A lot is left to the imagination in the National Theatre’s new production of Così fan tutte. A bare-bones set, minimal costuming and a rather cynical approach to Mozart’s third and final collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte make for a long, drab evening. Director Tatjana Gürbaca is known for updating the classics to modern settings, so it’s no surprise to find Ferrando and Guglielmo playing badminton in Great Gatsby-era outfits when the curtain opens. Their white suits are a stark contrast to Don Alfonso’s all-black attire as he connives them into betting he can prove their fiancées fickle – setting a monochrome tone visually, though not morally, as no one in this production emerges unblemished. And there’s not even a nod to “Albanian nobles” disguises; the two men simply reappear in military camo pants and black tank tops, like guerilla fighters.

Petr Nekoranec (Ferrando), Jiří Hájek (Don Alfonso) and Lukáš Bařák (Guglielmo)
© Zdeněk Sokol

The sole set is a large gray box, open at the top and front, in which Fiordiligi and Dorabella lounge and giggle like teenagers, the very picture of innocence and naiveté in their all-white skirt suits. Though much of the action eventually moves out of the box to the front of the stage, the feeling is still constricted, with the singers literally hanging onto and bouncing off walls. This is reinforced by generally stiff, sometimes even robotic movements and harsh lighting. If the idea is to suggest characters trapped by fate, it doesn’t quite come off. As the two couples spend more and more time crawling on the floor after or away from each other, it’s like watching animals in a cage.

Nor does the dominant theme of the production play out along those lines. The sexual politics of the opera have long made it a difficult piece to pull off, but instead of trying to soften them, Gürbaca runs them to their logical extreme. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not manipulated or wooed into infidelity, they’re practically beaten into submission. With Don Alfonso’s eager help, Ferrando and Guglielmo box in their prey, get in their faces, manhandle them. Ferrando shoves Fiordiligi’s hand in his pants. Even Despina, the maid enlisted to join the deception, is pulled around the stage by her hair. It’s more an assault than a scheme.

Kateřina Kněžíková (Fiordiligi), Pelageja Kurennaja (Despina) and Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir (Dorabella)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Which makes it hard to have much empathy for these characters. The men are bullies. The women are pathetic victims. That may be more contemporary, but it drains a lot of life out of the opera, which at its heart is a comedy of manners. The audience should be amused by the characters’ foibles, not appalled by their audacity. Jiří Hájek as Don Alfonso and Pelageya Kurrenaya as Despina added some lighter moments. Hájek, one of the most versatile players in the National Theatre company, brought a con man’s charm to his role – when he wasn’t doubling as a stagehand, cleaning up stray props and litter. Kurrenaya, a spunky soprano from St Petersburg, showed flair and comic timing along with a lovely lyrical voice.

Lukáš Bařák (Guglielmo) and Chorus of the National Theatre
© Zdeněk Sokol

A production this sparse leans heavily on the lead singers, who were outstanding on opening night. Kateřina Kněžíková came of age singing Mozart roles at the Estates Theatre, and offered a reminder of her expertise with an emotional portrayal of Fiordiligi, rendered in rich, lustrous tones. In keeping with the character of Dorabella, Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir was colder and more reserved, with an icy voice to match. After a shaky start, the women spun some mesmerizing duets. Petr Nekoranec showed both acting and vocal range as Ferrando, his warm tenor polished to a fine burnish. And Lukáš Bařák was a persuasive Guglielmo, a demanding bass-baritone who took particular delight gloating over his conquest of Dorabella.

Petr Nekoranec, Kateřina Kněžíková, Jiří Hájek, Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir and Lukáš Bařák
© Zdeněk Sokol

The singers had superb support from the orchestra, which captured the true spirit of the piece. Under the baton of opera specialist Karsten Januschke, the music was light and brimming with colorful highlights, in particular from the woodwinds. Finely crafted accompaniment added sparkle to the arias, where Januschke lingered to give the singers space – perhaps too much at times. By the end of the second act, the pacing felt sluggish and the arias started to drag. There was little joy in the final ensemble; the orchestra was still buoyant, but the performers just seemed wrung out.

Fiordiligi closed out the action by pulling on dark men’s clothing over her white suit and offering the audience a military salute. Exactly why is hard to say. Like almost everything else about this production, it was left to one’s imagination.