There was a time when "Così fan tutte" (loose translation, "Thus do all women") was considered a trivial comedy with wonderful music, and an unsavory subject unfit for Nineteenth-century audiences. In the Twentieth, before 1930, three great personalities were champions of the piece: Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Bruno Walter. But it was Fritz Busch who really vindicated the work with the Carl Ebert 1934 production at Glyndebourne; shortly after it was presented in Buenos Aires as a belated premiere and with a different cast. I cherish the Glyndebourne 1935 records, passed from 78 rpm to 33 1/3 rpm, that entered triumphantly my collection when I was 12 as LP album Nº 2.
Sixty-two years later, after no less than a dozen live performances, several other recordings in LP and CD and the DVD conducted and produced by John Eliot Gardiner, I have no doubt that "Così..." is fully on a par with the other two Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations: "Le Nozze di Figaro" and "Don Giovanni". After WW II a reappraisal took place and "Così..." fastly became a favorite of the repertoire and among the most often performed operas. And with good reason, for the music is exquisite and the play is now appreciated as, indeed, "fascinating and ambiguous".
It is a late product of the world of rococo cynicism, epitomized by Choderlos de Laclos´ "Dangerous liaisons" (remember the wonderful picture with Close, Malkovich and Pfeiffer?) and Sade´s "The philosophy of the boudoir". And it carries artificiality very far; in fact, the characters are puppets handled by the master puppeteer Don Alfonso, a fully rounded character. The wager between him and two soldiers is that disguised they will enamour crosswise their fiancées: Ferrando will conquer Guglielmo´s girl (Fiordiligi) and Guglielmo, Ferrando´s (Dorabella). Despina, their maid, will help in the project. It succeeds after several tries and eventually prove Alfonso´s motto: "Così fan tutte".
There are two main problems in the staging of this chamber opera: a) the verisimilitude: disguises of both soldiers and of Despina as the Doctor and the Notary have to be convincing enough so that we the spectators don´t take the sisters (Ferrarese ladies) to be perfectly stupid. b) The ending: do they return to their fiancés or decide that the crossover is after all for the best? Of the productions I´ve seen only Michael Geliot took the second option. On the other hand, Walter Legge in his witty notes for the Busch records says: "it doesn´t matter". Personally I like the Geliot solution: it is an audacious play and it needs an offbeat outcome. It is richer psychologically also, and relieves some of the puppetlike behavior, giving greater warmth to the piece.
Buenos Aires Lírica´s last season was rather below par. This year, although the stepdown from five to four productions remains, the titles are quite well chosen. "Così fan tutte" was logical, for it completes the Mozart-Da Ponte operas presented in other years by BAL. And the chronological projection of the other three operas is a further merit, for they are all interesting: Donizetti´s "Lucrezia Borgia", Verdi´s "Nabucco" and Janácek´s "Jenufa", a splendid idea.
The musical side of this "Così..." was outstanding and proved that we have fine Mozartians in our midst. Six singers of quality singing in generally pure style and showing the results of long and accurate rehearsal. The sisters were admirable: both Oriana Favaro (Fiordiligi) and Cecilia Pastawski (Dorabella) meshed ideally and sang very well their arias, as well as acting vivaciously; they are young, fresh and beautiful. Despina was Marisa Pavón, fully up to the singing demands but unfortunately victim of producer Pablo Maritano: the pert, picaresque soubrette maid was so vulgarly overdrawn that she seemed a part of a Tinelli show. Iván Maier showed vast improvement in his Ferrando over last year´s Belmonte in "The Abduction from the Seraglio", singing with good line and clean emission, even if his timbre isn´t ideally plangent. Norberto Marcos was an excellent Guglielmo, both vocally and as an actor of vast resources. It isn´t their fault that instead of the dashing Albanian cavaliers (their disguise) they were chastised with awful clothes by Sofia Di Nunzio (surely following directives of the producer) with particularly irritating capes out of the Flintstones. Finally, Omar Carrión was ideal as the old cynic, master of every inflexion and gesture.
Juan Casasbellas was for many years the first-rate director of BAL´s choir; now he was promoted to conductor, and the move was a complete success: he has strong musical preparation, sense of style, taste and clarity of gesture, and the ad hoc orchestra responded very well. He also handled the choir, who sang pleasantly. I disagree in two points: some recitatives should have been cut; and vocal ornaments were excessive (as Gardiner, Karajan or Böhm have shown, they are not necessary).The "secco" recitatives were accompanied not by a harpsichord but by a piano that sounded somewhat like a fortepiano.
Alas, as the reader has already been aware, there were problems with the production. Other big mistakes: a) the mixture of period clothes with current electrical appliances; b) the unpleasant instant video of the audience´s women as exemplars of Guglielmo´s misogynistic aria; c) the tasteless and frequent phallic symbols throughout as well as intimations of sexual performance between Guglielmo and Dorabella; d) the bad makeup and the lack of moustaches make the verisimilitude afore-mentioned quite impossible; e) the constant presence of people walking on both sides of the central scene is distracting and serves no purpose. f) True, some clothes are good (the soldiers in full attire and the ladies in rosy gowns) but the tasteless attires of Despina and the choir are not. g) And the shouts and cackles diminish the music. Some parts were well handled, however, and Maritano understands the waverings of fidelity. The stage designs of Andrea Mercado, though agreeable, took no account of the necessary presence of gardens and the sea, as specified in Da Ponte´s libretto.
But the music saved the evening; it is gorgeous and was well served.