Così fan tutte is Mozart putting it all on the line. He gambles on the unattractive premise of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s book – that women are all the same: treacherous; not one can be trusted. To support this moral outrage, in 1790, Mozart composed three hours of music so beautiful and unified in expression, the world would not hear its like again for nearly 70 years till Wagner’s Ring. Così was a flop in Mozart’s lifetime. Morally high-minded European audiences kept it out of the running for more than 100 years. However, last night’s Canadian Opera Company Toronto première of Così hit the trifecta for cast, conducting and direction.

End of Act I © Michael Cooper
End of Act I
© Michael Cooper

Sir Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso was magisterial: in command, but relaxed; cynical, but genial; diabolical, but somehow gently reassuring and avuncular, guiding the young people into the morally murky. Tenor Paul Appleby and bass Robert Gleadow were in good voice and fashioned distinct characters for the boys, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who accept Don Alfonso’s bet that the girls they believe in have no more strength of character than any other woman. Tasked by the plot with the dual roles of protesting their ladies’ virtue as well as with entering disguise to lead the ladies into temptation, Appleby and Gleadow both made lively sketches and richly coloured pictures of a range of youthful passions that included heavy petting. Soprano Tracy Dahl, as the diminutive maid to ladies Fiordiligi and Dorabella, sparkled in good-natured cynicism as she manipulated her ladies into innocent dalliance, slithering cheerfully and comically into deeper deceptions till the girls give in.

Guglielmo, Ferrando, Dorabella and Fiordiligi © Michael Cooper
Guglielmo, Ferrando, Dorabella and Fiordiligi
© Michael Cooper
The girls in question are sisters: Fiordiligi, played by soprano Layla Claire, and mezzo Wallis Giunta as Dorabella. Layla Claire sustained all Fiordiligi’s passions with fervour. In her great aria “Come scoglio”, she showed the strength of her character as her limpid voice spanned the wide intervals of the score. Ms Claire’s musical presence when she resigns her virtue to her sister’s fiancée Ferrando was equally superb. Dorabella is easier than her sister. Wallis Giunta’s deeper tessatura suggested a nature more sensual and fun-loving, who handles her promises with a lighter touch. Dorabella is the first sister to give in; Ms Giunta convinced us that having enjoyed the pleasures of Guglielmo, Dorabella made an “easy-peasy” transition back to her original union with Ferrando.

Atom Egoyan, as is his way, brought out the naughty in Così. For a frame, he made the opera’s original title, “A school for Lovers”, into a literal school, with the chorus as students dressed refreshingly by Debra Hanson in cool modern prep uniforms being coached by headmaster Don Alfonso to follow the lessons as they are acted out by the four lovers. The set and props (also Hansen) are visual aids, some of them symbolic, like giant butterflies representing the lovers and huge pins representing the moral judgements of students and the audience who fix them “in a formulated phrase... pinned and wriggling on the wall”. The production played cryptically and deliciously with projections of a dually framed self-portrait of Frida Kalho – The Two Fridas, recently on display in Toronto, in which Frida runs open-heart blood-transfusions between versions of herself. I also appreciated an edgy voyeuristic perversity – that also trade-marked Egoyan’s 1994 film Exotica, which also turns on sexual rule-breaking – pervading this production of Così. The twists of the plot are acrobatic and mind-numbing, like the vagaries of many teenage relationships, but Egoyan steers them into very a hardball position that resonates with lines by poets I respect, be it Leonard Cohen’s “There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”, or W.B. Yeats’ dictum “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent”. These phrases go beyond fidelity–infidelity and all other dualities into a realm of totality that is simply real, and that is where Mozart’s music lives.

End of Act II © Michael Cooper
End of Act II
© Michael Cooper
There is no way the flow of mischiefs between young lovers, which is at the bottom line just a glorified Archie comic, no matter how artfully produced, or how deeply meaningful, can sustain the attention span commanded by Mozart's music. Throughout the three hours, when the antics produced a blur in my attention, I rested in the music, and there was never a bar where I did not find satisfaction. Maestro Johannes Debus and his orchestra rendered the architectural marvel of the music flawlessly. Where the logic of the action was too complicated to be clear, the music made it clear. Towards the end, where the four lovers are struggling to forgive each other and move on into the dubious future, and the audience might be swimming in complexities, the music itself is the sound of all is well.