Out of pure conviction or just for originality’s sake, many directors have recast Lorenzo Da Ponte’s 18th-century Neapolitan setting for Così fan tutte. For his five-year-old staging, now revived by the Canadian Opera Company, Atom Egoyan has literally used the work’s alternative title – “The school for lovers” – as his starting point. He places the action in the science lab of a 1960s prep school where teacher Don Alfonso explains to his clipboard wielding, uniformed students “the laws of attraction”. More, Egoyan claims, in his program notes, that he was interested in “what might happen to the dynamics of the opera if there were a parallel wager from the two women”, if Fiordiligi and Dorabella were cognizant of Don Alfonso’s experiment from the very beginning. Unfortunately, the warned spectators could find very little proof – from the sisters ridiculously being asked to lay down and sleep during the biology “lesson” to their apparently genuine surprise when introduced to the fake, mustachioed new lovers – of the above conjecture being implemented.

<i>Così fan tutte</i> © Michael Cooper
Così fan tutte
© Michael Cooper

Act 1's lab looks more like an 18th century Schatzkammer with a huge curio cabinet with reflective doors dominating the scenery and containing way too many objects, distracting attention. In the same vein, swarming images of stuffed butterflies, of all sizes and colors, are almost constantly present. If they symbolize a curtailed freedom (as in Figaro’s “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso”) why does a video with pinned lepidopterans make its appearance just when the two sisters seem to finally attain their own freedom?

<i>Così fan tutte</i> © Michael Cooper
Così fan tutte
© Michael Cooper

Another pillar of this mise-en-scène has very little to do with either the science lab paradigm or the relationship between Così’s two sisters. It is a blown-up copy of Frida Kahlo’s double self-portrait from 1939, the year of her divorce from Diego Rivera. Painting herself dressed in two contrasting attires, Kahlo was probably more concerned with the meaning of her double heritage (European and indigenous) and less with a broken relationship. Egoyan connected The Two Fridas to Così’s exploration of the boundaries between duty and freedom, viewing the painting as a representation of Kahlo’s lifelong split between her special feelings for her mentor and husband and her many other love interests. Nevertheless, the director and his designer, Debra Hanson, focused too much on those details in Kahlo’s work that they could more or less link to elements of the libretto, such as the locket with Rivera’s likeness. Close-ups of the hearts are emphasized ad nauseam. The hemostat stopping the blood flow is miraculously transformed into its opposite – a pair of scissors, a metaphor (for castration?) that harps on after the intermission.

Johannes Kammler, Emily D’Angelo, Kirsten MacKinnon and Ben Bliss © Michael Cooper
Johannes Kammler, Emily D’Angelo, Kirsten MacKinnon and Ben Bliss
© Michael Cooper

Despite a scenography overburdened by incongruous symbols – another example is the parade of elaborated 18th-century-inspired blue wigs shaped in the form of sailing vessels – the performance was remarkable for its outstanding singing. Looking similar in their white uniforms, soprano Kirsten MacKinnon (as Fiordiligi) and mezzo Emily D’Angelo (as Dorabella), both very recent winners of the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions at the brink of significant careers, excelled at every step, perfectly matching each other. With her colorful, vibrant voice, simultaneously sweet and firm, MacKinnon rendered a heartfelt “Per pietà”. An excellent actress with an amber-hued voice, Toronto born D’Angelo suggested with ease Dorabella’s more fickle character (“È amore un ladroncello”). As the scheming, cynical servant Despina, crisp, bright-voiced soprano Tracy Dahl almost stole the show with her comic shenanigans. As Ferrando, Ben Bliss brought forward the mellifluous qualities of his tenor voice. German baritone Johannes Kammler (Guglielmo) was a little hesitant, especially in the first act. In a well-calibrated performance, Canadian baritone Russell Braun, added a hint of regret to his interpretation of Don Alfonso, the opera’s raisonneur.

Tracy Dahl (Despina) and Russell Braun (Don Alfonso) © Michael Cooper
Tracy Dahl (Despina) and Russell Braun (Don Alfonso)
© Michael Cooper

Bernard Labadie conducted a well-balanced Canadian Opera Company Orchestra with elegance. Always supportive of his singers, he tried to bring forward the darker strains in the musical score as opposed to a libretto full of reminiscences of the commedia dell’arte.

At the very end, the six singers, in a single row, are left isolated and alone. If there is a reconciliation, Mozart and Da Ponte didn’t provide the details. Egoyan doesn’t try to suggest otherwise.

****1