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MOZART: Così Fan Tutte

spacer Fritsch, Avemo, Gardina; Gatell, Wolf, Shimell; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Real de Madrid, Cambreling. Production: Haneke. C Major 714604 (Blu-ray) or 714508 (DVD), 202 mins. (opera), 18 mins (bonus), subtitled


Don't expect laughs from Michael Haneke's Così Fan Tutte. In this 2013 production from Madrid's Teatro Real, the Austrian film director has turned Mozart's comedy into an ordeal as harrowing as Amour or The Piano Teacher. 

The setting is a villa overlooking the Bay of Naples, neoclassical in its outlines, but with a sleekly contemporary interior. This is the home of Don Alfonso (William Shimell), who is seen during the overture presiding at a cocktail party. Half the guests wear twenty-first-century evening clothes, while others (the host included) are in eighteenth-century garb, as if attending a fancy-dress ball. The hostess is a wraithlike blonde in a Pierrette pantsuit; we later discover that this is Despina (Kerstin Avemo), here Alfonso's consort. The four lovers, chic and trim, are all in modern dress, a factor that makes them seem more legible as sexual beings than in traditional productions: whatever we may understand about the sexual mores of the 1700s, we know that an affianced young man and woman today will, as a matter of course, end up in bed together. 

The Alfonso–Despina match is not a happy one; we get the sense that Alfonso's cynicism derives from his anger toward her. Despina is as far from the perky soubrette of convention as can be imagined. Through much of the action, she seems positively shell-shocked, and in "Una donna a quindici anni," she physically attacks Alfonso before running offstage in tears. 

All six principals are onstage for the first scene, making Fiordiligi (Anett Fritsch) and Dorabella (Paola Gardina) an audience for Alfonso's sour appraisal of feminine virtue. The sisters briefly exit while the men discuss the terms of their bet, but we know that they are on some level complicit in the masquerade ahead. When Ferrando (Juan Francisco Gatell) and Gugliemo (Andreas Wolf) show up as "Albanians," they wear only the most cursory of disguises — a pair of felt mustaches that look like nothing more than carpet scraps. Soon they lose even these and appear simply as themselves. 

Nobody's fooling anybody here: instead, all four lovers are being tested through a ritualistic form of sexual gamesmanship, with sadomasochistic undertones. (In a "bonus" interview on the DVD, Haneke cites Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with its vicious "party games," as an influence.) During "Come scoglio," Fiordiligi clutches her sister, shuddering, as if she can hardly bear to countenance the horrors that have been ordained for her ahead. When the men commit mock suicide during the Act I finale, the sisters fall to the floor beside them and rip their shirts off, while Alfonso and Despina look on, leering like spectators at a sex show. The opera ends in misery: the strettaof the Act II finale, rather than restoring order to the proceedings, is here a tableau of torment and revulsion.

I did not enjoy this Così. There's no pleasure to be found in Haneke's Naples, no potential for sensuous delight. It is a place where sex can bring only pain. But the production vividly explores the work's disturbing, and often ignored, element of cruelty. Alfonso is playing a wicked game indeed; remove it from the conventions of farce, and it makes a grisly spectacle. 

The musical presentation buttresses the director's conception. Whether due to the acoustics of the Teatro Real, the disc's engineering or the interpretive efforts of conductor Sylvain Cambreling, the orchestral sound is recessed, as if a blanket had been thrown over the orchestra pit. Cambreling's reading smothers Mozart's "beating heart" effects and turns the orchestral continuity into a soundtrack for the grim proceedings onstage. Even though we're supposedly witnessing a live performance, there's no applause (at least on the DVD) at exit arias; instead, stone silence prevails as the singers drift morosely into the wings. Stranger still is the treatment of recitatives, taken at positively leaden tempos, as if the characters were in such pain that they could hardly bear to speak. 

The six principals all enter into the spirit fully, without a trace of opera-house routine. Fritsch's Fiordiligi is not even remotely a "scoglio" but instead, until she succumbs to Ferrando, something of an airhead, scattered and self-involved. Her voice shades light for the role, but its finespun vibrato suggests Fiordiligi's potential for passion. Gardina, an elegant presence, makes Dorabella the more worldly sister: her tangy mezzo, under impeccable control, is the voice of a woman who knows her way around. 

Gatell's voice is not ideally warm, but he certainly can sing the role, and he makes Ferrando a devilish, lively fellow, full of bad-boy charm. Wolf, open-faced and sweet-voiced, is by contrast a guileless Gugliemo, blinded to the bet's potential for disaster even as he undresses Dorabella. 

Avemo brings to Despina a more complex sound than is usual (it has a touch of smoke in its middle reaches), which is suited to Haneke's radical redefinition of the character. So, paradoxically, is the voice's chief defect — its tendency to break apart on top, here used to suggest Despina's existential distress. Shimell's work, meanwhile, is above reproach. He sings with a veteran Mozartean's surety of style, and in his poised, understated screen presence, he places himself in the great line of Haneke stars such as Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert. spacer


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