When in doubt in a crowded room, check your smartphone. When in doubt with a long, fairly static opera, fill it with movement and colour and stuff — and hope that all the business will make people think you’re doing something important.
… or something funny in the case of the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1790 opera Così fan tutte (Everyone Does It), as realised by director Atom Egoyan and designer Debra Hanson. The company may not be doing well in developing Canadian mainstage opera, but it has been working hard to round up this country’s finest stage talents. Not everyone will agree with Egoyan and Hanson’s vision for this opera, but it is at least visually striking and colourfully kinetic. Everyone should agree, however, that the singing and orchestral playing couldn’t possibly sound any better than it did at Saturday’s opening performance at the Four Seasons Centre. In particular, Canadian soprano Layla Claire and mezzo Wallis Giunta as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, sing and dramatically embody their roles as if written by Mozart specifically for them. It is uncanny how wonderful they are at singing the gorgeous arias and ensemble pieces. They also imbue every stage moment with an engaging, youthful earnestness. Claire and Giunta are on a plane of their own in this production, which otherwise stretches credulity over and over again, starting with its visual twisting of the original plot to its overuse of heavy-handed symbolic imagery. How many bleeding hearts does a person with an IQ over 50 have to see to understand that betrayal hurts? And how many giant-sized pins and butterflies to show that free will is limited? Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte provide us with more than enough material in this 3-plus hour comedy (in the old sense, meaning no one is left dead on the stage floor at the end of the play). The story is simple: a wily old coot, Don Alfonso, talks Ferrando and Guglielmo to test the fidelity of their fiancées (the aforementioned sisters). With the help of the young women’s maid Despina, complications ensue. But true love prevails and the two couples will, we hope, live happily ever after. The story may be simple, Mozart’s music is anything but. And this cast manages to ace all of it. British baritone Sir Thomas Allen is perfect as Don Alfonso. Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl is an ideal Despina. Canadian baritone Robert Gleadow and American tenor Paul Appleby do a fine job as the soldier-suitors. But it is the women who own the opera in every sense — just as COC music director Johannes Debus owns the score and the orchestra pit. His is a Mozart as clear and delicate and evocative as anyone could dream for. And Debus played his own recitative accompaniments at a modern grand piano that were marvels of cleverness and humour. It’s too bad that Egoyan couldn’t leave well enough alone. His interventions — the most significant being turning the couples’ amorous intrigues into a Victorian version of Big Brother, with a chorus of students watching the story unfold under Alfonso’s guidance — muddied instead of clarified the story. Gratuitous comedic schtick further added to the clutter on stage. If I had walked in to the Four Seasons Centre with no knowledge of this opera, I seriously doubt I would have been able to make heads or tails of what was really going on — and why. Thank goodness the orchestra and singers saved the night. John Terauds