Cosa Fan Tutte & Don Giovanni Review – Mozart takes a hit

Going to an Emerging Pictures’ European HD performance is frequently an adventure. Some of the European theaters and directors can do strange things to an opera. One of the strangest is what Claus Guth does to Mozart at the Salzburg Festival. Last year I saw his interpretation of Cosé¬ Fan Tutte and wrote:

Isabel Leonard (Dorabella), Topi Lehtipuu (Ferrando), Miah Persson (Fiordiligi), Florian Boesch (Guglielmo)

There are many different ways that a director can legitimately interpret Cosé¬ Fan Tutte. The basic story is extremely simple. Two friends are “in love” with two sisters. For the men, being in love means stating (to the world in general and to Don Alfonso in particular) that “My woman is perfect in all respects and if you don’t agree I will fight you to the death.” To the women it means wearing a locket with their man’s picture in it and plunging into utmost despair at the thought of their lovers going off to war. Don Alfonso bets each of the men that if they will follow his orders their women will be untrue to them in 24 hours. Each man is to pretend to be called away by the army, but they will return, disguised as Albanians, and attempt to win away the other’s loved one. Don Alfonso enlists the aid of the sisters’ maid Despina in carrying out this scheme.

Bo Skovhus (Don Alfonso)

I have seen the opera played as a light-hearted comedy. I have seen it played more darkly with Don Alfonso more of a villain playing with other people’s souls. I have seen Despina fully conniving with Don Alfonso’s schemes, and I have seen her taken in by the men’s disguises and hurt and shocked when she finds they are the original lovers testing their amoratas’ faithfulness. I have enjoyed them all, and I have been fascinated by the way a director could take a different perspective for the motives and actions of the characters and make it all fit together.

Patricia Petibon (Despina)

Frankly, I did not enjoy what director Claus Guth did to Mozart’s opera. First of all, it was all done in modern dress, for no apparent reason. There was no attempt at physical disguise; the “Albanians” were wearing formal white suits instead of informal dark clothing but their faces were unchanged, and the audience had no help in swallowing the fact that the sisters did not recognize them. Similarly when Despina appears as a doctor, she hasn’t changed her attire or put on a wig – she merely carries a big white box with a red cross on it. Guth didn’t even bother to be consistent. In all other productions I’ve seen, the Albanians covered half their faces with enormous mustaches whereas here they are still clean-shaven. But there are still references to the mustaches in the sub-titles (and I assume in the original sung Italian). I had the impression that Guth made changes merely for the sake of making changes and without any clear idea of just what story he wanted to tell.

I did rather like the way the final scene was staged. As the six characters sing their finale and all forgive each other and look forward to facing a happy future with their eyes wide open, they are circling about the stage in complex movement. Even for the curtain call, the men were on one side of the stage and the women on the other. It was left up to each member of the audience to decide if they went back to their original pairing or stuck with their new Albanian pairing – or were planning a happy MÉnage é  Quatre.

You can see why I thought long and hard before finally deciding to go to Don Giovanni last Sunday. I’m glad I went, but I have no desire to see it again.

Christopher Maltman (Don Giovanni)

As I sat in the Camera 7 theater I was simultaneously following two different stories: the Mozart- Da Ponte story (told in music, sung in Italian words, and written in English subtitles) and the Guth story (told by costumes, stage setting, and acting). Although both stories had the same basic plot, there were so many differences in the details that any attempt to immerse myself in either of them was thoroughly thwarted.

Don Giovanni and Donna Anna (Annette Dasch)

As in Cosé¬, the characters all wore modern dress. OK, I can live with that. The director wants to emphasize the universality of the story. Aside from that, it was not at all clear what the Guth story was nor why he was telling it. Could it be that Guth just wants to keep the audience in a state of confusion; his sole reason for the discrepancies is that they are discrepancies? For example:

The Commandatore is hit over the head rather than killed in a duel. Why?
Verbal reference is still made to a fatal sword wound. As he lies dying, the Commandatore pulls out a gun and inflicts a bloody stomach wound on Don Giovanni. Why?
Every time Giovanni opens his shirt more blood gets on something. Why?
From time to time Giovanni grimaces with pain and almost faints from his wound. Why?

All of the action takes place in a dimly lit forest. The only structure is a roofed bus stop. Why?

Don Giovanni & Leporello

When Leporello sings his comic List Song he doesn’t have a written list but points to a bus schedule on the wall. Why? When Giovanni tells Leporello he’s giving him four gold pieces, he hands him several pieces of paper money. Why?

Zerlina & Don Giovanni

When Zerlina’s wedding party appears they are all dressed in proper attire for a church wedding – and quite inappropriate for the forest. Why?

See what I’m talking about? One more example, somewhat subtler. When Giovanni accosts the wedding party his attire is suitable for camping in the forest, but there is nothing in his appearance or his clothing to indicate that he comes from a higher social caste and a peasant had better not provoke him. One must take the deference they all show entirely on faith.

Don Giovanni & Donna Anna

And yet . . . And yet . . . Mozart’s music is so glorious. Da Ponte’s story is such a perfect blend of humor, realism, and tragedy. The cast were all such excellent singers and expressive actors. I am glad that I was there. But such a pity to waste all that talent on a mish-mash of a production.

Ah well. Twenty years ago Mozart and Da Ponte survived Peter Sellars putting Don Alfonso and company in a Cape Cod diner and Don Giovanni in Spanish Harlem. I am sure that 20 years from now they will have survived Claus Guth and his Alfonso in whatever-it was and Giovanni in a forest.

The Opera Nut

1875 S Bascom Ave
Campbell, CA 95008

Photos: © Monika Rittershaus

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in on July 14, 2010.


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