Review of Cosi Fan Tutte, Liceu Barcelona, May 20, 2015
It has taken longer than usual to write this review because I have spent so much time arguing with myself about it. That is because I realised fully, for the first time, what a horridly cynical story Cosi Fan Tutte actually is, which saddened me. And at the same time, I was impressed to realise what a clear and intelligent presentation this is, thanks to Italian stage director Damiano Michieletto, who originally produced it for the Fenice in Venice.
Until now, I have considered Cosi, the third opera written by Mozart in combination with librettist Da Ponte, to be a light and charming comedy. Heroines decked out in Watteau-esque dresses, with demure expressions and cascading ringlets, bosoms peeping coyly from the tightly fitted bodices of the 18th century: one is simply carried along happily by the seemingly effortless beauty of the music. The heroines are lovely young women who get a little carried away; the heroes are men of valour who unfortunately allow themselves to be temporarily influenced by a cynical older friend; the whole thing is just a comedy of errors.
That is how I have always seen it. Until now. And loss of innocence is always hard to take.
In this production, set in a nondescript three-star hotel in Naples, the whole thing turns sour and sad. The sisters, strong-willed Fiordiligi and the more ditsy Dorabella, arrive for what is obviously not intended to be an innocent weekend with their lovers Guglielmo and Ferrando. So from the get-go, we know this is not a sweet pastoral idyll. And by the end, when both Fiordiligi and Dorabella have clearly surrendered their virginity (to the wrong man), we have no more illusions about lightheartedness. Fiordiligi was sung beautifully by soprano Juliane Banse (whose rich voice sometimes seemed more mezzo than pure soprano). Ms. Banse was making her debut at the Liceu and, hopefully, will return. Dorabella was sung by Maite Beaumont, (an appealing mezzo who seemed at times to be more solidly soprano).
Don Alfonso, the older friend who goads the young men into testing the fidelity of their fiancées, seemed to be closely related to the utterly evil and detestable Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto of Tales of Hoffmann, radiating a malice and desire to destroy that hang like poison over the atmosphere. Played by baritone Pietro Spagnoli, and presented as the hotel manager, leering and vicious, and never without a drink in his hand, he was more truly sinister than simply cynical. And Guglielmo and Ferrando, very ably sung and acted by baritone Joan Martin-Royo and tenor Joel Prieto, came across as cruelly reckless young men rather than the comically gullible and appealingly flirtatious Albanians they pretend to be in more old-fashioned productions. (Albanians, by the way? Why on earth Albanians?) There is a grimness to this interpretation which is all-too believable and very much at odds with the beauty of the musical accompaniment.
The outstanding performance of the evening was given by soprano Sabina Puértolas in the role of Despina, the wily young maidservant who plays her cards so carefully that it is almost a mathematical problem to work out whom she is betraying more thoroughly. Played with sinuous and sexy vigour and sung equally well, her ingenious acts of treachery to all enlivened the stage.
Joseph Pons and the orchestra acquitted themselves well: Pons was quite loudly cheered, though I felt that that was for doing a very adequate rather than an outstanding job.
All in all, while I might have preferred to have retained my innocence and been, once again, fooled into believing this was a comic opera, I appreciate having had the opportunity to see it in another guise.
As an afterthought, it is interesting that Cosi was performed only a few times when written and then disappeared from view for a century and a half. It premiered in the United States in 1922! Evidently discomfitted contemporary audiences found that the sublime music did not outweigh the underlying sour story.
Cosi runs until May 30th, with two casts, and will be followed, on June 16th, by the deliciously comic Don Pasquale—unless, that is, some other director decides to highlight its sombre side.