women – are. Così fan tutte. If there were ever a moment to redraft a canonical Italian opera, this least funny of Mozart’s comedies would seem a good place to start.

What’s even less funny is that the government of Vladimir Putin placed the director of this production, Kirill Serebrennikov, under house arrest in 2017, the charges apparently fabricated and likely stemming from conservative attacks on Serebrennikov’s ‘immoral’ depictions of Russian classics. America is not so far down the road Russia has lately forged, and the midterm election results this week will only be a partial indication of how fast she intends to hurtle into thuggish lawlessness, but imagine Steven Soderbergh with an ankle monitor pinning him to his couch in New York City if you want some sense of how badly affairs have soured in the great nation of Russia. Serebrennikov is a brave and talented filmmaker and director. Revoking his artistic freedom ‘over there’ puts the onus on us here: our books, shows, plays, films, even operas, must become smarter and better, and we in the audience have to follow good art where it leads. Anything else would reinforce the intolerable status quo. There’s no formula for how ‘political’ any one work has to be, but we owe it to the censored not to censor ourselves with self-imposed dullness, via work that neither reflects nor challenges our reality.

Brave too is the Opernhaus Zürich for engaging Serebrennikov during his house arrest – his oft-delayed trial is finally set to start November 7 – as directing operas is one of the few things he is still able to do, now that he has been deprived of every electronic medium except a camera, a computer unconnected to the internet, and the USB stick of correspondence his lawyer shuttles back and forth between him and the nearest wifi in order to connect with artists on-site at the Opernhaus Zürich. Serebrennikov has delegated day-to-day decisions for this production to Evgeny Kulagin, his choreographer and right-hand-man from their days together at the Gogol Centre of Moscow. A production like this and its wide media attention could go a long way towards slowly taming the brazen Russian judiciary, at least in this instance. Or not.

So what is the production? A major theatrical coup, as it turns out. The opera comes off here as dead serious in the matters of love and war, but sardonic in the matters of sex and pleasure. Act I’s lovers’ tricks are far crueller than elsewhere, Act II’s lovers’ betrayals are as solemn as any tragedy, and scores of little gags bring incidental wit throughout. Kirill Serebrennikov has managed, quite spectacularly, to respect the ‘sad Mozart’ (as Adorno saw him) within a genuinely droll evening; he has teased out the parts of the story that, implicitly and explicitly, offend our taste, and thrown them back at us in harsh, icky, playful ways. Serebrennikov, gay, Jewish, politically persecuted and artistically censored, is calling for solidarity with the oppressed. He succeeded at turning Così fan tutte into a dark comedy with a righteous political message.

And all without cuts or major changes to the story, I might add. The only drastic measure is to have Guglielmo and Ferrando convince their girlfriends that they are not just heading out into some military campaign, but that they have died in one. The women, beyond distraught, clutch urns of their ashes and chug barbiturates as their mascara runs. The storytelling is smartly non-committal here: with the two men viewing the earthly events simulcast up to their second-story perches, it’s ambiguous whether they only told the women they’re dead – a hideous act that, somehow, Mozart’s music psychologically withstands – or whether they’re actually dead, and watching from the afterlife upstairs. Either way, this trick rubs our noses in a reminder that when actual soldiers join actual armies, some of them end up with bullets in their brains.

In come two ersatz suitors hired by Don Alfonso (sung with dry confidence by Michael Nagy), who vapes and boozes whilst the heroes are sculpting their abs at the gym. In this staging, it’s not Guglielmo and Ferrando wearing some dumb Groucho glasses who are courting their own girlfriends, it’s these two strangers, the hired muscle, appearing as actual Albanians. The believability problem of the potentially ridiculous plot? Solved. Appearing in nonspeaking roles inserted surgically into the libretto, the men are some pretty nasty mofos. They first appear in the thawbs of Persian Gulf billionaires, and later discard these for their underwear, full-sleeve tattoos exposed. They help themselves to what’s in the fridge, plop down on the couch and watch a football match or a skin flick, and mean what they say when they beg the women to love them, or else.

Their ‘courtship’ of Fiordiligi and Dorabella thus appears in an entirely new light. When they threaten to poison themselves, it’s no longer the harmless insistence of yore (‘Draw near, cruel ones; see the dire effect of despairing love’ and so forth), it’s a threat of sexual violence coming from total strangers on the same day these two women just buried their boyfriends. Serebrennikov doesn’t need to discard Mozart and da Ponte where they’re inconvenient to his vision, nor must he resort to morphing the libretto into some tortured revamp. He simply adds this layer on top, using all the topics that are already present or implied. The effect is devastating – what Don Alfonso, Guglielmo, and Ferrando are submitting these women to, just to win a misogynist bet, is jarring and excruciating. Imagine hearing ‘Come scoglio’ in such a light: this Fiordiligi (Ruzan Mantashyan, far from pitch perfect, but oh, what a rich sound) wields a gun.

There are misfires. Although I enjoyed that Despina is made to be the women’s shrink as much as their housekeeper as she spurs them on towards acknowledging their libidos, poor Rebeca Olvera is made to sing both of Despina’s arias (in her small but pristine voice) beside an incoherent, NSFW slideshow of, amongst other things, misandrist slogans and doodles by inspired by Valerie Solanas and her SCUM manifesto (‘Society for Cutting Up Men’). Solanas will be known to Andy Warhol fans as the radical feminist who sent a bullet through Warhol’s spleen. It’s one thing to provoke your audience and accuse it of complacency. It’s another to merely show them a barrage of random pictures from a hodgepodge of post-war feminism, with the X-rated ones sped up too fast to actually make anyone squirm. Mozart’s operas like to end in an Enlightenment appeal for reason and reconciliation; this part of the production implies a culture war of an eye for an eye. Even worse is that Ilya Shagalov’s videos undermine their own power, since several of his other images, like the footage of Pussy Riot getting arrested, comprise a desperate call for us to fight actual tyranny, including of the patriarchal sort.

Still, the evening more than holds together in Act II by means of this insertion of Don Alfonso’s two hired seducers, and by confronting Guglielmo and Ferrando with a Dorabella who actually enjoys sex. The men are never let off the hook, and nor does it feel preachy or moralising to show them at their chauvinistic worst. Just as in the recent story ‘Cat Person’, these heroes are only gentlemen until they lose control of their women, at which point they reach straight for sexualised slurs.

The gorgeous four-aria sequence of each of the protagonist’s reflecting on the once-unthinkable was one long state of ecstatic anguish, the saddest ‘Per pietà’ you could ever wish for. Vocally, baritone Andrei Bondarenko is beyond reproach, though his acting pales next to that of Frédéric Antoun; inversely, Antoun’s singing sounded clumsy and pinched. Anna Goryachova as Dorabella was excellently confident in the darkness of this role, and in the production’s sexuality. Her singing was mixed, stronger in the second half, very well blended with others, suffering from similar pitch problems as did Mantashyan, and wonderfully powerful in her big middle voice.

Key to holding things together was the conducting by Cornelius Meister. He’s a terrific Mozartian, giving a restrained but boyant reading in the beginning of the score before taking more license with dynamics in the second act. Here he joyously let his orchestra breathe, impeccably astride the singers, always aided by Andrea del Bianco on harpsichord. Speaking of license: Meister even let Serebrennikov insert music from the Commendatore scene from Don Giovanni into his orchestra; how else could the production reintroduce the dead Guglielmo and Ferrando to the Fiordiligi and Dorabella? It comes right when they’re about to marry those boorish suiters, wearing traditional wedding dresses that look like something from a Patrick Leigh Fermor travelogue: tradition and pageantry and repression of women, all wrapped snugly together. The women get to unshackle themselves; will Serebrennikov?

Casey Creel

See the petition against Serebrenniko’s house arrest. The production runs until 1 December.

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