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Reviewed by:
  • Così fan tutte
  • Nicholas Till (bio)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte
An Aix-en-Provence Festival Production
Coproduction by Opéra National de Paris, Wiener Festwochen
EMI Records Ltd./Virgin Classics
Azor Films—Bel Air Media—ARTE France—Love Streams Productions, 2006
(filmed July 7, 17, 21, and 23, 2005)
  • Mahler Chamber Orchestra

  • Arnold Schönberg Choir

  • Conductor: Daniel Harding

  • Director: Patrice Chéreau

  • Film Director: Stéphane Metge

  • Sets: Richard Peduzzi

  • Costumes: Caroline de Vivaise

  • Lighting: Bertrand Couderc

  • Fiordiligi: Erin Wall

  • Dorabella: Elina Garanča

  • Guglielmo: Stéphane Degout

  • Ferrando: Shawn Mathey

  • Despina: Barbara Bonney

  • Don Alfonso: Ruggiero Raimondi

  • Production Premiere: July 9, 2005

Night falls fast during Patrice Chéreau's production of Così fan tutte for the Aix-en-Provence Festival—both figuratively and literally. The performance recorded on this DVD takes place in the courtyard of the Théâtre de l'Archevêché. It begins in the bright afternoon sun of youthful idealism, and turns to dusk and darkness as the dreams of the young lovers turn sour. By the time we reach "Per pietà," Fiordiligi's great aria of despair in act 2, the spotlight that picks her out, hunched on the precarious bridge across the orchestra pit, is as harsh and pitiless as her own flaying conscience. This Così, premiered in 2005, was Chéreau's eagerly anticipated return to opera after many years' absence, and it is one of the bleakest productions of this opera that I have seen.

Così fan tutte was in fact the first opera I ever saw: I was taken by my parents to Covent Garden at the age of thirteen as a reward for passing my exams to enter high school. By then I was already a Gilbert and Sullivan bore, and I remember my parents suggesting that perhaps it was time for me to graduate to Mozart. What do I recall, other than simply being entranced? I remember something flouncy: what I would now recognize as neo-rococo. That approach to Così is now, of course, well out of fashion. If paintings by Watteau still adorn the covers of CDs of the opera, it is a Watteau who has himself been transformed from a frothy rococo eroticist into an elegiac poet of loss; like Mozart, an artist in [End Page 145] the sentimental vein (to use Schiller's terminology), riven with nostalgia for an imagined state of innocence and grace already being gnawed into by encroaching modernity. Nowadays few directors feel that they can ignore the cynical misogyny that underpins the opera's story. But it is perhaps possible to recognize that for Da Ponte and Mozart the cynicism of the story may have reflected a more fundamental regret about the impossibility of human perfectibility.

Così is a profoundly disillusioned work; it was written in the closing days of Joseph II's reign in Austria, when the optimism of the early years of the philosopher-emperor's regime, which had coincided with Mozart's arrival in the city, had given way to disappointment and bitterness. More generally, the failure of Joseph's plans for social improvement based upon Enlightenment rationalism had led to extreme pessimism about achieving human betterment through reason alone. The opera, after all, was premiered one year into the French Revolution, in which Enlightenment perfectibilism would descend rapidly into bloodshed and a new form of rationalist tyranny. In this respect Così is very much a post-Enlightenment work, as fierce in its judgment of the shallow rationalism of the "philosopher" Don Alfonso as of the supposed morality of women. Had only the title not been so crudely misogynist, we would probably not complain. It is a work whose full recuperation into the Mozart canon only after the Second World War was perhaps prescient of the broader cultural turn against Enlightenment rationalism and optimism that had been presaged in Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment of 1944. And perhaps for this reason it remains the Mozart opera most attuned to our postmodern, anti-Enlightenment times.

"Vietato fumare": the words written in stridently large letters high on the back wall of the stage perhaps remind us that Così fan tutte is set...


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