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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Così fan tutte, 2019. The ubiquitous butterflies represent a metamorphosis, but also a creature that is reduced to its beauty, captured and pinned to a board for display.

Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

  • Così fan tutte
  • The Canadian Opera Company
  • Playing at: The Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Tuesday
  • Reviewed by: Jenna Simeonov

In case his production of Così fan tutte was a tad confusing for the audiences of the Canadian Opera Company, Atom Egoyan includes in the program a merciful director’s note. He anticipates his audience will be surprised, firstly by his literal take on the opera’s subtitle, The School for Lovers, and secondly by the new layer of drama that he has discovered – or perhaps invented.

The 1790 opera by Mozart and Da Ponte – which famously pits male insecurity against female stereotypes, setting it all to utterly gorgeous music – is built on a wager: Two men bet with the older and more cynical Don Alfonso that, given the opportunity, their girlfriends would not cheat on them. Their ladies are unflappably faithful and the men are willing to bet money on it. And so, the men fake getting drafted, return in disguise as a pair of exotic friends of Alfonso’s and proceed to hit on each other’s girlfriends, to see what sticks.

Yet Egoyan sees, hidden somewhere between the lines of Da Ponte’s libretto, a second wager. Making the fairly major assumption that the women are aware of the men’s experiment, he writes, “I was curious to explore what might happen to the dynamics of the opera if there were a parallel wager with the two women.”

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Of course, it is fun to wonder, “what if?” That benign question is often the root of a successful concept production, where something is drawn out of the space between the notes and the words, and the story is enhanced. Yet Egoyan’s curiosity falls short of a true concept and he finds himself boxed in when the blunt evidence of the libretto fails to support it.

Kirsten MacKinnon as Fiordiligi and Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella in Così fan tutte. The idea of the women being in-the-know has more success in this 2019 revival than in the production’s 2014 premiere.

Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

The idea of the women being in-the-know has more success in this 2019 revival than in the production’s 2014 premiere. Egoyan places the women in the midst of the action – feigning sleep – as the men work out the details of their wager. Before they even sing their first notes, the women are wise to the game and ready to play along. It’s a fun bit of feminism, but it also means that their every line has great potential for being dishonest.

Do they really think their boyfriends are the bee’s knees? Or are the women just hamming it up because they know the men are listening? Are they sad to see their lovers called to the military, or do they weep crocodile tears to boost their boyfriends’ egos? And most importantly: When they meet the mysterious foreign strangers, how much of their attraction is real and how much is an act? We have no baseline of the women’s true, unaffected feelings for their lovers, a frighteningly weak foundation for an already perilous plot.

Egoyan is helped by the well-paced work of maestro Bernard Labadie and an extraordinary cast of singing actors. The four lovers – Kirsten MacKinnon (Fiordiligi); Emily D’Angelo (Dorabella); Ben Bliss (Ferrando); and Johannes Kammler (Guglielmo) – are perfectly cast and excellent singers of this style. The two women do well at showing when they’re putting on an act, either for the sake of their lovers or for the two architects of this wager, Don Alfonso (Russell Braun) and the ladies' spunky maid, Despina (Tracy Dahl), who shares Alfonso’s disdain for monogamy. But for those in the audience who sat too far away to clearly read the faces of MacKinnon and D’Angelo, Egoyan’s plot twist is simply too subtle to carry the opera’s three hours.

By the second act, Egoyan’s concept stops adding to the story of Così. The women shift from secretly playing along to discovering true feelings for someone other than their boyfriends. Perhaps the moral of this production is that we don’t always choose the right partner the first time around (ain’t that the truth); but, we don’t need this imaginary “parallel wager” to get us there.

Director Atom Egoyan’s curiosity falls short of a true concept and he finds himself boxed in when the blunt evidence of the libretto fails to support it.

Michael Cooper/Canadian Opera Company

If the girls were indeed playing along with the boys' game, it’s not quite the empowering act that Egoyan imagines – it’s women, playing dumb. And though he adds a bit of invention to the work, Così has always trod a very thin line between giving agency to women and turning them into experimental subjects. Debra Hanson’s stunning design is dominated by symmetry and comparison: Frida Kahlo’s painting Two Fridas is a frequent backdrop for the action, letting us ponder the two sides to these women. The ubiquitous butterflies – on costumes, hanging on walls and floating mid-air – represent a metamorphosis, but also a creature that is reduced to its beauty, captured and pinned to a board for display.

Egoyan writes himself a safety net in his notes: “While we can’t know the specific nature of this wager, we gather it concerns marriage.”

Though his primary medium is film, Egoyan does share a bit of the same confirmation bias of this sort that I tend to find exasperating among opera directors, specifically those who insist on using an existing opera to tell a story that’s simply not in the libretto.

Così fan tutte runs until Feb. 23 (coc.ca).

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