What epitomizes the opera buffa genre better than the story of two men who pretend they are on their way to war, just to return home in disguise in order to test their women’s virtue? More ludicrous still, in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, when both soldiers return dressed up as “moustached” strangers, two unsuspecting sisters fall in love, not with their own, but with the other’s lover. The two men’s friend, Don Alfonso, is the opera’s real culprit; the sardonic philosopher’s lack of faith in female virtue gives rise to the test of the sisters’ fidelity.

Most commonly translated as “Women are Like That”, Così fan tutte premiered in Vienna in 1790. Its libretto was by Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also wrote the libretti for the composer’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. In the mid-19th century, the eminent English conductor Sir Michael Costa said that he found it “incomprehensible that Mozart should have accepted such a poorly judged, sniggering little play,” but in the interim Cosi was to meet great appeal, and given that its “stuffs” are the pursuits of desire, remorse, repentance, deceit and love, it is a fixed star on today’s operatic sky.

In this revival of Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production, Rolf Glittenberg’s ingenious stage design features four stark white walls with large openings towards upstage. Especially in the soft blue light (Jürgen Hoffmann) of Act II, the gaps turn almost prism-like, setting off the intrigue and duplicity of the lovers’ swaps on stage before them. Likewise, the looming single Italian cypress centre stage stands for immortality, stretched here, I would guess, to connote that of love and loyalty. Marianne Glittenberg’s yummy d’époque costumes cite the satins and buttoned linens of the gentry; in action, the fluttering silks of the two men were a great source of amusement. Overall, the lack of clutter and any blatant “shocker” material in this production distinguished it nicely.

Further, the integrity of the cast set the production apart: the six principals fit together as neatly as the single parts of a puzzle. Mauro Peter débuted as an ebullient Ferrando, and his parry with the woodwinds in Act II (“I still hear the voice of love for her”) was infinitely endearing. As in 2009, Ruben Drole sang Guglielmo with great verve and conviction, and his exaggerated grimaces lent appropriate slapstick to the muddle.

As the two duped sisters, Anna Stéphany sang Dorabella, and Julia Kleiter debuted here in Zurich as Fiordiligi. Both singers were perfect in their roles. As the more adventurous Dorabella persuaded her stubborn sister to let down her skirts – in the literal sense, Stéphany’s diction was clear as a bell, and the grace of her movements worthy of imitation. As the higher voice, Kleiter sang the silvery register of the two couples’ foursome, but she maintained an equitable balance among them nevertheless. Visibly wracked by her attraction to another man, she also acted well enough to emote real pity when begging for the higher powers to “forgive the misdeed of a loving soul”.

Rebeca Olvera debuted as the spunky maid Despina, who convincingly persuades both the sisters to kick up their heels while their men are away. Olvera’s voice has great range of expression, and her acting skills are superb: she added a welcome chilli pepper to the mix. Despina’s description of everything a girl should know at 15 years – “where the Devil has his tail”, or “how to fake tears”, for example – made some of us glad to have decidedly older daughters.

Oliver Widmer sang the devious if disillusioned Don Alfonso. His plaintive “Soava sia il vento” (Gentle be the winds) in trio with the two sisters was as sweet as a baby’s lullaby. Despite his stirring up terrific “confusion of affections” with his wager, the Don takes no reprimand, and ends up entirely guilt-free at the end of Act II. In 1790, of course, the notion of women “leaning in” and changing the conversation from what they can’t do to what they can, was still a long way off. 

From the pit, and under conductor Karl-Heinz Steffens’ lively baton, the Philharmonia Zürich ably underscored the myriad of colours and flourishes of Mozart’s marvellous music. Soloists Claudius Herrmann, cello, and Andrea Del Bianco, fortepiano, each shone with solo performances, and concertmaster Ada Pesch steered the Philharmonia – almost 70 musicians strong – in a confident performance. Unusually, the members of the orchestra also stood at length at the curtain, allowing the audience to give them the appreciation they deserve. For hands down, this Così was a sheer delight. Mozart’s glorious music and fine cast carried the drama, and the production was marked by refreshing energy and lusty humour that we often miss in the face of fuss and frills.