The British director reflects on the profound melancholy of Mozart’s most lyrical work.

I’m beginning to associate Sir David McVicar with winter. The British director is back in Sydney for his third frosty July in a row to complete Opera Australia’s Da Ponte trilogy and direct Così fan tutte. This is the third time we’ve talked Mozart, but when I point out that he might have enjoyed some more pleasurable downtime visiting during the summer months, he grimaces. He’s still chewing over the UK’s Brexit vote of two days previous, believing it will be disastrous for the British people, let alone for British artists, and he’s seriously considering selling up in London and moving back to Glasgow. And perhaps he doesn’t do downtime.

His rehearsal room is as tireless as McVicar himself, a hive of concerted activity. It’s early days in a schedule that the director describes as frustratingly tight. Consequently there seem to be at least three things going on at once. The production’s Fiordiligi, Nicole Car, is bashing through one of Mozart’s trickier recitatives at the piano, while Anna Dowsley, who plays her sister Dorabella, is trying to figure out how to recline any which way but upright on a chaise lounge. Meanwhile, McVicar alternates between helping with Dowsley’s contortions, discussing how best to display a pair of knickers with Taryn Fiebig, the cast’s Despina, and pacing out some thoughts on the set to do with blocking the next number. At 50, he remains the most ‘hands on’ director I’ve seen in opera, capable of guiding a roomful of singers and sporting a deep knowledge and respect for his subject, impeccable preparation and a host of insightful readings and invaluable demonstrations (his Despina is delicious).

David McVicar © Lisa Tomasetti

Catching up afterwards, it’s clear that despite the frequent need to do multiple things at once, any amount of hard work is worth it when it comes to Così. “It’s my favourite of the three,” he declares, about as misty-eyed as his pugnacious Glaswegian personality will allow. “I find it the most like a Shakespeare comedy. It’s as multifaceted as Twelfth Night or As You Like It. It’s not fiery and dramatic like Don G and it doesn’t have the quicksilver brilliance of the score of Figaro, but it’s certainly the most lyrical of the three. It has a sort of inner glow.”

First performed in Vienna in 1790, Così was the third and final collaboration between the Mozart and the Venetian poet, adventurer and sometime priest Lorenzo Da Ponte. A year later, the librettist would lose his royal patronage and be forced to relocate to London (after narrowly avoiding the worsening political situation in Paris). “Before he had even met Da Ponte – just after he’d done Seraglio – Mozart was frustrated at not having an opera to do,” McVicar explains. He was tossing around ideas and he wrote this really revealing letter to dad, back in Salzburg, where he outlined what to him would be the perfect scenario for an opera buffa. He says it should be a cast of six, and he described how it should have a female character who is intensely dramatic, a mezzo and a buffa female and the same for the men. And he said, ‘with this combination, I can write a really, really good opera.’ So I think Mozart was driving this one. I think he gave Da Ponte a sort of Sudoku puzzle and said write something.”

That may well be true, for unlike Don Giovanni and Figaro, the plot, which sees the cynical Don Alfonso persuade Ferrando and Guglielmo to test their girlfriend’s fidelity by swapping partners and wooing them in disguise, is not based on any specific prior story. Elements occur in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Marivaux’s The Dispute, but its essentially an original work. So what fascinates McVicar about Mozart’s ‘Sudoku opera’? “I think I like it because it’s so profoundly sad,” he says. “And the older I get the sadder I find it. This is my third production and this is by far the saddest. I’m now Don Alfonso’s age so now I’m looking at it from his perspective – well, hopefully I’m not as demonically cynical and destructive – but it’s ultimately about the loss of innocence and like all really good opera comedies, there’s nothing intrinsically funny about it.”

Opera Australia’s Don Giovanni, 2014 © Lisa Tomasetti

Although Così is clearly more than a simple comedy of errors, it’s often presented in broad brushstrokes, with cartoonish disguises and elements of slapstick, clearly not the McVicar approach. “I can’t stand it when I see it played as a farce,” he ejaculates. “It really annoys me. When people have a superficial opinion of Così fan tutte, it’s because I don’t think they’re listening to the music. Or they don’t understand the literary antecedents. For fucks sake, how often does that happen in opera productions? Ninety per cent of the fucking time, doesn’t it?”

And where some people regard it as a problem opera, because of how and where it ends (or doesn’t end), that doesn’t bother McVicar with his single-minded approach. “I just get on with it, mate,” he says.It’s like with Don Giovanni, I’m not scared of Don Giovanni at all. You tell the story and it works. Tell the story of Così and it works. Tell it deeply. Really, really think about the story that’s there.”

Having just watched an hour of rehearsal, I can see that story telling and clarity are paramount to McVicar’s approach. He’s keen to explain every line, every motivation, and his actors are eager to hear him. Chat to any of them afterwards and they will sing his praises, eager to spend time exploring character with someone who has clearly done his homework. McVicar’s intent is to refine each moment and explore the full complexity of the dramatic situation. “I absolutely follow the internal logic of the plot and the integrity of the music,” he explains as we discuss the radiant act two duet for Ferrando and Fiordiligi. “Mozart tells us that in that duet those people are falling deeply and truly in love. On the other hand, you know Dorabella has had sex with Guglielmo because that is absolutely clear from the sexually allusive language of her duet, which is full of phallic imagery. It’s a very saucy libretto actually.”

Opera Australia’s The Marriage of Figaro, 2015 © Prudence Upton

Così’s overt sexual elements may have gone down well in 1790, but the Victorians didn’t handle the story well at all. “In the 19th century it was fitted up with new libretti, or if it was in English translation it was very much toned down,” McVicar explains. “By the late Romantic age, with the Wagnerian ideal of the redemptive woman, that’s when it really drops out of favour. Wagner thought it was completely unworthy of Mozart’s talent and conjectured that he must have been desperate for the cash. Well, he wasn’t. It’s a perfectly constructed opera and everything is intentional, one hundred per cent.”

For his new staging, McVicar is setting the opera in the early 1900s to capture the sense of a world bathed in the nostalgic glow of a sun that’s about to set. “I think 18th-century comedies are hard for the audience because they see those costumes and powdered wigs and they immediately have an expectation it’s going to be lock up your daughters. But if you do it in modern dress, I have problems with the basic narrative. If it’s modern dress it means they’re having sex with each other. And clearly they’re not. And clearly the moment you swap the partners, all hell breaks loose. I suppose you could set it in a modern Middle Eastern environment where the girls aren’t having sex before marriage, or you could set it in an Amish community or something, but I’m thinking of it as a ‘Merchant Ivory’ world. I think that’s good for the audience because it presses certain buttons. They recognise that world and the moral structure that constrains the lovers.”

It would be fair to say that McVicar takes his Mozart seriously. He’s also fully aware of the accusations of misogyny sometimes thrown at the opera. “Just because Alfonso is a misogynist, it doesn’t mean that the opera itself is misogynistic,” he says. “And certainly the characterisation of the two girls is not misogynistic. Their openly expressed sexuality is one of the most surprisingly un-misogynistic aspects of it. And if you also play the boys’ journey for real, you realise that they learn a great deal about themselves and discover how big a mistake they’ve made.”

I can’t stand it when I see it played as a farce – It really annoys me

This is the third time McVicar’s worked here and he’s happy to speculate on a new project if he and Lyndon Terracini can settle on a mutually acceptable idea. He’d also like to remount all three Mozart operas as a cycle. Meanwhile, he’s prepared to share the odd frustration. “The fact that it’s the other side of the world for me can be frustrating,” he admits. “I can’t stay in personal contact as much as I can in other places. So when budgeting crises happen, it’s at long distance and I’m reading about it via notes.”

One positive outcome that he’s keen to put on the record has come out of having to work around his currently absent Ferrando, the American tenor David Portillo. “I’m doing rehearsals with Jonathan Abernethy and I am finding it extremely fulfilling, helping him do this for the first time,” he says. “He’s the official cover and he will go on if David gets sick. So it’s not wasted work. It’s been a wonderful pleasure for me to meet Jonathan and his girlfriend Anna Dowsley so early in their careers, to be able to encourage them, to be able to look after them when they’re overseas, to help open doors for them and get their names bandied around. And they are just two examples of how much talent there actually is here.”

So what have been the other rewards of three winters in Sydney? “Apart from getting away from hay fever season in England,” he jokes. “Seriously, taking people like Nicole and Taryn through all three operas has been really rewarding. Also the fact that Lyndon gave me cart blanche to do exactly as I wanted with no sort of advice and no interference with my process. He absolutely let me control everything and make the shows I really wanted to make.” And is that rare, I ask? McVicar pauses, thoughtfully. “No. it’s not rare for me actually. I think people trust me.”

Così fan Tutte is at Sydney Opera House from July 19-August 13