Who would have thought that an opera could be staged in just a few weeks. Probably the fastest production in the world was the minimalist, but extremely lively production of W. A. Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte staged at this summer’s Salzburg Festival. The tension of times – pandemic, anniversary, unexpected project, opportunity to return to work, new roles, young soloists, limited preparation time – inspired an adrenaline-filled and explosive energy-loaded breakthrough on the festival opera stage.
When it was announced in early June that the Salzburg Festival would take place this year, all canceled opera productions were announced at the same time. The German director Christof Loy was scheduled to direct the corona-nightmare of M. Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov this year, flooded with mass scenes and a large ensemble of soloists, choir and orchestra. In it, Simpleton’s part was to be performed by Russian tenor Bogdan Volkov, and conductor Joana Mallwitz prepared a new musical interpretation of W. A. Mozart’s Magic Flute. After all these windswept plans and canceled productions, however, the three musicians did meet each other in Salzburg – only in circumstances that probably no one could have foreseen.
The organizers of the Salzburg Festival admitted they could not have imagined the centenary without W. A. Mozart’s opera. Not surprisingly, the festival, located a couple of blocks from the composer’s birthplace since its founding in 1920, has sought to capitalize on the music of Mozart and give it an unusually high profile in the festival’s repertoire. W. A. Mozart’s operas, his symphonic and chamber music are performed each year, and world-class Mozart’s music experts and enthusiasts work on musical interpretations in the festival. Thus, in June, a new unexpected project was born – due to the small ensemble requirements, it was decided to stage the opera buffa Cosi Fan Tutte in 1790 composed by W. A. Mozart. The already mentioned Christof Loy and Joana Mallwitz have been caught up to be in the leadership of such a project.
While this may sound a little late, the German conductor J. Mallwitz this year became the first woman to conduct an opera at the Salzburg Festival. She is closely acquainted with the music of W. A. Mozart, as she has been conducting a different opera of this composer each year since the age of nineteen. The tradition continues to this day when she is the age W. A. Mozart was when he composed Cosi Fan Tutte. Although modern interpretations of this composer’s music can be heard in various productions these days, with so little time on hands, the conductor did not change the traditional sound and style of the Vienna Philharmonic but sought to emphasize its classical beauty and reveal the emotions hidden in the music.
German director Christof Loy’s acquaintance with this opera by W. A. Mozart took place when he was twelve years old when he first heard it. Cosi Fan Tutte by him has been directed since 2008 and, in fact, much of the production is a reflection of his 2008 staging at the Frankfurt Opera House. Although, on the other hand, new details can be seen here on stage, and together with the young soloists, this performance at the Salzburg Festival surprises with its freshness. In his direction Ch. Loy emphasizes the universal and long-lasting emotional impact of the story of Cosi Fan Tutte. According to the director, this opera, like all of W. A. Mozart’s works, has healing powers that are so important in these times when there may be a lack of light, joy, and positivity in everyday life.
So, when the chance was given in June, they both did not hesitate to take on such opera production, jokingly called not the COVID Fan Tutte. Director Christof Loy first met with conductor Joana Mallwitz by phone in the middle of this month. After spending a few days in touch, they shortened the opera’s score together to meet the pandemic prevention requirements set for the festival – it had to last about two hours without a break. The cut notes were later shown in interviews, studded with bracketed musical elements marked on almost every page.
At the same time, the opera soloists were casted. They joked feeling as they had won a lottery, since even the biggest opera stars in the world would have been free and down to work this summer, so the festival could hire anyone for this production. A sextet on the stage – Elsa Dreisig (Fiordiligi), Marianne Crebassa (Dorabella), Andrè Schuen (Guglielmo), Bogdan Volkov (Ferrando), Lea Desandre (Despina) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso) – also admitted to desperately wanting to return to work after quarantine. So they were delighted to be able to finish this season and this joy overshadowed all the stress and panic that rose when a new role had to be prepared in a record-beating time. In addition, it helped to create a endly, warm, and supportive atmosphere during rehearsals, which was clearly felt on stage and probably helped to take the opera performance to the next level. In July, soloists from France, Italy, Russia, and Germany came to Salzburg and rehearsed the opera, which debuted at the Großes Festspielhaus on the 2nd of August.
The curiosity about what is possible to prepare in a few weeks, in the hall was felt unspoken. However, when the curtain rose, one could smile ironically – the scenographers cleverly used the “less is more” fashion rule and waved the minimalism card almost blatantly. The whole action of the stage, as in the production of the 2008 Frankfurt Opera, was organized in an empty white room with a white wall in which two white doors were installed (only on the stage in the garden, after pushing the white wall, do the trees emerge). Such tasteful chamber scenography without the clumsy theatrical machinery, allowed the public to focus on what Cosi Fan Tutte is really based on – human relationships. The director was very happy being able just to “stage six people and watch their reactions to each other”. This created an incredibly choreographic performance – the characters on stage were deliberately arranged according to how close they felt – sometimes almost glued to each other, sometimes standing at the opposite ends. Symmetry was also used aesthetically well – two pairs were often arranged differently between the two doors, and the white color of the wall contrasted with the black suits worn by the couples. All these details only further highlighted the soloists: their acting, expressions, body language. It was in this way that the choreographic, theatrical, and musical expressions of the relationships became the foundation and main strength of this opera.
What can be predicted from Mozart and the work entitled “Women are all like that” – this opera should be classified as a romantic comedy by film genre. Sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s boyfriends pretend to go to war, when in fact, disguised as strangers, they turn home to test the sister’s love and fidelity in an attempt to seduce each other’s girls. The affair is only revealed when confused sisters are about to marry the wrong guys. After all, the misunderstanding is resolved and the opera finale is crowned with a double wedding, like in a Hollywood movie.
Although W. A. Mozart’s music hides many subtle nuances of psychological characters, it is customary to stage this opera as a flat comedy, marked by farce, antics, and posing. It would feature cartoon-like characters – naive and stupid women as well as adventurous, selfish, and sadistic men. This year in Ch. Loy’s interpretation, the element of mockery disappears altogether, which sets this staging apart from the previous ones. The director takes a serious look at the plan of Don Alfonzo with the guys, and the ever-changing inner experiences of the sisters. Every character on stage is focused on being a sincere, human, and ever-changing individual. Ferrando, from a frivolously optimistic character, became much more shy and sensitive than usual. Guglielmo is less cruel or heartless here. Don Alfonzo is no longer presented as a dry cynic, but as a person frustrated with love in his own life. The sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not depicted as so stupid, shallow, and capricious – their sensitivity and growth are emphasized. Thus, every action on stage is enriched with sincerity, which makes the portraits of the characters come to life in completely different colors. The elements of realism and modernity in the opera’s scenography and costumes allow the audience to experience this story much more intimately and deeply. However, catharsis here is woven with sentimental entertainment, and, making the audience sincerely life at several points, from the original romantic comedy genre Ch. Loy transforms Cosi Fan Tutte into a romantic drama.
Since the eyes could only catch a white background and six people in black clothing, the genius music of W. A. Mozart took the first violin to play in this production. As the opera has been shortened and several numbers have been skipped, the action on stage unfolds incessantly. Music has become the inner engine of such action and a constant companion, fascinating everyone who listens with its beauty of the moment. As it tells listeners of relationships, the opera becomes a chain strung from duets, quartets, quartets, quintets, and sextets. This brought to the forefront the greatest strength of the performance – the presence of the soloists on stage, here and now, in connection with others. There was a feeling of them really listening to each other and singing together. The movements, acting, and singing of the sextet were combined organically on the stage. It inspired the new life for Cosi Fan Tutte and allowed to crown this exceptional 2020 season with the healing power of W. A. Mozart’s music.