Canadian Opera’s ‘Così’ Doesn’t Equal Sum Of The Hearts

The Canadian Opera Company's production of "Cosi fan tutte" pays tribute to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.  (Photo by Michael Cooper)
The Canadian Opera Company’s “Cosi fan tutte” setting pays tribute to Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. (Michael Cooper)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO – Operatic arithmetic doesn’t always work in quite the same ways that normal math does. The sum of an ambitious production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Canadian Opera Company is an uneven hodge-podge, engaging in some respects, tedious in others.

COC has clearly pulled out all the stops for Così, a new production that opened Jan. 18 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for a run through Feb. 21. It’s staged by film-maker Atom Egoyan, led by COC music director Johannes Debus, and features a well-chosen cast.

Fiordiligli (Layla Clare) and Dorabella (Wallis Giunta). (Chris Hutcheson)
Fiordiligli (Claire), Dorabella (Giunta) will be schooled. (C. Hutcheson)

Although Toronto-based Egoyan is best known for his art-house films (such as Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, and Ararat, he has staged operas at the COC, Lincoln Center, the Spoleto Festival, and the English National Opera. And like his films, his approach to opera tends to begin with a “high concept,” working its way down to the details as the production takes shape.

And so it is with Così fan tutte, which I saw Jan. 24. The foundational concept is the world of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. This much is made clear as the audience enters the theater to be greeted by the massive image of her painting The Two Fridas before the curtain.

With Don Alfonso (Allen), love's a subject for experiment. (Cooper)
With Don Alfonso (Allen), love’s a subject for experiment. (Cooper)

But beyond this direct “quotation” of Kahlo’s work, the artist’s influence is subtle: a giant cabinet full of scientific bric-a-brac dominates the stage, clearly inspired by Kahlo’s preoccupation with the clinical.  Butterflies and flowers appear above as well. Throughout the opera, designer Debra Hanson always offers something fascinating and beautiful to look at.

Hand in hand with the Kahlo concept is Egoyan’s idea of setting this Così inside an upscale and rather old-fashioned private academy. (Here, he has picked up on the opera’s subtitle, The School for Lovers.) In this context, the chorus becomes a class of biology students, and Don Alfonso is transformed from the old roué he usually is into a clinically detached professor, conducting an experiment in human nature.

Gleadow, Appleby, Giunta and Claire (Cooper)
Gleadow, Appleby, Giunta and Claire (Cooper)

The two couples who are the subjects for his experiment are presented as college sweethearts. And, as if to re-enforce this idea, the COC engaged four young singers who certainly looked their parts. Soprano Layla Claire  and mezzo Wallis Giunta  – as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, respectively – were nicely paired, both possessing bright, supple, and secure voices, and they shone in their big arias. As Ferrando and Guglielmo, tenor Paul Appleby  and bass Robert Gleadow were not so evenly matched: Gleadow has a rich and strong delivery, but Appleby is a sweet-voiced crooner who occasionally strays from pitch.

Appearing as Don Alfonso was baritone Thomas Allen, making his COC debut in his 70th year. Oozing with professorial authority, he was fully in command of his role both vocally and dramatically.

Despina urges Dorabella and Fiordiligi to take new lovers. (Cooper)
Despina urges Dorabella and Fiordiligi to take new lovers. (Cooper)

Much the same can be said for soprano Tracy Dahl, as Despina, who inhabited her characters with a lively intensity. (Her silly, squeaky voice, when disguised as the Notary, was the funniest thing in the show.)

Unfortunately, the dramatic flair these two veteran opera artists brought to the production – enlivening their scenes with touches of well-timed humor and cleverness – only served to underscore the theatrical weakness of the younger cast-members. Claire, Giunta, Appleby, and Gleadow lacked the autonomy of Allen and Dahl. Their performances seemed entirely governed by what Egoyan and Debus had instructed them to do.

As a result, there were times, especially in Act II, when it was all just a little too careful and calculated. And it was in these moments that this Così became stagey, un-comedic and very long. It might have helped if Debus had injected a little more excitement into the COC Orchestra. But he didn’t, preferring a poised and properly Mozartean approach.

For details about the remaining performances, click here.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based critic and composer. Last year, his book Remembering Glenn Gould was published by Penumbra Press, and his compact disc Colin Eatock: Chamber Music was released on the Centrediscs label.

Dorabella and Fiordiligi are befuddled, and Don Alfonso  is amused. (Cooper)
Dorabella and Fiordiligi are befuddled by love’s predicaments, as the scheming Don Alfonso looks on, amused. (Cooper)