Complex Humanity: Così fan tutte from the Salzburger Festspiele

Mozart – Così fan tutte

Fiordiligi – Elsa Dreisig
Dorabella – Marianne Crebassa
Guglielmo – Andr
è Schuen
Ferrando – Bogdan Volkov
Despina – Lea Desandre
Don Alfonso – Johannes Martin Kr

Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker / Joana Mallwitz.
Stage director – Christof Loy.  Video director – Michael Beyer

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg, Austria.  Sunday, August 2nd, 2020.  Streamed via Arte Concert.

Among an ocean of cancellations this year, the Salzburger Festspiele stands out in its willingness to program two operas in a limited season.  The fact that we are able to see this new production of Così fan tutte, directed by Christof Loy and streamed online by Arte, is testament to the vision of the festival and its acknowledgement that in a time like this we need art more than ever.  Due the current sanitary situation, the work was performed without an intermission and was cut judiciously.

Photo: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

Così is a work rooted in humanity, in what makes us as humans imperfect, but also in our need to love and feel love, our notions of loyalty and jealousy.  In this it takes us to the core of what it means to feel and have feelings.  Loy’s staging is set in an austere visual setting – a simple plain white set where the action takes place, except for a brief opening up in the second act to reveal a garden behind.  This notion of complicated humanity, of the fact that our actions aren’t always logical but founded in an emotional need for something, be it validation, or to feel better by shaming others, sits at the heart of Loy’s staging.  He gives us an interesting premise – the lovers don’t come back in disguise but are clearly the same people as before, just slightly differently costumed.  As Fiordiligi and Dorabella start to give in, much is communicated by a glance to their actual lovers, as if to acknowledge their full complicity in what they’re doing.  Similarly, so much is communicated by Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Don Alfonso, brought out fully over the small screen by Michael Beyer’s sensitive camerawork.  This is a Don Alfonso who clearly regrets what he’s done from the very start, yet still seems to get a kick out of it.  It made for a fascinating reading of the work, one that felt fresh and unfamiliar, and despite the familiar plot, challenged it and questioned it as well as our preconceptions, giving us a story of four central personalities who can never be the same again.

Photo: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

Musically, things were a bit more mixed.  Kränzle was undoubtedly the anchor for the staging, his characterful, grainy and slightly acidic baritone sang with the text, bringing out meaning and encompassing all the facets of his character’s personality, both the glee in his scheming and the regret when he realized that he had gone too far.  Andrè Schuen gave us a handsomely sung Guglielmo, his baritone dark but resonant, everything sung and never barked.  He was able to pull out an elegant legato when needed but also turned the corners with ease in the Act 1 finale.  Bogdan Volkov sang a robust Ferrando, phrasing with delicacy in ‘un’aura amorosa’, which he pulled right back to a thread of tone yet never losing the core, even if his singing lacked in the ultimate individuality of expression.

Photo: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

The ladies were unfortunately somewhat less satisfying though clearly the owners of some pulchritudinous instruments.  This was mainly due to the communication of the text.  Both Elsa Dreisig’s Fiordiligi and Marianne Crebassa’s Dorabella seemed unwilling to use the words to communicate the line, so much detail going unnoticed, making their singing sound superficial and generalized.  Dreisig is the owner of a ravishing soprano of pearly beauty.  She was taxed by the leaps of ‘come scoglio’, the voice lacking spin on top, but sang ‘per pietà’ with a limpid line if, again, lacking in individuality of interpretation.  Crebassa gave us some delectable embellishments to the line in her numbers, but her attractively juicy orange-toned mezzo has a tendency to sit on the underside of the note and again I longed for her to sing with the text and not over it.  Lea Desandre made for a lively Despina sung in a striking, dusky mezzo.  As a native speaker I was surprised by how little she made of the text as Despina, but her in disguises as the doctor and notary she brought out so much detail, savouring the sounds of the language in a way that I wished she had in the remainder of her assignment.  The chorus, singing from off stage made a big and vibrant sound.

Photo: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

Joana Mallwitz led the Wiener Philharmoniker in an efficiently swift reading, making full use of the famous Viennese sound with refined strings, playing with full vibrato, and elegant portamenti.  It felt a little full cream for my taste but it may have sounded differently in the larger spaces of the Festspielhaus.  The famed Viennese winds made an impression, especially the particularly piquant clarinets.  Credit also to the continuo fortepianist who added some interesting musical commentary as the evening proceeded.  The pacing of the recits did feel somewhat flat, again not helped by the lack of clarity of the text from a good part of the cast.

Photo: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

That we were able to see opera at this level this year, without compromise to portraying the closeness between characters and their emotions, is testament to this visionary festival and our need to experience great art in these dark days.  Loy’s Così is a complex exploration of what truly makes us human, our needs and complications, our dysfunction and our inherent desire to love and feel love.  In that respect, perhaps the imperfections here, the lack of communication of the text and occasional intonation issues, are innately linked to that humanity.  This isn’t, regrettably a Così for the ages, nor did it ever claim to be, and perhaps it’s churlish to express reservations about whether it really was festival quality given the circumstances.  Certainly, all credit to the festival for giving us what is a thought-provoking staging with strong performances from Kränzle and Schuen.

During this period of theatrical closures, crowdfunding support for has been put on hold.  I encourage you to investigate ways of supporting your local companies and artists while houses remain closed.  Both the Patreon and PayPal for the site will resume as soon as theatres open again.

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