Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker is a well known, rather avant garde Belgian choreographer and not, perhaps, the obvious choice to direct an opera production but that’s the assignment she took at Opéra nationale de Paris in 2017 with Mozart’s Così fan tutte which was recorded at the Palais Garner. Her approach is to double each of the six characters with a dancer and develop an elaborate, largely abstract and severely modern choreography for all twelve players though, naturally enough, with the more technical dance elements going to the dancers. The choreography, as is apparently often the case with De Keersmaeker is explicitly geometric. The stage is marked with circles and other geometric figures which inform or constrain the choreography. Much of the time this results in a lot of running round in circles or standing in semicircles swaying backwards and forwards. Indeed right up to Ah, guarda, sorella that’s pretty much all that happens though as things hot up emotionally the dancers get more to do with most of the big arias being paired with a dance solo and so on.
The problem with this is dramaturgy seems to take, at best, second place to the choreography. I can take the basic story elements being twisted or even missing if it’s in support of an interesting dramatical idea but I struggle when that’s not the case. Here, for example, all the characters are on stage for the first few scenes so there’s no sense of a deception being planned. When the boys appear as “Albanians” the disguises are almost non existent and by the wedding scene in Act 2 they are wearing the same outfits they had in Act 1 scene 1. Similarly, Despina’s disguises are basically just false noses and frankly silly. All the props are not physically present (except the poison). When the returning officers find the marriage contract in the final scene, for example, there isn’t one. They hand an imaginary piece of paper around. None of this seems to have any purpose except perhaps for not distracting from the choreography.
Sets and costumes too seem kind of random and an afterthought. The set is just a sort of giant plexiglass cube space. Costumes are an odd mix of street wear, dance wear and stuff that looks like it came out of the dress up chest for country house theatricals or a game of charades. The uniforms in Bella vita militar! are a case in point. Both the men and women of the chorus are uniformed. Some of them match Guglielmo and Ferando’s outfits, some don’t. If there is any reason for this it’s unclear. The net effect is less a staged production of Così than a modern ballet based on Così in which the singers just happen to be on stage. I think I could live with this if I thought the choreography was really interesting but to me it’s not, though I will admit it’s probably not shown to best effect by Louise Narboni’s choppy video direction.
This is rather a shame as musically this performance is very good and, in fact, the casting was my main reason for wanting to see the performance. All the singers are young and from the Americas. Brazilian Paulo Szot is an unusually youthful Don Alfonso with fine firm tone. The Canadian duo of Frédéric Antoun and Philippe Sly are the boys. Both sing clearly and with considerable delicacy. Sly is probably one of the best Guglielmo’s around right now. Canadian Michèle Losier and American Jacquelyn Wagner play the girls. They produce some lovely singing too though more often than not the big arias are rather static with the visual attention all on the dancers. The cast is rounded out by American Ginger Costa-Jackson as Despina. Her extremely cheeky and rather broad Despina could be really interesting in a different context. Philippe Jordan in the pit too produces judicious tempi and some fine playing from the orchestra. I would love to see these performers in a different production!
There’s not much to be said about the video direction than that if the whole production is to be built around the cast moving in geometric patterns we really need to see that, which we rarely do here. On Blu-ray the sound (DTS-HD and stereo) is fine and so is the picture though with all the closeups it rarely really matters. There are no extras on the disk but the essay material in the booklet is worth reading though it seems to explain everything about Così and about De Keersmaeker’s choreography in general without having much to say about this particular production. Subtitle options ar English, French, German and Korean.
There are quite a few excellent video recordings of Così fan tutte available and there are performances to suit just about every taste in production style so I’m not sure who but the insatiably curious would choose this one. For traditionalist there is Nicholas Hytner’s 2006 Glyndebourne version with a fine cast. I’ve only seen the TV recording in a less than brilliant cap but it’s an Opus Arte Blu-ray release so I don’t imagine it will be anything other than extremely good technically. For those looking for something more adventurous there are many choices. Mine would be the 2009 Salzburg version which closed out Claus Guth’s Mozart/daPonte cycle.