★★★★½ A beautiful production where gentle comedy makes way for profound sadness.

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
July 19, 2016

Così fan tutte, Mozart’s third and final opera with his greatest librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, is often played as a colourful, light-hearted farce despite its uncomfortable sexual politics. But in his new production for Opera Australia, Sir David McVicar takes full account of both the sexual politics and the ambiguous ending to give a poignant reading that embraces gentle humour and true love as well as aching loss and sadness.

The production, which had its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday, completes McVicar’s Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy for OA. Following his pitch-black Don Giovanni staged on a monumental Gothic set and his elegant The Marriage of Figaro set in the 1640s with liveried servants forever eavesdropping at closed doors, McVicar’s Così is another intelligent, insightful production.

David Portillo, Anna Dowsley, Nicole Car, Andrew Jones, Richard Anderson and Taryn Fiebig

From 1990, Opera Australia was well served for over a decade by a trilogy from Swedish director Göran Järvefelt and German designer Carl Friedrich Oberle. Set during the Age of Enlightenment, it featured a simple staging inspired by a beautiful Baroque theatre discovered in Sweden. Though Järvefelt died in November 1989 at age 42, two months before his Così premiered, the cycle was successfully completed by other directors.

Since then, OA has staged bold, modern-dress productions of Don Giovanni by the late Elke Neidhardt, The Marriage of Figaro by Benedict Andrews and Così fan tutte by Jim Sharman (using an English translation by Jeremy Sams), none of which proved particularly popular with audiences. McVicar’s trilogy is a wonderful, welcome addition to the OA repertoire from a director who is in-demand internationally, with good reason.

McVicar’s trilogy is a wonderful, welcome addition to the OA repertoire from a director who is in-demand internationally, with good reason

Così premiered in Vienna in 1790, a year before Mozart’s death. It looked set to be a big hit but after just five performances, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II died and the theatres were closed for a period of official mourning. The opera fell out of favour during the 19th century when it was considered risqué and even immoral, and was rarely performed again until after World War II when it reclaimed its place in the standard operatic repertoire.

Così fan tutte essentially means ‘All women are the same’. So says the cynical philosopher Don Alfonso, who persuades his young officer friends Guglielmo and Ferrando to test the fidelity of their fiancées, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Pretending that they are going to war, the young men return disguised as exotic Albanians and attempt to seduce their lovers.

McVicar has the men drawn instinctively to their own fiancées initially, then thinking better of it, while Da Ponte’s libretto has the women choosing each other’s partners.

Andrew Jones, Nicole Car, Anna Dowsley and David Portillo

Orchestrating the comedy of errors that follows, Don Alfonso enlists the help of the sisters’ pert maid Despina, who has an equally low opinion of men’s constancy and believes that if their lovers must depart, well, there are always more fish in the sea. When the sisters eventually succumb to the wooing of the Albanians, they all learn more about love and each other than they had bargained for.

Despite Mozart’s radiantly beautiful music and the neat symmetry of the plot, the opera is considered problematic. It has been criticised as misogynistic for its satirising of women’s inconstancy – though the men don’t come out of it much better. As for the ending, Da Ponte’s libretto doesn’t actually specify who winds up with who, though it is usually assumed that everyone is forgiven and the couples remain in their original formation.

In a recent interview with Limelight, McVicar described Così as the most lyrical of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas but also “profoundly sad”, adding: “And the older I get the sadder I find it. This is my third production and this is by far the saddest.”

Originally set in 18th century Naples, McVicar and his designer, Berlin-born Moritz Junge, have translated the action to the early 1900s when Europe was about to lose its innocence in the horror of the First World War. It’s an elegant world, with Junge’s attractive costuming inspired by Italian fashions of the day. The update brings it closer to our time but keeps it in a period where the moral strictures of the period still make sense of the plot.

Andrew Jones, Anna Dowsley, Nicole Car, David Portillo

McVicar’s production begins in a gentlemen’s club with a pool table, cognac and cigars: a cleverly chosen masculine setting where the men can discuss women without any of them around. From there it moves to the sisters’ rather grand but fading villa overlooking the sparkling Bay of Naples.

Junge’s quicksilver set changes happen smoothly and seamlessly as scenery flies or slides in and out to create interior and exterior scenes, including a garden with a lantern-strewn tree. David Finn’s lighting evokes a slightly melancholic, late summery feel.

The production unfolds without any gimmickry; instead McVicar and his cast tell the story clearly with plenty of telling dramatic detail. There is gentle comedy early on: the way Dorabella clings to the departing Ferrando with a ridiculously lengthy kiss; the subsequent melodramatic hysteria of the bereft sisters; the over-the-top death throes of Ferrando and Guglielmo when they are supposedly poisoned; and their boyish rough and tumble when they think that their fiancées have proved faithful and that they won their bet with Don Alfonso. All this provokes laughter.

But as the production unfolds, there is far more pain and hurt in the air than comedy. Taking his cue from the meltingly beautiful Act II duet Fra gli amplessi (in the embraces) between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, McVicar makes it clear during the fake wedding scene, that Fiordiligi and Ferrando have really fallen in love. While they only have eyes for each other, a livid Guglielmo can’t stop watching them, as a confused Dorabella struggles to catch his attention.

McVicar is renowned as a director who is able to draw nuanced psychological and emotional performances from opera singers and he certainly does that here. The central cast of six all give terrific acting performances, while their voices blend beautifully in the various duets, trios and sextets.

Nicole Car and Anna Dowsley

Rising star Nicole Car is exquisite as Fiordiligi, her gorgeous creamy voice negotiating with ease the famous leaps between high soprano to contralto in her arias, as well as the demanding coloratura, thrilling us as she soars into her higher register. Anna Dowsley, who moved from pants roles to leading lady as Rosina in The Barber of Seville earlier in the year, confirms her promise with another lovely, comic performance, her silvery mezzo-soprano well suited to the role. The two of them both have a warm stage presence and convince as close sisters.

Anna Dowsley confirms her promise with another lovely, comic performance

Making his Australian debut as Ferrando, American singer David Portillo has a lovely lyric tenor with a warm tone, a ringing clarity and a beautiful, smooth legato, singing the beautiful aria Un aura amorosa (Her eyes so alluring) with heartfelt passion. Andrew Jones is also impressive as Guglielmo giving a powerfully sung and robustly dramatic performance, while Taryn Fiebig is a delight as the maid Despina, who also makes comic cameos as the crackpot doctor and the notary.

In an interview discussing Don Giovanni in 2014, McVicar said that he sees the manipulative Don Alfonso as “Don Giovanni returned from hell to take revenge.” Richard Anderson is certainly a dark, saturnine figure as the largely unsympathetic Don Alfonso, watching expressionless for the most part as the drama unfolds. It’s a brooding, charismatic performance. Prepared as Alfonso is to tear apart the lives of four young people for his own satisfaction, we are left wondering what bitterness or past relationship drives him.

With Jonathan Darlington conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, this is a richly rewarding production musically and dramatically, which charms, provokes and surprises, sending you home feeling unexpectedly moved and pondering the vagaries of love. 

Opera Australia’s Così fan tutte plays at the Sydney Opera House until August 13