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Culture | The school of lovers, redefined

Feminism meets Mozart in Opera da Camera’s Così fan tutte

On Saturday, February 20, Opera da Camera served up its last performance of a delightful evening of humour and song, with an intimate production of Così fan tutte, proving that size doesn’t matter. A miniature orchestra and scaled-down staging harmonized with a splash of 1920s panache and some exquisite singing, while a pre-performance lecture on the opera’s feminist undertones made for a thought-provoking convergence of song and community.

Così fan tutte, first performed in 1790, counts among Mozart’s most famous comic operas. Its protagonists are the gullible soldiers Guglielmo and Ferrando, who disguise themselves as aristocrats and attempt to seduce each other’s unwitting fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, in a twisted competition to prove that their fiancées, as all women, are fickle and thus are inherently unfaithful. Overseeing the gambit is cynical philosophaster Don Alfonso, who, aided by the scheming housekeeper Despina, interjects his own intentions into the adulterous experiment.

Opera da Camera wove a fun and vibrant presentation of this Mozartean warhorse, imbued with a creative roaring twenties spin. From Art Deco set pieces to glittering flapper costumes, the 18th-century storyline came to life within a Gatsby aesthetic.

Preceding the performance was a half-hour lecture by Marie-Pierre Poulin, librarian at the Montreal Goethe-Institut, investigating Così fan tutte through a feminist lens. Poulin introduced Mozart’s biography and the context surrounding the opera’s composition before delving into possible subtexts.

Every detail amounted not to a mere performance, but to an experience.

The Enlightenment, an era defined by intellect and reason, was at its peak as Mozart set pen to paper. The plot of Così fan tutte, then, might convey an Enlightenment-style science experiment, an objective observation of romantic cause and effect. Poulin pointed out that Enlightenment society viewed women as the very opposite of its rationalist ideals: “Women were considered unreasonable and unpredictable by nature,” Poulin said at the lecture. The opera’s title alludes to this, translating to “thus do all women” – meaning that all women are, like Fiordiligi and Dorabella, innately impressionable.

Contrary to the assumption implicit in the title, the women of the opera embody scandalous autonomy, unheard of back in 1790. “[They] take lovers in full sight of the public,” Poulin added, “staging actions completely against what was expected of women at the time.” With Opera da Camera’s 1920s twist in mind, Poulin drew attention to the archetype of the flapper girl, a fiercely independent woman who “smokes, drives, and has sexual liaisons.”

These flappers were skillfully brought to life by soprano Carol Leger and mezzo-soprano Kathrin Welte, who were sublimely charming in their respective roles as Fiordiligi and Dorabella. Leger’s sparkling voice and unceasingly concerned facial expression recalled the poised melodrama of Downton Abbey, while Welte’s emphatic pouting and mischievous glances harkened back to the leading ladies of silent film. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are traditionally portrayed as dim and coquettish Neapolitan noblewomen, so it was refreshing to see them coiffed and garbed as emancipated, freewheeling flappers in Opera da Camera’s vintage adaptation – especially in light of Poulin’s discussion.

The male leads shone as well, with tenor David Menzies as Ferrando joining baritone Laurent Deleuil’s Guglielwmo in a comedic duo à la Abbott and Costello, equal parts clumsy and conniving. Their mastery of physical comedy – demonstrated in a scene in which the disguised lovers feign near-death in order to win the ladies’ sympathy, with Menzies and Deleuil writhing exaggeratedly on the floor after drinking fake poison – was matched by their controlled voices, tight harmonies, and suave delivery.

[T]he women of the opera embody scandalous autonomy, unheard of back in 1790. “[They] take lovers in full sight of the public,” Poulin added, “staging actions completely against what was expected of women at the time.”

Supporting roles, however, were underwhelming – though, fortunately, mezzo-soprano Meagan Zantingh’s over-the-top antics as Despina compensated for her strained vocals. Zantingh’s brand of comedy was, in fact, a highlight of the show: her impersonations, disguises, and aptly smug stage presence left the audience in stitches.

Opera da Camera’s Così fan tutte celebrated smallness, with the seven-voice chorus as just one example. An “orchestra” of only five instruments performed on stage alongside the singers rather than ensconced in a pit, while a cleverly minimalist set design lent fluidity and efficiency to each scenic transition.

What truly made the production stand out, however, lays beyond the stage. Opera da Camera’s dedication to intimacy was noticeable as soon as one entered the Théâtre Le Château, from the table of Mozart-themed snacks to the handwritten admission tickets and the cozy audience that gathered in folding chairs for Poulin’s lecture. The lecture elevated the performance even further, tasking the audience not only to enjoy the show, but to ask questions and draw connections between the drama on stage and the social issues that concern our everyday lives. Every detail amounted not to a mere performance, but to an experience – a warm welcome into the oft-intimidating world of classical opera, which Opera da Camera proved can be relaxed, friendly, and fun.