17 October 2016 at 5.25pm | 1 Comment
With their hummable tunes and engaging characters, Mozart’s operas are often viewed as a suitable ‘way in’ to the art form for a first timer looking to dip their toe in the operatic waters. Following 13 years of performances with The Royal Opera, however, conductor Semyon Bychkov is well used to life at the deep end.
While he’s no stranger to conducting Mozart’s symphonic works and concertos, the operas have been absent from his repertory – until now, as he returns to Covent Garden to conduct his first Mozart opera: Così fan tutte.
‘It’s first of all trying to understand the meaning of the piece’, he says. ‘It’s not always been popular. In its own time it was hugely misunderstood, hugely attacked by eminent personalities such as Beethoven, Wagner, by contemporaries of Mozart, because the whole subject made them extremely uncomfortable.’
While attempts to repackage classic works for a ‘modern audience’ risk being met with rolled eyes, Bychkov is clear: it’s not just The Royal Opera’s production that brings the 1790 opera up to date. Rather, the themes and subject matter are more universal now than they were at the opera’s premiere.
‘Today I think we relate to it very differently from those who grew up in the time of Mozart, because the world has evolved’, he says.
‘Certain subjects were a taboo and couldn’t be easily accepted: the idea of switching partners, the idea of women not being so different from men in how they feel and what their needs and desires are. It’s particularly relevant for a modern audience; I would say that perhaps it’s the first feminist opera I know.’
True, Jan Philipp Gloger’s production plays with the language of the title, transforming the Italian tutte, the feminine ending tarring ‘all women’ with the same brush through the use of a single letter E, into tutti: everyone, regardless of gender. The characters, for a 2016 audience at least, make a point: we’re all as bad as each other. Perhaps not the cheeriest of realizations for those who don’t enjoy their evenings at the opera served with a side of forced introspection.
‘It starts as a game, but it develops into something that is completely unexpected to all concerned’, Bychkov says. ‘Eventually when they switch partners, they discover that they find themselves with the other person who they should have been with in the beginning. We learn so much about ourselves by watching them go through what begins as something very joyful and then becomes a real drama.’
At least it’s a real drama with a five-star soundtrack: for lovers of a good tune, the score certainly delivers hit after hit, including ‘Come scoglio’, ‘Tradito, schernito’ and ‘È amore un ladroncello’. But much like the plot, Bychkov explains, there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty throughout the music.
‘Fundamentally Mozart is joyful’, he begins, ‘with certain exceptions – his G minor symphony is a very tragic work. Yet even in the majority of his works where the spirit of joy, humour or dance pervades the entire work, suddenly from nowhere comes something that makes your heart skip a beat with sadness, with melancholy, with a tragic aspect.’
‘The music is constantly changeable’, Bychkov explains. ‘You always have an expectation to find yourself in a particular tonality and a lot of the time your expectation is betrayed. This is the genius of Mozart because Mozart cannot be predicted. Behind these extraordinary melodies, he’s able to write this unbelievable complexity.
‘There is not one moment where we do not discover something, or do not have to question the way we do it’, he continues. ‘And so one has to decide, because the possibilities of shifting the emphasis are infinite, and the moment you shift it somehow the meaning of what you are saying is going to change. And so this is something that one lives with one’s whole life and one never has a feeling that one has exhausted the possibilities, because they are inexhaustible.’
Suddenly it’s not clear if Bychkov is discussing untapped musical possibilities, or the sheer number of options we have when searching for a partner. Or, indeed, both. At least there are a number of operatic highlights to keep us entertained as we question our life choices from the stalls – aren’t there?
‘There are no “highlights”’, Bychkov replies, and couples planning to attend a performance prepare themselves for something of an awkward date night, until he continues:
‘The whole thing is so high and so light, full of light, that one could not identify, one should not even try to identify one specific moment which is above the others because they all serve the other – they are inseparable. And that is the greatness of this music because there is not one second where you are not amazed by what is going on, because it’s anything except what you expected.’
Così fan tutte runs until 19 October 2016. Tickets are still available.
Così fan tutte will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 17 October 2016. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list.