Frailty, thy name is woman. All men are bastards. Glib stereotypes drip from our lips like globs of saliva. Indeed, in an age when trolls dominate all social media it is often difficult to get a differentiated message across. Pity poor Mozart then, because for long after it was composed in revolutionary-suffused 1790 his Così fan tutte was seriously misunderstood. It is not about misogyny; it is about human weakness.

Sylvia Schwartz (Despina) and Pietro Spagnoli (Don Alfonso) © Hans Jörg Michel
Sylvia Schwartz (Despina) and Pietro Spagnoli (Don Alfonso)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Watching this production that opened the new opera season in Hamburg I was taken back several decades to my first encounters with Jérôme Savary and his Le Grand Magic Circus. Just as weird, wacky and full of wonderment, Herbert Fritsch’s approach (stage direction and sets) derives its considerable energy and inventiveness from the many traditions of the commedia dell’arte with its stock situations and emphasis on ensemble acting. Physicality abounds: Despina gets walloped by Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who also administer kicks to the groin when the two Albanians (Ferrando and Gugliemo in disguise) are too forthright in their attempts at seduction. As if to underline the opera buffa nature, there are plenty of examples of jocularity, not least a self-playing harpsichord that remains centre-stage and which at the start of Act 2 turns out several bars of Eine kleine Nachtmusik.

Kinetic energy is one of the features of this production. The characters do not simply walk. Instead they glide, shuffle, mince, rotate, strut, tiptoe and trot their way across the stage, arms akimbo, knees bent, limbs used as living sails. When the two male lovers take arsenic in their moment of desperation, there are remarkably synchronised acts of twitching, shaking and more serious spasmodic convulsions. Despina is like a demented hen, pecking the air and scratching the ground underfoot; Ferrando and Guglielmo, disguised as a cross between porcupines and shaggy sheepdogs (white and black variants), crawl on all fours, extend their red paws and wag their imaginary tails. Even the chorus are given to constant gesticulating. The suppleness of the human body is emphasised in every twist and gyration. It is all a veritable tour de force, but as judges in cookery competitions are wont to tell crestfallen chefs who fail to make the mark, “There’s too much on the plate”. Any opera needs interludes of relaxation, and though there were isolated examples where this general restlessness was held at bay, as in Fiordiligi’s great aria “Come scoglio”, the stock in trade of pantomime and harlequinade had the upper hand.

Pietro Spagnoli (Don Alfonso) and Kartal Karagedik (Guglielmo) © Hans Jörg Michel
Pietro Spagnoli (Don Alfonso) and Kartal Karagedik (Guglielmo)
© Hans Jörg Michel

The costumes underlined the degree of stage frippery. Don Alfonso presented himself as a master of ceremonies (yes, the Cabaret influence was strong), in a scarlet station-master’s uniform and peaked hat; the two male leads were clothed in bright yellow and lavender military uniforms respectively; Fiordiligi and Dorabella wore wimples looking like compressed lampshades; Despina’s creation included a huge orange-pink bodice consisting of unfolding petals together with black lacquered leggings and topped by a bald bejewelled wig.

Fritsch is a child of the Sixties and the sets owe much to the obsessions of the psychedelic era. A basic open-box format was used throughout, with panels of fierce primary colours, complemented by garish geometric structures on the stage-floor doubling up as prompter’s box as well as entry and exit points. Brilliantly lit for the most part, the visual glare was enough to induce conjunctivitis.

Maria Bengtsson Fiordiligi) and Ida Aldrian (Dorabella) © Jörn Kipping
Maria Bengtsson Fiordiligi) and Ida Aldrian (Dorabella)
© Jörn Kipping

Hardly any of the character differentiation between the two sisters or Don Alfonso’s love of rational experimentation could come across in a staging ruled by sheer buffoonery, but the musical side was much more rewarding. Given that this opera has a Neapolitan setting there was disappointingly little Italianate sensuousness in the sound coming from the pit, but Sébastien Rouland, recently appointed Generalmusikdirektor in Saarbrücken, adopted flexible tempi and secured uniformly neat and tidy orchestral playing. His sensitivity allowed the sighs of regret to register naturally during the Act 1 farewell scene. It was the superb coordination and balance, however, that impressed above all. There are just six roles in Così and much of the singing is ensemble work. Each voice requires its own individual identity but also an ability to meld seamlessly with others. Leaving aside the visual distractions, Maria Bengtsson’s assumption of Fiordiligi was a minor triumph, her peaches-and-cream delivery rich in nuance and wonderfully secure in all the dynamic shadings. Ida Aldrian (a late replacement for the indisposed Stephanie Lauricella) provided with her rhubarb-and-custard timbre a contrasting degree of tartness as Dorabella. Sylvia Schwartz was fully inside her roles as Despina, doctor and notary. Dovlet Nurgeldiyev’s vanilla-coated Ferrando and the honeyed warmth of Kartak Karagedik’s Guglielmo made an attractive pair of lovers. Pietro Spagnoli’s Don Alfonso was richly expressive.

So what does Così really tell us about human nature? To quote Bertolt Brecht, “Indeed it is a curious way of coping: to close the play, leaving the issue open.”