The men who were recklessly curious
Anyone who attended the Staatsoper’s new Figaro
– which had its first public performances a few weeks earlier in
mid-September – would be forgiven for approaching this new production of Così
fan tutte with some trepidation; the director of both productions, Vincent
Huguet, had managed the nearly impossible task of draining the vitality from Figaro,
and one dreaded to think what might happen to an opera in which so much depends
on nuance, grace and a delicate sense of balance. The evening, however, was an
absolute delight. Although the staging suffered from a lack of dramatic thrust,
its shortcomings seemed insignificant when set against the quality of the
music, which included some of the finest Mozart singing to appear on any Berlin
stage in recent memory. Between a superb ensemble cast and Daniel Barenboim’s
perfectly-judged musical direction, it was a thrilling opening to the
Staatsoper’s new season.
If Mr Huguet’s Così was more successful than his Figaro it is perhaps because he had the good sense to stick close to the action of the libretto and not attempt to introduce as much in the way of incidental detail into every scene. There were still plenty of moments that seemed forced: many of the interactions were rendered with motions and gestures so clumsy as to strain credibility, and whenever any of the characters were called upon to dance – or even just move in a vaguely free-spirited way – their actions looked as though they had been choreographed by someone who had heard of this thing called “fun” but had never experienced it first hand. Such moments of awkwardness were compounded whenever there were more than six people in a given scene and, in the farewell of the first act or the finale of the second, one could almost feel the oxygen being sucked from the stage. Yet there were also scenes that did little more that establish a beautiful backdrop for a particular aria or ensemble, and these least intrusive scenes were invariably the most successful.
As in Figaro, the look of the staging felt slightly off. Although the action was nominally set at the end of the sixties, the sets and costumes seemed unwilling or unable to commit to a particular time or place: the principals were elegantly dressed, and when the clean-cut Guglielmo and Ferrando reappeared in disguises involving flared jeans and brocade vests they had a certain cartoonish authenticity; but whenever the choir appeared they looked more like refugees from a traditional production of Il Trovatore than flower children on their way to a groovy love-in. For the most part, however, the costumes were less interested in overloading the stage with winking references to a misremembered part than in creating a matching scheme of blues and greens by which the two pairs of lovers could be identified.
Mozart: Così fan tutte. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Vincent Huguet, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, October 2021. © © 2021 by Matthias Baus.
The sets were also elegant: much of the action appeared to be set in and around a modernist villa somewhere on the mediterranean (possibly even in Napoli) tastefully furnished with an enviable assortment of post-war Scandinavian chairs. Although one may question the decision to set the central section of the second act on a boat – it would almost certainly be giving the staging too much credit to suggest that it was intended as a reminder that some boats should never be rocked – the starry night and the fog-covered stage created a magical backdrop for Fiordiligi’s evening-conquering ‘Per pietà, ben mio’.
If one is forced to discuss the production solely in terms of its look, it is because there did not appear to be any governing ideas beyond the purely visual. According to his own essay in the programme booklet, Mr Huguet has re-conceived the three Mozart / Da Ponte operas as a continuous trilogy unified by the presence of a single protagonist as he moves from youth (Guglielmo) to maturity (Almaviva) to old age (Don Giovanni). It is a fascinating starting point, and despite the different traditions from which Da Ponte drew his source material, there are certainly enough similarities in his treatment of characters to make such an approach potentially rewarding. However none of these underlying concepts seemed to be reflected in the action on stage. Although Mr Huguet’s Così shared certain visual elements with his Figaro – primarily in the sets – there was little to suggest that the Guglielmo who sets out to test his lover’s fidelity and the philandering Almaviva were in any way related.
Alas, there was not much to suggest character of any description. Guglielmo, Ferrando, Fiordiligi and Dorabella started and ended the evening as blank slates, yet their total lack of any defining qualities did not transform them into universal archetypes, it simply made them opaque. The personalities of the two men seemed to have been left solely in the hands of the costume designer: the idea that two these upstanding youths would disguise themselves as reefer-toking longhairs was amusing, and one kept waiting for the staging to follow it up with some kind of commentary, or argument, or even a basic point of view. Were they simply rich-kids slumming it in the counter-culture? Was their reckless curiosity somehow fuelled by the permissive attitudes of the sexual revolution? If the staging had any opinions on these matters it failed to convey them to the audience.
The two women seemed even more abandoned by the director, who was not only uninterested in the factors that might cause their fidelity to falter, but also failed to establish the foundations upon which that fidelity was built. Were Fiordiligi and Dorabella really so sheltered that the prospect of marriage to such featureless nothings as Guglielmo and Ferrando seemed the best possible life choice? Flashes of motivation could be found in Da Ponte’s dialogue, but the staging was unwilling either to back them up or cloak them in irony. Not only did the words seem at odds with the action, but the action itself seemed disconnected from any greater meaning. With so much great music in the course of the opera, plot and character development are perhaps more a luxury than a requirement, and yet the sadness and disillusion that underpin the comedy of the story are so much more potent when we feel there is something at stake.
Mozart: Così fan tutte. Daniel Barenboim, conductor. Vincent Huguet, director. Berlin, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, October 2021. © 2021 by Matthias Baus.
The staging’s greatest moments came when it simply stood aside and let the singers perform; and indeed most flaws in the stage action were easily forgiven when set against the magnificence of the music. There were no significant weaknesses in the cast, but even within such a well-balanced ensemble, Federica Lombardi still managed to stand out as the evening’s most compelling voice. Her ‘Come scoglio’ started at a remarkably high level of intensity and built to ever greater heights; in her phrasing one could hear alternating strands of authority and vehemence held in perfect balance. ‘Per pietà, ben mio’ was, if possible, even better, a delicate expression of doubt and longing articulated with superb tone and delivered with enough conviction to command the rapt attention of the auditorium. She was equally good in the ensembles, always making her presence felt without overshadowing the action or her fellow singers.
As Dorabella, Marina Viotti had comparably fewer chances to distinguish herself, but when given her chance in ‘È amore un ladroncello’, she gave a reading full of confidence and sparkle. She was also an ideal vocal partner for Ms Lombardi, and whenever the two of them were on stage together – nowhere more so than the sublime trio of despair following the farewell scene – the results were magical. Although the production did not seem to have much opinion on Despina, Barbara Frittoli nonetheless managed to give the character some life, while avoiding the comedic exaggerations that so often go with the role. Her ‘In uomini’ was very good, and her key appearances in disguise during the two finales were refreshingly understated.
As Ferrando, Paolo Fanale placed firm tone and elegant phrasing in the service of a restrained performance. His ‘Un’aura amorosa’ was almost surprisingly conversational, less a showcase aria than a spontaneous expression of feeling. ‘Tradito, schernito’ was delivered with a more conventional ardour, but it impressed more through its inward lyricism than its attempts to overpower. Gyula Orendt was equally restrained as Guglielmo, finding a certain amount of comedy in his spirited delivery of ‘Donne mie’ but mostly playing the role as straight as possible. Although Don Alfonso has few solo scenes – and the staging gave him very little to work with – the suave, unflappable Lucio Gallo delivered a quietly great performance. Whether providing the elegant foundation on which the grief of the women was constructed in ‘Soave sia il vento’, holding down the centre of the first act sextet, or declaiming the ‘moral’ of the opera as a preface to the second act finale, he established himself as an invaluable part of every scene in which he appeared.
Daniel Barenboim, working with a fairly small but very well-rehearsed ensemble, delivered a reading of the score that was close to flawless. There are few conductors today more able to bring out the august grace in Mozart’s operas, and while the pursuit of melodic beauty and lustrous detail can occasionally result in slower tempi, on this evening everything was so perfectly paced that one was aware only of the beauty of the music as it unfolded. While Mr Barenboim remained largely deferential to the singers, it was the orchestra who gave the first act sextet its monumental stature, who gave dramatic shape to the finales, and who subtly pushed the evening’s finest singing to even greater heights.
If the quality of the music made it easier to accept the staging, it nonetheless seems a shame that the Mozart / Da Ponte operas have not been able to provoke a series of productions more engaged with the task of bringing their universal truths into the twenty-first century. In the central section of the second act, Mr Huguet and his production team demonstrated that they could create stage images of genuine beauty, but all too often the staging exposed the limitations of their predominantly visual approach; sets and costumes alone, no matter how clever or elegant they may be, are not enough to bring these stories and characters to life.