This is my favorite among the Peter Sellars productions of Mozart's comedic masterpieces. In fact, it's the only one I remotely like at all.
Cosi Fan Tutte is the last of the three magnificent collaborations between Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, artistic soul mates if ever there were any. It was written during a dismal time towards the end of Mozart's short life. Family health issues and the usual financial stressors were taking their toll on Mozart's strength, but never on his relentlessly exquisite musical output.
Cosi has the most cynical underpinnings of any of Mozart's operas, which are usually imbued with his characteristic warmth and optimistic humanism. Yet, despite Cosi's bleak perspective on love and loyalty, the music is ecstatically gorgeous, and in its sheer beauty perhaps exceeds any of Mozart's other operatic works. It requires perfect singing and flawless vocal technique, as do all of Mozart's operas. This dvd is far from meeting any of the requirements of great singing called for by Mozart's work, but it does have other marginal entertainment values for either those who are not interested in great singing and would just like to be able to make it through an entire performance of the lengthy Cosi, or for those who are so familiar with this master work that they can take time for parody, which is more what this production is about.
Cosi has a rather checkered past. Unfortunately for Mozart, Emperor Joseph II died shortly after the opera's opening. The theatres in Vienna closed down in mourning, and that was the end of Cosi for Mozart's generation. During the 19th century, when Mozart worship was in full swing, the sexually conservative critics and audiences were horrified that Mozart would have applied his divine gifts to such a tawdry libretto about two slutty sisters and their instantaneous infidelity during their lovers' absence. In order to justify performances of this gorgeous but racy opera during that era, more chaste and respectable librettos were inserted to replace the morally shocking original.
You certainly won't find the kind of glorious Mozartean singing on this Sellars dvd that you can find on some of the more spectacular recorded performances of Cosi. On dvd, Daniel Barenboim's Cosi is graced by the wondrous Dorothea Rauschmann as Fiordiligi. This Cosi attempts a satirical point of view, too, but it comes off more as lowbrow slapstick, and is not as funny, original or as true to Mozart's intentions as is the Sellars.
On cd, Barenboim's Cosi on the Erato label has fabulous singing and his brilliant conducting of the Berlin Philharmonic moves along at exactly the right pace to enhance the wit and eroticism of this multilayered, climax-oriented ensemble work. And of course, there's the great classic version on EMI, conducted by Karl Bohm, with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig. Recently, Guild released a treasure of a Cosi from the early 1950's, conducted by Fritz Busch with Sena Jurinac as Fiordiligi, lovingly restored by Richard Caniell, the patron saint of historic opera lovers everywhere.
While the Sellars production lacks superior vocal talent and skilled conducting (granted, two of the most important components of great opera) it somewhat compensates with a production concept fairly close, I believe, to some of Mozart's ideas about his characters and their interpersonal dynamics.
The setting is "Despina's" - a tacky diner in the late 1980's - located in Florida or someplace like that. The girls are bored, boring and shallow. The emphasis here is on male emotions and male suffering, and the women are portrayed as pure idiots, as opposed to the more vulnerable and sensitive men. Unlike the women, the men (including Don Alfonso), are not opera buffa caricatures, but are authentically wounded by their lovers' triviality and betrayal.
The most charismatic figure in the cast is the Despina, Sue Ellen Kuzma. She shows her stuff in the finale to Act One - one of Mozart's greatest, among his many marvelous, complex finales. Here, in order to heal the alleged suicides of the allegedly desperate lovers, Despina disguises herself as 'il medico', Mozart's hilarious parody of Franz Mesmer, the high profile and controversial Viennese doctor who invented hypnosis (then called 'animal magnetism' - hence the typical magnet jokes in this scene). Kuzma plays the doctor as a very New Age, very California Shirley MacLaine type, testing and adjusting the men's auras, chakras, and other body parts, resulting, of course, in their miraculous healing.
All in all, musically this production is on a pretty low level considering the heights to which Mozartean singing can rise. By no means is it bad singing - it's just not great singing. It's more driven by its theatrical concepts than by any particular musicality or outstanding artistry. The humor is genuine, though, and I admit to having watched it several times and having laughed quite a bit. Somehow, Sellars' insights into Cosi work well as theatre. They're not, by any means, the only way of looking at this opera. But his perspectve did bring a fresh and contemporary accessibility to an eighteenth century work. It's more fun to watch it with a friend who is Mozart savvy - you can share the jokes together.