Ah, Mozart, what a headache for opera companies. Everybody loves his catchy tunes, witty lyrics and ingenious storylines. But since his time, sexual politics has shifted in ways that can leave a modern audience uncomfortable with things we are meant to enjoy.
Take Così fan tutte, for example – even the title is a problem. A literal translation is impossible, but it would be something like ‘women are all the same’. And how do you stage it today, when the central storyline hinges on Don Alfonso’s wager, ‘you think your fiancées are faithful, but I will prove them otherwise’? By today’s standards, it’s hard even to agree what would constitute infidelity. Flirty Facebook posts? Sexting? Being caught in flagrante?
Director Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre goes for an almost-modern setting, resorting to mid-twentieth-century America, where the social rules were a little clearer, though beginning to break down. Indeed, the opening scene looks like an extract from Mad Men, as Don Alfonso (a scintillating Roderick Williams) baits the two younger men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, into his wager while smoking and drinking in a nightclub staffed by bunny girls.
But Don Alfonso’s little empire is the marginal world of the carnival, the freakshow, the motel. Alongside the chorus of singers, this production features a second chorus of performers – acrobats, fire-eaters and a bearded lady – who physically manipulate the onstage world as Don Alfonso manipulates the lovers.
On one level, the carnival setting mirrors the farcical plot, as it’s full of disguises and trickery, and requires huge suspension of disbelief. But it also contrasts with the very genuine emotions so beautifully expressed in the music. After all, if you agree to test your beloved’s feelings by letting your best friend woo her in disguise, are you really ready for what you might discover? If you believe your husband-to-be is away fighting in the war, what happens when you develop feelings for somebody else?