Two years ago, Zurich Opera contracted one of Russia’s leading stage and film directors, Kirill Serebrennikov, to direct its new Così fan tutte this November. Done deal, except for the fact that Serebrennikov has now been under house arrest in Moscow for fifteen months, where he awaits trial on embezzlement charges. The news made major headlines prior to the première, although leading Western newspapers not only unanimously suggested that the corruption charges were “trumped up”, but also called out any regime that stifles artistic freedom. Numerous declarations of solidarity have appeared in the media under the hashtag #FreeKirill, and that this production went forward at all makes it one of the strongest.

Given the extraordinary circumstances, Serebrennikov’s right-hand man Evgeny Kulagin filled in as director, albeit using a steady flow of USB sticks to carry video clips back and forth to Moscow for Kirill’s assessment, adjustment and approval. The production deserves tremendous accolades it its own right, but even more so for overcoming such a handicap. 

Serebrennikov’s highly versatile staging makes a vibrant, animated backdrop to what many consider opera’s most renowned instance of partner-swapping and test of fidelity. That said, Mozart’s magical score steals the show. Having completed the music for Così in under four months, but its reception at Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1791 was lukewarm, and it soon dropped out of the theatre’s repertoire altogether. Some suggest that its blatant immorality was offensive, and that such “adulterous machinations” had no place on the operatic stage. To the modern audience that argument is hogwash; for most of us, the highly physical marks the very definition of an affair. 

Indeed, there is physical action taking place on Serebrennikov’s ingenious two-level stage even as the Zurich audience takes its seats. Upwardly mobile males are working out in a slick fitness studio on the lower level, while several young women practise Pilates on the floor above. It’s on that two-level set – in use throughout the opera, whose top- or bottom blackouts allow for dozens of modest set changes – that we first meet the protagonists. 

In his debut role as Don Alfonso, Michael Nagy distinguished himself as the true cynic whose baritone voice was as solid as his character’s conviction that all women are fickle. When the other two male protagonists, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are sceptical, Alfonso suggests a test: that they switch identities and woo the other’s lady to prove her an easy target. 

The six leads all carry about the same weight in vocal demands. As the glamourous Dorabella, Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Goryachova showed herself at ease in every conceivable register. What’s more, her fine acting saw her move easily within the widest possible spectrum: from deranged “war-widow” capable of a conniption fit to the seductive, sinuous vamp. Armenian soprano Ruzan Mantashyan sang Fiordiligi, the more modest and longer-loyal of the two sisters. She, too, was dazzling in her slinky neon-colored cocktail dresses, and covered the enigma of womanhood with a range and articulation that were equally superb.

As the two lovers who put their women to the tests, Guglielmo and Ferrando were brilliantly sung by the Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko and Canadian tenor, Frédéric Antoun. Rebeca Olvera sang Despina commendably, her business pantsuit, chignon and serious glasses making her character a PA or attending psychiatrist. As a devious self-promoter, though, her Despina might well have showed more resident evil.

Unique to this this production were the two dancers, Francesco Guglielmo and David Schwindling, who stood in for the men’s scatological pursuits while the singers shadowed their stage actions with requisite song. Each of the two “avatars” was simply all body, which was precisely the point. After her fiancé had “gone off to war”, for example, Dorabella sat numbly at the table centre-stage, sadly contemplating a peeled, upright banana. Even more amusing was the billboard behind Fiordiligi in one scene: “To call a man an animal is to flatter him: he’s a machine, a walking dildo.”  

Under conductor Cornelius Meister’s baton, Philharmonia Zurich proved its consummate talent and stamina, bringing both heft and precision to the “emotional whole” of Mozart’s dramatic architecture. The chorus, too, gave a fine complement from off-stage, appearing in the last act as guests at the elaborate double wedding. Having to dress two “traditional” Russian brides with countless layers of pleats, crowns and silks was a high order for some of the extras, but to undress them again – once the plot’s secret was revealed and order, restored – was its own act of sheer celebration.