Olomouc Ensemble Shines in Quirky Così fan tutte at Prague’s Opera 2020 Festival

Czech RepublicCzech Republic Mozart, Così fan tutte: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Moravian Theater Olomouc / Miloslav Oswald (conductor). Moravian Theater Olomouc guest performance, Estates Theater Prague, 6.1.2020. (SS)

Così fan tutte © Daniel Schulz

Director – Andrea Hlinková
Sets and costumes – Miriam Struhárová

Fiordiligi – Barbora Řeřichová
Dorabella – Anna Nitrová
Ferrando – Jozef Gráf
Guglielmo – Tadeáš Hoza
Don Alfonso – Jiří Přibyl
Despina – Patricia Janečková

The third night of Prague’s Opera 2020 Music Theater Festival took place at the Estates Theater, with a guest performance of Così fan tutte by the Moravian Theater Olomouc, one of Mahler’s early houses. It is also one of the featured houses in this year’s festival that I have previously visited, so it came as no surprise that the ensemble in this Così was very tight-knit. There are bigger and more famous houses that trumpet the idea of an ensemble, but with much less cohesion to show for it. Dominique Meyer of the Wiener Staatsoper, to take another Mahler house, has made a point of revitalizing the Vienna ensemble, but operas performed with house singers can still often sound as if their cast was only just thrown together (a situation not helped by Vienna’s brisk scheduling).

This performance was very different and it seems redundant to single anyone out or talk much about individual efforts in what was very much a team triumph. However, there are also solo numbers in this opera and mention should be made of Barbora Řeřichová’s technically flawless and musically incisive ‘Come scoglio’ as well as Jiří Přibyl’s keenly text-attentive Don Alfonso. And if something can be said on an individual level about Jozef Gráf (Ferrando) and Tadeáš Hoza (Guglielmo), as well as Anna Nitrová (Dorabella) and Patricia Janečková (Despina), let it be this: these were highly engaging yet very natural performances, featuring a far broader range of bodily expression than usually seen in operatic acting. Taken together, however, this cast was much more than the sum of its already capable parts – tutti singing could have been mistaken for chorus numbers, with the cast’s voices likewise blending well in ‘Soave sia il vento’ and ‘Alla bella Despinetta’.

The orchestral playing, on the other hand, was middling, with Miloslav Oswald conducting an especially bumpy overture. But despite moments when pit and stage fell out of sync, coordination quickly improved and the opera itself was not hugely impaired – though it did feel more led from the cast than from the podium.

Andrea Hlinková’s 2019 production begins with a crash landing. Guglielmo and Ferrando are brought to earth either by accident or Don Alfonso (there was some nice ambivalence here). The rest of the opera unfolds as a wacky collision between different worlds: Guglielmo and Ferrando are lost paratroopers-cum-Baron Munchausen adventurers, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are Restoration libertines who look more and more like 18th century drag queens as the evening wears on, and Don Alfonso and Despina operate in their own magical realist bubble. I liked that this was as specific as the concept got and that the paratroopers’ crash landing wasn’t the beginning of some unintelligible Battle of Britain setting that would be shown at ENO or any other British company. Instead the gently quirky experimentation of this staging felt like two parts Bohumil Hrabal to one part Stefan Herheim.

Miriam Struhárová’s set is surreal simplicity itself, consisting of a landing pad that opens up into a giant compact before transforming into an enchanted hot tub for the garden scene. Rather than stepping out of the action for Don Alfonso’s wager, the paratroopers have to enter into their girlfriends’ reality, so the Albanian disguises involve Guglielmo and Ferrando trying to throw together an 18th century look in the manner of a design challenge from RuPaul’s Drag Race. This circled back to the only thing loosely tying together the strands of this staging: camp.

On the surface, this wasn’t a high-concept Così. However, Hlinková’s production softened the opera’s cruelty, subtly underscored its elusiveness, and was a riot to boot. It is a delight to see genuinely unconventional work on the operatic stage, and with such a captivating cast.

Sebastian Smallshaw

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