16 September 2016 at 11.54am | Comment on this article
‘The School for Lovers’. That was Mozart and Da Ponte’s alternative title for Così fan tutte – an opera as much celebrated for its nuanced depiction of love as for its glorious music. But in a world where apps like Tinder and Grindr amass millions of users each day, it’s hard to imagine how a classical idea of a lovers’ academy could bear any similarities to the seemingly shallow world of modern dating.
It’s within this world – and, you’d be forgiven for having missed this story back in 2008 – you’d find Amy Taylor of Newquay, and her husband Dave Pollard. They had married after initially meeting online in the virtual-reality forum Second Life, but then divorced three years later after Amy discovered that Dave’s avatar had been cyber-cheating with someone else’s avatar back on the web. (Do keep up at the back). The story was accompanied by profiles of the real Dave, who bore little resemblance to his chosen online avatar, a 13 stone, six-foot-four hunk with long streaked hair and improbably huge pectoral muscles, living in a ‘sprawling three-bedroom detached villa.’
Anyone who has ever told a white lie to impress someone, or bigged themselves up in front of a potential date, or posted an ‘enhanced’ picture on a dating website, should pause before they cast any stones at poor Dave and his optimistic online double.
Judging from Così fan tutte, we might guess that Mozart and Da Ponte wouldn’t have cast stones either, but instead reacted with sympathy (and perhaps just a dash of ironic amusement) to this confusing lovers’ tragedy. For in this opera they shine a cold and harsh light – but not a pitiless one – on the necessary fiction we call reality. And to do this, they choose the moment which calls that fiction into greatest crisis: the moment of love.
To put it crudely: love is a crisis. Your head says one thing, your ‘heart’ another, and the two don’t usually chirrup sweetly in unison. They shout over each other. ‘We make a meaning and it fits for a while,’ says psychotherapist Philippa Perry, ‘but when it ceases to fit, and what we believe doesn’t match up to our experience – that’s what constitutes a crisis.’
It also constitutes the crux of Così, which is one reason why the opera speaks so truly about love. Jan Philipp Gloger’s new Royal Opera production promises to look at the ways in which love can be both ‘real’ and a ‘construct’. Visually, the production is an eye-poppingly lavish affair with multiple set changes and transformations, playfully referencing many historical periods to announce its own hyper-theatricality.
The director’s vision sees him set the work in and around an onstage theatre and create a universe in which play-acting (the constructed world of love) and real-acting (the world of emotions and desire) become confused, as the characters morph from ‘real’ people into ‘performers’ on the stage. For an opera in which almost all the romantic encounters are scripted by one cynical character (Don Alfonso), this sounds like a pretty tempting starting point: after all, Don Alfonso himself announces that he thinks of himself as a creature of the stage, when he says ‘Non sono cattivo comico’ (I’m not a bad comic actor) near the beginning of the opera.
The bedrock of the opera – its music – offers ample possibility for directorial playfulness. Fiordiligi’s early aria ‘Come scoglio’ (Like a rock), in which she expresses her indignation and horror at the idea of unfaithfulness, is a tremendously exciting piece of writing but it's also slightly parodic, suggesting with a nod and a wink the kind of baroque 'fury aria' which would have seemed old fashioned to Mozart's 1790s audience. Perhaps the composer is inviting us to judge Fiordiligi ironically, as someone who is performing fury, rather than feeling it.
The ‘performative’ playfulness and ‘real’ emotion come to a head later in Act II when Fiordiligi longs for her torments to cease in her devastating aria ‘Per pietà’ (Have pity). When she and Ferrando finally admit their illicit love for each other in the equally powerful duet ‘Fra gli amplessi’ (In these embraces), we can only feel sympathy for their anguished love, however much we might judge their actions to be dishonourable.
And how will the end of the opera be played out? When the four lovers ostensibly return to their original partners – having travelled a devastating emotional journey away from them – the denouement can feel rather like that heart-sinking moment when you press ‘restore factory settings’ on a dying laptop, losing all your work in the process.
But then, on second thoughts, perhaps this opportunity for interpretation and reinterpretation is what has helped the opera to survive: as Dave and Amy can testify, there’s something true and honest in such an uncomfortable and unpalatable ending – and an unexpected personal lesson that lovers have been learning for centuries.
Così fan tutte runs 22 September–19 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
This production will be broadcast in cinemas around the world on 17 October 2016. Find your nearest cinema screening.