Zurich revives a cinematic Così fan tutte, directed under house arrest

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists and Chorus of the Opernhaus Zürich, Philharmonia Zürich / Ottavio Dantone (conductor), Opernhaus Zürich, Zurich, 26.10.2019. (CCr)

Kirill Serebrennikov’s Così fan tutte (c) Monika Ritterhaus

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 – Beate Breidenbach

Fiordiligi – Ruzan Mantashyan
Dorabella – Anna Goryachova
Guglielmo – Konstantin Shushakov
Ferrando – Alexey Neklyudov
Despina – Rebeca Olvera
Don Alfonso – Michael Nagy
Sempronio – Francesco Guglielmino
Tizio – Mentor Bajrami

The live theatre stage is a great plane of irretrievable, perishable experience. If you enjoy a performance and wish to repeat it, you have to be lucky enough to be able to go again, and hope it’s the same. The cinema on the other hand is automatically permanent. Watch a movie a hundred times and that little gesture or line you love will ring faithfully on demand.

What happens when theatre directors blur the two and put screens on the stage? Does the spontaneous stage become a mechanical spectacle, stiff and Disneyfied? Does the magic of theatre become paltry the instant we’re reminded of the omnipresent power of Digital Media, the very thing from which we may very well be in the theatre expressly in order to sneak a brief escape? Is a screen on stage not a way to undermine the theatre, a vote of little confidence in ‘just’ a set, ‘just’ some singers, ‘just’ some music?

Only in the wrong hands, as this multimedia production of Così fan tutte shows. A revival from last year, it was directed by the great Kirill Serebrennikov, who is no longer under house arrest in Moscow but is still not allowed to leave the city after committing the crime of exercising artistic license in Putin’s Russia. Serebrennikov is both a theatre and a film director, whose latest movie, Leto (Summer), is highly musical and supplely full of theatrical whimsy. So, it would follow that his Mozart would be highly cinematic and full of sublime artistic touches that layer the storytelling. (The lighting work of the excellent Franck Evin is indispensable in producing such a rich look and feel.)

Serebrennikov’s conceit, as he relays Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy of girlfriend-swapping and mischievous tests of loyalty, is that here the two heroines are told not just that their boyfriends have gone to war, but that they have died in one. The upstairs of the two-tiered stage serves ambiguously as the heavens from which they see a telecast of the proceedings below, with pressure put on their girlfriends’ faithfulness by a couple of hired goons who act as manipulative sexual aggressors.

It’s a gimmick that takes the women’s suffering at face value. Thus when the libretto has one of the women sing ‘Let me die rather than yield’ to the man coming onto her in her boyfriend’s absence, we believe her and her death wish; Fiordiligi’s got an urn in her hands and here comes some Tarzan lookalike threatening to poison himself if she doesn’t marry him. Serebrennikov’s production is filled with elements large and small that point to the ways in which men enjoy and abuse their power over women. It honours Mozart’s depth of feeling for the women and leaves all of yesteryear’s rococo powdering-over of these matters in the dust. All while keeping the audience chuckling in delight.

Baritone Michael Nagy leads the way in a cast that is (mostly) up to the task of keeping the layers of meaning intact. His Don Alphonso, the instigator of the bet that the men’s girlfriends won’t be faithful in their absence, is a boozy, cagey, agnostic Mephistopheles, left by his own girlfriend and eager to prove a sinister point. Nagy’s sound is a lusty, agreeably nasal one, and when it eschews pushiness it is capable of exquisite resonance, lovingly blended with the women’s voices (the ensemble moments of this production are never perfect or precious, always taken with energy, and the chorus sounds great). The Zurich public has a lot to look forward to when Nagy sings, with Julia Kleiter, Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch next April.

It follows that the women come off far better in this production than the men, and this is doubled in the highly successful casting of Anna Goryachova as Dorabella, a soprano with a sometimes-unwieldy richness of voice, vibrato-happy, sanguine. Her sister Fiordiligi, given by Ruzan Mantashyan, has the pearlier voice of the two but is less assured in the lower range of her voice across Mozart’s roller coaster arias, which she sings affectingly.

As actresses, these two women are the core of the story, and it’s hard to imagine better performers to carry out Serebrennikov’s idea of materialistic women with loving hearts sorting through tradition and libido and manipulation from those around them. I can’t help but think that he was channelling the French director Jean-Luc Godard here, since instead of making an outright political opera it feels more like he made an opera politically, with Fiordiligi and Dorabella mixing the narcissism of smartphones and shopping with feminist self-defence; they’re our version of the children of Marx and of Coca-Cola.

The two heroes suffer in comparison. They’re churls, yes, but not without feeling, which makes their slut-shaming all the more relevant. Alexey Neklyudov sang and acted his Ferrando capably, his style the most Italianate of the evening, including a fair amount of scooping. Konstantin Shushakov was a duller Guglielmo, and I hope he can find more expression and ping within his pleasant voice in time for his upcoming Zurich performances.

Ottavio Dantone conducted, and I must say I enjoyed his more guttural, period sound over the leaner, steelier playing at the première under Cornelius Meister. This wasn’t up-on-a-hill divine grace Mozart, this was a beefier, more rhythmic rendering that was not without lightness. Dantone was also a good sport to indulge Serebrennikov in a bold bit of operatic ‘intertextuality’ – using the Commendatore music from Don Giovanni to reintroduce the ‘dead’ lovers back to their girlfriends right as they are about to marry those thuggish stand-ins. Using Mozart as a soundtrack to Mozart when you’ve gone and fiddled with the story – divine chutzpah that makes this production one of the best you’ll ever see.

Casey Creel