Cosi fan tutte is an ideal opera to produce on a budget. It doesn’t need a big cast (six singers) and it is a light fluffy opera with glorious music by Mozart that is sufficiently well known to sell well. It is the opera the newly formed “Gauteng Opera” chose to launch their performance history on 2 March 2014 at The State Theatre in Pretoria.
Marcus Desando has staged Cosi fan tutte in the present and it is a daring production indeed, beginning in a men’s locker room with men showering, naked of course, through the first scene. For fear that every person in Gauteng who likes naked men will buy a ticket and then blame me for their disappointment, I point out that there is no frontal nudity at all, never mind full frontal nudity. Perverts can stay home, nothing to see. Speaking about nothing to see, there are also no programmes. The synopsis is displayed at the beginning of each scene. People are encouraged to consult the website for the information. Despite this there were very few people who bothered the rest of us with their mobile phone lights during the performance, for which I was profoundly grateful. I know many of the singers of the Gauteng Opera, having regularly attended the performances of the BTE and the Black Tie Ensemble, the forerunners of the Gauteng Opera, but I itched to know who the deeper baritone playing the role of Don Alfonso was – it was Douwe Bijkersma (bass baritone). The role of Guglielmo was brilliantly played by Aubrey Lodewyk (baritone – one of the highlight performances of the show) while Ferrando was played by Pheny Modiane (tenor). Fiordiligi was played by Nozuko Teto (soprano) and Dorabella by Annemarie Steenkamp (mezzo soprano). The other highlight performance was given by Teresa de Wit (mezzo soprano) as Despina.
The title is notoriously misogynist and it translates from the Italian with the meaning that “all women are like that” with “that” being fickle, unreliable and untrustworthy. From this point of view the opera has always vaguely irritated me. Marcus Desando’s contemporary setting of the production highlighted the sexism and misogyny implicit behind the heavenly music of Mozart. It was very much more overtly sexual than any other production of Cosi fan tutte that I have ever previously seen and the predatory and manipulative behaviour of the “Moroccans” (usually Albanians) passed from creepy into abusive. I moved from somewhat irritated into the distinctly uncomfortable zone.
Now I, perversely, like to be made uncomfortable at the theatre. It means that I am being challenged, being made to think. The opera’s perverse sexist gender construction contrasted sharply with the generally upbeat and funny staging of this opera with its absurd and implausible plot. The women are portrayed as easily duped, naive, gullible and then they are manipulated and even somewhat indecently assaulted. Then the men forgive them because “all women are like that”. In the 21st century this is no longer an acceptable premise, even as a light diversion. While I don’t say that Cosi fan tutte should never be performed, (there would be very little choice for opera producers if all potentionally offensive opera was withdrawn from the repertoire) it should should certainly never be performed without a strongly worded disclaimer and a currently politically correct component to the programme.
All round this was a charming, if still imperfect, (I’ll leave it to others to outline one or two of its imperfections – I’m still rather enjoying the fact that we have any opera at all) production with which to launch what one hopes is going to be a tremendously successful and viable opera company. I take this opportunity to wish Arnold Cloete, Marcus Desando and their team every good wish for the future.
Cosi fan tutte runs until 9 February 2014 with a Tribute to Neels Hansen on Wednesday 5 March 2014. Attendance at the latter is free, but tickets must be reserved in advance.