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Review: Cosi Fan Tutte is an opera for our time

Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is the latest offering from NZ Opera, and it is rather sumptuous. 

In the opening scene, two soldiers Gulgielmo (Julien Van Mellaerts) and Ferrando (Jonathan Abernathy) propose to their girlfriends Fiordiligi (Emma Pearson) and Dorabella (Hanna Hipp) in a well to do bar.  

When the girls depart, presumably to freshen up, the men loudly proclaim the virtues of their  fiancés, who happen to be sisters, and how confident they are the women will remain forever faithful. Listening to this boastful swagger is Don Alfonso (Andrew Foster-Williams), a friend to both and as it turns out a full on misogynist who doesn’t believe women can be loyal to husbands or lovers.

To prove it, he convinces Gulgielmo and Ferrando to test their beloveds by pretending to go off to battle and return as disguised strangers to woo each others prospective bride.

Initially insulted and reluctant the men eventually agree. To ensure the plan succeeds, Don Alfonso bribes the barmaid Despina (Georgia Jameson Emms) to encourage the young women to date other men. 

What could possibly go wrong? 

As you can imagine in this 18th century sitcom there are declarations of love, grief, anger, and claims of betrayal. I won’t spoil the plot if you haven’t seen the show, but it does get quite convoluted in a good way and it is very amusing. 

The entire staging of this opera is wonderful. While the story and music may be over 200 years old, the the design team have delivered a very chic and contemporary set which looks fabulous and has modules that both move and separate depending on scene requirements. These design elements, modern costuming and the use of cellphones and even a laptop place the story in the 2020s which makes it very relatable without betraying its origins. 

It is of course the music and the singing that brings people to see this kind of production. Mozart’s score is brought to life here beautifully by the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, and the entire cast are simply superb.  What I enjoyed most about this opera was the way the main cast played with one another in such a convincing way and brought out the innate humour in the story. Pearson and Hipp in particular really did appear to be sisters and take delight in one another’s company. From modern little dance moves, to side ways glances they were in sync the entire night. My favourite moment was when Dorabella, in a moment of grief shreds a load of tissues on stage – it was touching, and hilarious. 

Cosi Fan Tutte has been accused of being boring and sexist, and a little unbelievable. While it is quite long and some scenes repetitive, it is actually a very touching and funny production. As for being sexist, well, yeah it kind of is and indeed the actual title of the opera is clearly a dig at women. 

On the surface Dorabella and Fiordiligi are deliciously melodramatic and seemingly fickle, but let’s face it, so are the men! 

Indeed when you consider that the women are devastated that their fiancés are supposedly going off to war and an uncertain future, isn’t it understandable that they would be vulnerable to the overt proffers of love and affection from a stranger. What’s more, the men engage in some rather predatory and intense courting both as legitimate lovers and their handsome alter egos. Think about it. The men actually go as far as claiming to drink poison to manipulate these women to falling for their fake personas. So far from slating women, this opera actually proves that everyone is capable of manipulation and that human nature has not changed all that much over the centuries. 

Ultimately, whatever we think of the plot and its moral lessons, it doesn’t really matter does it? Opera is all about spectacle, gorgeous music and heavenly voices and Cosi Fan Tutte delivers all of that beautifully. 

Photo credit – Jinki Cambronero


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