If you are going to the opera and notice that what you are about to see is directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, tighten up your seatbelt because you may be in for a rough ride. The rough ride could be thrilling or whatever the opposite of thrilling is that will cause you to boo, metaphors aside, the production that you actually see.
I speak of the current production of Cosi Fan Tutte at the former residence of the Archbishop of Aix-en-Provence, now called the Theatre de l’Archevêché. Cosi was the first opera to be produced at the Aix-en-Provence Festival when it opened in 1948 and there can be few people who attended that performance and attend this year’s showing but sometimes historic nostalgia is as important as actual memory.
As to the plot of Cosi, we all know that with some variations we have the beautiful sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella who, with their maid the feisty Despina, live in a mansion in Naples overlooking the harbour.
They are deeply, madly, eternally in love with Guglielmo and Ferrando and we know that because they tell us that it is the absolute truth. The latter gentlemen feel exactly the same way about the ladies, and they are willing to put their lives or whatever to dispel any doubts about their devotion. But their friend, the cynical and wise philosopher Don Alfonso (I think that’s what he is) is willing to make a bet that all women are capable of infidelity and that is confirmed by the title of the opera.
Wanna bet? Yes, they do. Don Alfonso “sends” the men to war, and the same men disguised as Albanians are brought to the ladies’ posh residence by him. The ladies do not recognize the newcomers who woo them with passion and conviction. My impression has always been that the two beauties are very nice but not very swift. Leave to Mozart’s music to overwhelm you and suspend your disbelief.
What does Tcherniakov give us. Forget most of the above. Two middle-aged couples are, in Tcherniakov’s words, “in a fancy villa in the forest or perhaps a chalet in the mountains.” The set shows a sitting area with an ordinary table and six chairs with two inviting bedrooms with big beds behind but let’s not quibble about that.
The two couples make use of the bedrooms during the overture and when the opera begins, we discover that they are Guglielmo and Fiordiligi, and Ferrando and Dorabella with Don Alfonso and Despina. We already saw Don Alfonso molesting, yes, sexually interfering with Despina’s anatomy, but she seemed to participate in the encounter after some resistance. We will see more of Don Alfonso as a dirty old man.
But right now, our attention is riveted toward the lovers who are past the bloom of youth and are in fact in their fifties. I take the liberty of assuming that whatever they were doing on those beautiful beds was not for the first time.
The holiday in the forest or in the mountains takes place now and the men and women are dressed in modern clothes so there is no eighteenth or nineteenth century prudery. Guglielmo and Ferrando as the presumed Albanians of the original production appear in modern clothes with masks which they quickly take off and even Mozart’s gorgeous music is asking too much of us to suspend our disbelief. Where are those mustachioed and overdressed Albanians when you need them?
The middle-aged men and women re-discovering love and passion with a different partner and the women tasting infidelity may not have the same stigma that it did, say, 250 years ago. But Tcherniakov does not stop there. Despina with a blonde wig looks like something out of a Marx brothers’ movie but her relationship with Don Alonso may not be as consensual as we would like to think. They engage in simulated coitus in front of our eyes that is not all bad except that we do not expect the elder philosopher Don Alfonso to be such a dirty old man.
Pervert Don Alfonso kisses Ferrando and Fiordiligi on the lips quite seriously. A shotgun is introduced early in the performance and as in a Chekhov play, it is eventually used on stage.
I have spoken at great length about Tcherniakov, but the performers deserve much credit. True they are all in their fifties (except for Nicole Chevalier whose date of birth I could not find). But, even if they stumble now and then, they do superb work. They are baritone Russell Braun as Guglielmo, soprano Agneta Eichenholz as Fiordiligi, tenor Rainer Trost as Ferrando, mezzo Claudia Mahnke as Dorabella, baritone Georg Nigl as Don Alfonso and soprano Nicole Chevalier as Despina. The Balthasar Neumann Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock plays Mozart’s music with incredible beauty and finesse.
Directors pushing the envelope to produce operas in different locations with radical interpretations, especially in Europe, is nothing new. In fact, the last time Cosi was produced at the Aix-en-Provence Festival was in 2016 directed by Christophe Honoré. He set his production in a slum in a village in colonial Africa. The director was roundly booed.
This time the reaction at curtain call was mixed. There are boos no doubt but also applause of approval. I admire Tcherniakov’s work, and I would never boo his brilliant inventiveness and imagination. One can legitimately say that he may have gone too far with his inventiveness in this production but isn’t that the reason we want to see what he has in mind?
Cosi Fan Tutte continues at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché until July 21, 2023 in Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/