Così fan tutte is usually translated into English as “All women are like that”. At this summer’s Salzburg Festival, Christof Loy prefers to focus on the opera’s subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers). In a typically minimalist, monochrome setting, the German director has some bitter lessons to deliver and it’s not just the four lovers who come off badly. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s quick-tempered, wiry-toned Don Alfonso – the opera’s manipulator-in-chief – soon becomes despondent that his experiment is going to cause so much turbulence, making one wonder why he proposed it in the first place.

Andrè Schuen (Guglielmo), Elsa Dreisig (Fiordiligi), Marianne Crebassa (Dorabella)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Mozart doesn’t suffer quite so much as his characters, even though the opera is cut by around 50 minutes. These cuts are not entirely self-inflicted by Loy, although his staging was already condensed when it premiered at Oper Frankfurt in 2008. They are necessary to trim the performance so that the interval – a logistical nightmare in the Covid era, even in the Großes Festspielhaus – can be dispensed with altogether. Loy and conductor Joana Mallwitz, making an excellent Salzburg Festival debut, have made tiny incisions in recitatives and arias, dispensing with as few entire numbers as possible. Lea Desandre can consider herself unlucky to lose Despina’s “In uomini, in soldati”, but the axeing of Ferrando and Guglielmo’s arias in Act 2 results in the opera’s second half, which (whisper it!) can be a drag, fairly zinging along.

Lea Desandre (Despina) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Arguably, it needs to zing given Loy’s melancholy treatment. There’s a hint of mischief at the start of the second scene. Fiordiligi and Dorabella have been entwined in a daydream during their fiancés’ wager with Don Alfonso over their fidelity. Their opening lines, describing the handsome looks of their lovers, are here delivered while each admires the portrait in the other sister’s locket! Have they already got the hots for the other man? All six characters are dressed in sober black and white until the soldiers reappear as “Albanians”, dressed in coloured clothing, including shorts and a flowery jacket. Ferrando’s fake moustache is quickly dispensed with (Andrè Schuen’s, as Guglielmo, is very real!) so that there is little pretence about these imposters’ true identities. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are initially amused by their advances, almost as if they’re in on the deception.

Marianne Crebassa, Lea Desandre, Johannes Martin Kränzle, Andrè Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Elsa Dreisig
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Characters sometimes remain on stage when they’re not part of Da Ponte’s action. Fiordiligi is supposed to be alone when she delivers “Per pietà”, a deeply emotional reading here from Elsa Dreisig, yet having Dorabella and Guglielmo as witness heightens their sense of guilt. Guglielmo watches Fiordiligi get it on with Ferrando and is suitably gutted. They’re all complicit in each other’s misery. Guglielmo, the first of the lovers to spot events souring, even changes back into his original suit well before the denouement of the soldiers “returning from the front line”. Things are never going to return to any sort of normality for this quartet. 

Elsa Dreisig (Fiordiligi) and Bogdan Volkov (Ferrando)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

It’s difficult to believe Salzburg could have cast this Così any better. Elsa Dresig and Marianne Crebassa make a delectable pair of sisters. Franco-Danish soprano Dreisig displayed pearly top notes and vocal agility in the notoriously difficult “Come scoglio”, her playful stoicism at the start turning serious later on, pushing Don Alfonso to the floor. Crebassa’s honeyed mezzo was elegant and smooth. Loy clips Dorabella’s humorous side, although it’s still clear she is desperate to pull Guglielmo (“Prenderò quel brunettino”). Desandre’s bright mezzo made for a sassy Despina. It’s a shame her opening recitative was cut, depriving her of a sneaky taste of the chocolate she’s busy whipping.

Schuen’s smooth baritone impressed as Guglielmo, while Bogdan Volkov’s sappy tenor and plangent tone made for an appealing Ferrando, especially his heartfelt “Un’aura amorosa” during which Kränzle’s Don Alfonso welled up in tears. Why is he going through with this charade? I bet this Alfonso’s got an interesting back story. 

Elsa Dreisig (Fiordiligi), Johannes Martin Kränzle (Don Alfonso) and Marianne Crebassa (Dorabella)
© Salzburg Festival | Monika Rittershaus

Mallwitz conducted a spry account of the score, with the Vienna Philharmonic’s peppery woodwinds adding their own acerbic commentary. Piano wit was supplied by Nicholas Rimmer in the secco recitatives, with hints of “Soave sia il vento” moments before the trio appeared in all its sublime glory. Musically, an outstanding performance, and if this take on Mozart’s opera buffa may be a bit downbeat for some tastes, I admire the way Loy needles under the skin of these characters, exposing several raw nerves. 

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.