The 2013 production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte from Madrid’s Teatro Real is one of German film director Michael Haneke’s comparatively rare forays into opera. Naturally I was expecting a highly conceptual interpretation but, although his vision is far from conventional, Konzept found I not. What I saw was a collection of ideas that didn’t quite cohere for me. Costume and sets are a mix of 18th century modern. We are in Don Alfonso’s inconsistently modernised mansion. There are enormous 18th century paintings and chandeliers but also leatherette banquettes and the Giant Fridge of Booze. The boys and girls wear contemporary party attire, including a rather fetching red dress for Fiordiligi, but Don Alfonso is in full 18th century gard and Despina seems to be dressed as Pierrot. Perhaps it’s some sort of party where some of the guests have decided to do the costume thing and some haven’t? When the boys go off to the army they do so in some sort of distant past opera version of military uniform; wigs and swords.
There is some sort of relationship between Don Alfonso and Despina. They might even be married. The disguise and deception element of the plot is completely minimized. The girls are on on stage as the men debate fidelity and lay out their plot. When the guys appear as “Albanians” they look a bit like escapees from Monty Python’s gumby sketch but the disguises have gone by the poison scene and are absent most of the second act. Despina’s disguises are also deliberately unconvincing. Add to this that everything, especially the recits, are taken at a funereal pace and it seems almost like Haneke is saying “look how ridiculous this all is”. But what “this” is and why it’s ridiculous is opaque. The libretto? 18th century notions of female honour? Sexual relations generally? Certainly it’s a dark take on Così and there are very few laughs. There’s a fair bit of implied and explicit sexual violence too. Maybe the organizing idea is that the whole thing is a very cruel joke in which everyone is complicit?
Despite all this it’s actually quite interesting to watch, perhaps because Haneke coaxes rather intense performances out of his cast. He has a young and photogenic quartet of lovers and a Don Alfonso, William Shimell, he’s worked with before; notably on his Oscar winning film Amour. Kerstin Avemo’s Despina is also very interesting. The relationship between her and Don Alfonso is certailnly far from idyllic and there’s something almost nihilistic about her take on the role.
I don’t think this a production one would seek out for the singing either. It’s decent; especially Anett Frisch’s Fiordiligi and Paola Gardina’s Dorabella but I’ve certainly heard more lyrical Ferrandos and Guglielmos than Juan Francisco Gatell and Andreas Wolf and Shimell is somewhat dry toned. The acting though is terrific all round and there’s some serious eye candy whatever your preferences in that department. Orchestra and chorus under Sylvain Cambreling sound fine but the funereal pace is a bit hard to take.
On DVD (Blu-ray is also available) the picture is really very good indeed but the sound is a bit problematic. The top end seems a bit dessicated and boxed in and the orchestra, singer balance isn’t consistent. The DTS track is much better than the stereo in this regard but still a bit annoying. Hannes Rossacher’s video direction is very good. He’s recognised that Haneke is taking a very filmic view and strikes a nice balance between close-ups showing the detail that haneke has created and more expansive shots rather as a movie cinematographer might.
There are a few extras on the disk. There’s an episode of Ioan Holender’s kultTour which consists of a grovelling interview with Haneke rather reminiscent of a BBC presenter interviewing Nigel Farage. It doesn’t cast any light on the production though. There are also some trailers for othe C-Major releases. Subtitle options are Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Dutch and Korean.
This really is a very peculiar production. It’s not without interest, especially Anett Frisch’s Fiordiligi, but in a crowded market place its hard to recommend. My preference remains Claus Guth’s Salzburg production but traditionalists might prefer the equally excellent 2006 Glyndebourne recording.