It is refreshing to find a Così fan tutte that takes the very greatest of Mozart and Da Ponte’s three masterpieces (for the most part) seriously. The amount of nonsense I have seen and heard said of it at least matches that for Don Giovanni. That the nonsense may be genuinely ‘felt’ is neither here nor there, we are not supposed to say that; uninformed misunderstanding is just that, whether it concern an artwork, politics, or particle physics.
Benedict Andrews’s production takes its lead, as probably must any serious attempt, from the work’s subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (‘The School for Lovers’). It opens with Don Alfonso in a black mask – contemporary fetish rather than classic Venetian (or Neapolitan) – taking candid Polaroid snaps of Despina. His lair has all the anonymity of a hotel room, though it may be some similarly liminal space: an empty office or flat, for instance—empty, that is, save for the mattress. He is no pimp, though, at least not conventionally. It appears to be as much a game, perhaps instruction, as anything else, for he does as he seems to have promised, destroying the evidence. When Gulielmo (the spelling used here) and Ferrando arrive, full of young, male confidence and concomitant naïveté, they fool around with Alfonso’s toys, but it is he who will instruct them. According to a programme interview with Andrews and music director Vladimir Jurowski, the two have their ‘own fantasy concerning him to develop: Don Alfonso therein is Don Giovanni’s elder brother, who however never had the sex appeal and courage of his younger brother.’ I only read Jurowski’s claim afterwards, so it played no role in my understanding of what I saw; nor should it have done, since it does not seem to be presented onstage. It is perhaps, though, worth mentioning out of interest, and to show that, quite rightly, both Andrews and Jurowski understand Così as following on from Don Giovanni. For what it is worth, I do not think Don Alfonso ‘needs’, at least on a tactical level, to be so irresistible as Don Giovanni; he has other strengths, is in some respects subtler, and is a survivor. But it is true: he is more limited, and probably must be, in order that the lovers may grow.
Andrews and his ingenious Alfonso, Johannes Martin Kränzle, take the lovers through the requisite trials. We are not, after all, so far away from Die Zauberflöte, if heading in the opposite direction, as many might think. (At the very least, we might do well to consider ‘love’ in the latter work through the former’s prism, rather as Wagner tells us we must Die Meistersinger via Tristan’s.) They happen more or less as they should, though sometimes with a degree of viewing that is perhaps important to the framing, though could probably be left aside in the name of clarity and elimination of narrative confusion. That may, of course, not be the priority, but there is a danger, intriguingly if somewhat frustratingly also apparent in the musical direction of pushing the work beyond an ideal minimum of coherence—at least for me.
Some devices arguably work better than others. (The double entendre was not initially intended, yet seems apt enough to welcome to the show.) Sudden appearance of something esembling an underground walkway, replete with direct yet unenlightening graffiti such as ‘TITS’ and ‘My penis is huge’, added little; it quickly disappeared. An inflatable, Disney-like castle, first seen in miniature, then blown up undercutting (unnecessarily?) Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amoroso’, is subsequently restored to suggest gateway orifices and turret protusions. That sort of works, and has a winning, Alfonso-like cynicism to it, although Andrews’s inability to go beyond Alfonso is perhaps a problem. Indeed, I suggest ‘unnecessarily’ because where Andrews for me unquestionably errs is in insistence that the ‘love’ on offer here must only be erotic, or perhaps better in a delimitation of the ‘erotic’ that the Christianity of both Mozart and Da Ponte – something neither Andrews nor Jurowski seems to accept – would always rightly deny. Across Europe and beyond, even in France, not only religion but the Church stood at the very heart of the Enlightenment.
That Andrews offers a garden – an open goal so often missed by directors – is a definite advantage; for me, it recalled, if without the cruel yet magical fantasy, the sadomasochistic delights of Hans Neunefels’s Salzburg production in 2000 (the first I saw). Pathways, petals, and the liberation of being outside – the ‘Zephyrs’ libretto and score present so eloquently and enticingly included – deserve better than the casual omission they often suffer.
The crucial thing about teaching, of course, is that good pupils will go beyond their teachers. The violent anger Gulielmo and Ferrando show towards Fiordiligi and Dorabella at the close is shocking for all manner of reasons, starting with the fact that the wager was theirs, not their lovers’. This extremely powerful moment, when one wants to avert one’s eyes yet cannot, indeed should not, will linger long in the mind. But it is, of course, through musical means, through Mozart, that the lovers surpass their instructor. Don Alfonso, who arguably has least musical character of his own – partly a reflection on the singer for whom Mozart wrote, but also an opportunity, not least to go beyond Da Ponte – takes them forward yet could never comprehend what they and we have learned or, at least, been confronted with. That this ultimate truth is lacking in the staging is no bad thing, though the programme interview does not necessarily suggest awareness of it, for it is arguably something to be musically rather than scenically realised. (I see no reason why it should not be both, and indeed every reason given the musical inattentiveness of most audiences why it should, but that is a slightly different matter.) There were some strange textual choices, but no version is forever; it is not as if we shall never have chance to hear another Così.
What, then, of Jurowski? I heard him conduct relatively little Mozart in London, a little more Haydn, so I had no particular preconceptions. There is, on this evidence, no doubting the thoughtfulness of his approach. Nothing is taken for granted; everything has clearly been considered, perhaps on occasion a little too considered. (Am I asking the impossible? Utter spontaneity, whilst taking the work as seriously as it deserves? Perhaps, but that is part, at least, of the Mozartian riddle.) There were some strange textual choices, but no version is forever; it is not as if we shall never have chance to hear another Così. Tempi were varied: some a little odd to my ears: I have never heard ‘Soave sia il vento’ taken anything like so quickly. Yet, even when in a hurry – and there was a good amount of lingering too – Jurowski did not harry. It was, perhaps, a little like what Nikolaus Harnoncourt might have managed, had he had a better sense of harmonic rhythm. There was fussiness, for instance in some strange tailing off of pieces, but there remained a sense of the greater whole, and also a delight in instrumental colour, especially from the woodwind. The use of period trumpets and drums is something I recall from his LPO Haydn; here, he made a better case for it than there, though it is neither something I like nor understand.
Far more troubling, I am afraid, was the hopelessly exhibitionist continuo playing. One might have hoped this fad had reached its ne plus ultra with René Jacobs, but it seems alas we still have some way to go. Here the fortepianist – harpsichordists generally seem more sparing – never missed an opportunity to signal his presence. The odd witty or even would-be-witty aside is fine, but taking us into the realm of ‘easy listening’, with frankly inappropriate and anything but ‘period’ harmonies, is rather less so. It has nothing to do with Mozart; this is not where his music ‘leads’. And it is not what continuo playing is for. Matters were not helped through much of the performance by pervasive electronic interference: perhaps from a hearing aid. Doubtless the person concerned had no idea, but it made for very difficult listening at times. Mozart may or may not lead to Stockhausen, but the concept would need to be more fully realised.
An excellent cast did everything that was asked for it and more. Louise Alder’s Fiordiligi, spun from finest Egyptian cotton, was equally possessed of due heft and spirt. That her second-act aria suffered both from that interference and from something less forgivable, premature applause, did not detract from her achievement. Avery Amereau made for a splendid counterpart as Dorabella, properly different in character and very much an enthusiast once fully enrolled in Don Alfonso’s ‘school’. I doubt anyone has ever had to do quite what she did whilst singing ‘È amore un ladroncello’, but she graduated with flying (orgasmic) colours. Konstantin Krimmel’s Gulielmo was dark, dangerous, even impetuous, yet always fully in vocal control. Sebastian Kohlhepp was unwell, though one would never have known from his excellent first-act performance; after the interval, though, he continued to act, whilst ensemble member Jonas Hacker put on an equally excellent vocal performance, splendidly at ease with Da Ponte as well as Mozart, from the wings. Sandrine Piau’s knowing, fun-loving, easily intelligent Despina will surely have been loved by all. And as master of ceremonies, Kränzle brought a typical match of musical and dramatic intelligence to his role. It was his school, after all: we followed his lead and felt a properly Mozartian twinge of regret when he was no longer required.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte, KV 588
Fiordiligi – Louise Alder, Dorabella – Avery Amereau, Guglielmo/Guilelmo – Konstantin Krimmel, Ferrando – Sebastian Kohlhepp/Jonas Hacker, Despina – Sandrine Piau, Don Alfonso – Johannes Martin Kränzle; Director – Benedict Andrews, Conductor – Vladimir Jurowski, Set designs – Magda Will, Costumes – Victoria Behr, Lighting – Mark Van Denesse, Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Kamila Akhmedjanova), Bavarian State Orchestra.
Nationaltheater, Munich; Monday 17th July 2023.
ABOVE: Johannes Martin Kränzle and Sandrine Piau (c) Wilfried Hösl