I have never seen anything quite as disgraceful on a stage as Seattle Opera’s Cosi Fan Tutte, and that’s saying something. I’ve seen unpleasant things, even shocking things. I’ve even seen Cats. Twice. That I can accept. (Well, not Cats.) We should want to be challenged by what we see, and occasionally to confront humanity’s dark side. We should not, however, be expected to laugh at a protracted rape joke. But in the time of #metoo, Seattle Opera expects us to do just that.
Cosi Fan Tutte is sometimes accused of misogyny. I would argue that the libretto is more broadly misanthropic. The characters are cynical, self-absorbed, cruel, capricious. There is no redemption—just tacit acceptance that their nature is human nature. The librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, may have been correct. After all, the audience this weekend guffawed as the vulgar direction turned McCaw Hall into a rapey Grand Guignol.
It isn’t just bad. It’s vulgar. It’s stupid. It’s the perfect opera for the Trump era in every way you don’t want it to be.
What Went Wrong?
It only takes one a minute to say what went right with this Cosi, so we’ll start with that. The singers did admirably. A few arias were gorgeous. The acting and choreography were initially solid—just the right amount of capering for an opera buffa. However, as a favor to the singers, I won’t mention them by name. If I were them, I would strike this production from my resume.
Cosi is that rare kind of opera that can be staged in a contemporary setting with little tweaking and no loss of important context. The vapid, calculating characters, their sexist tirades and classist narcissism are timeless, after all. Seattle’s production overextends its cheeky supertitles and hipster stereotypes, but some of it is clever, and at least they tried.
And that’s it. That is all that is good. The “contemporary” set design is dreadful, but that isn’t Seattle Opera’s fault…not entirely. The beige, deconstructed, stucco monstrosity was designed—in what can only be perceived as an act of obvious sabotage—by the Royal Opera House. Not that Seattle Opera needed any help undermining its own productions. (It was a sign that Seattle Opera had relinquished any remaining ambition to be more than a regional venue when it closed its set shop last year. That seemed like the nadir until now.)
What really went wrong in Cosi is everything regarding the direction. After a smooth, albeit bland start, the acting quickly plunges into a frenzy of mugging, pelvic-thrusts, screeching, physical assault, all played for laughs. It is neither funny nor faithful to the material. Beyond that, it fundamentally undermines the narrative, in which seductions should believably occur.
The blame doesn’t fall solely on Stage Director Harry Fehr (although we should be relieved if this Seattle Opera debut were his last production here). This is a re-staging of a 2006 production by Jonathan Miller, who is credited as Production Designer. Shame on him, too. And then there is General Director for Seattle Opera, Aidan Lang. That Lang would blithely allow this travesty to proceed as far it did calls his leadership into question. Then again, based on the groping, philistine crassness on display, he appears rather in step with national politics.
And yet, how unhearing must these men be to the national conversation of this moment.
“Thus Do They All,” Indeed
A proper staging of Cosi fan Tutte can be ribald, certainly. For those who need a recap: On a bet, two young officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, disguise themselves and seduce their own fiancees, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. All of this is orchestrated by the cynic, Don Alfonso, who pulls numerous, extravagant tricks to put the women in impossible situations, all to prove that no woman is capable of fidelity. He is aided by Despina, the equally cynical servant of the sisters. It takes this whole crew (and more) to twist the women into forsaking their promises.
Cosi‘s misanthropy is not to be bowdlerized, nor should it be turned into mere barbarism, as Fehr and company do. The opera’s comment on human irrationality countered the dominant discourse of the Enlightenment, which emphasizes human rationality, even perfectibility. (This debate persists.) The opera’s dark wisdom is won at the expense of the women, but as it is a farce, it still ends happily for everyone. In Seattle Opera’s case, there is no such reward. They instead pursue cheap laughs at the expense of everyone—not just the women on stage or in the audience, but anyone with an iota of dignity.
And so it is here that I state that I did not stay for the second act. I have walked out of many Seattle Opera productions because they are so bland, so bad, that I couldn’t justify wasting my time further. But I never wrote about them.
This time, there could be no redemption in Act II. It is categorically impossible to excuse the abject artlessness of Act I. Hence, I write this because I feel compelled to actually warn against attendance. Especially avoid it if this is to be someone’s introduction to opera.
An “Opera About Sex?” If You’re A Dotard.
One could have guessed we were in for a disaster just based on Seattle Opera’s marketing for Cosi. The tagline they’ve been touting is “Mozart’s Opera About Sex.” Apparently, they presume that no one else has seen another Mozart opera–really, any opera written in Italian.
The Barber of Seville (Rossini) is a farce in which two men, Count Almaviva and a Don Bartholo, pursue a teenage girl. Its sequel, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (Da Ponte again), sees that same Count try to invoke his droit du seigneur and sleep with his servant, Susanna, on her wedding night. (The whole play follows the successful attempt to thwart his desire.) Don Giovanni is a libertine whose licentiousness is central to his downfall. He tries to screw pretty much every woman he encounters (once) while stabbing holes in the men.
Sex and romance are central to countless operas. To single out Cosi as “Mozart’s Opera About Sex” is a cheap ploy at best, but in a way it disclaims the directors’ disdain for basic dramaturgy, let alone nuance.
I know you might be thinking, “It can’t be that bad” or “I have to go see this trainwreck.”
Don’t. Just don’t. If you want to debase yourself, there are plenty of absolutely gut-wrenching depictions of rape that you can watch at home that aren’t for laughs. If you want to revel in misanthropy and questionable artistic choices involving rape, try Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. If the homophobia of the characters in that film feels too unaddressed, go get your heart turned inside out by Boys Don’t Cry.
You really earn your misanthropy with those films. At Seattle Opera’s Cosi Fan Tutte, it is simply all too easy to hate everyone and everything.
Featured image by Philip Newton via Seattle Opera.