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"Don't touch me" Mozart

Claus Spahn on Patrice Chereau's meticulous staging of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" at the 57th Festival international d'art lyrique in Aix en Provence.

We are familiar with the images of terrible catastrophes, the survivors hugging each other in silence. They need to be near each other, they seek comfort in the cluster of other people. In the open air theatre in Aix en Provence, with the final bars of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte", we are left looking at a bunch of similarly distressed souls. Three pairs, shaken to the core. Six people who have experienced something appalling. You feel a need to put a blanket over their shoulders and steer them away from the disaster area. It's going to take some time for them to recover from the shock and become themselves again. Of course, there's no visible evidence of a catastrophe.

The walls of the battered theatre courtyard in which the heroes stand, their heads hanging, extend grey and empty into the night, just as they did at the beginning of the evening. And the simple robes they're all wearing, typical of Mozart's times, are still intact. Only the light casts a lunar coolness on the scene. In "Cosi fan tutte", the destruction takes place in the hearts, not on the stage. The "scuola degli amanti", the school of lovers to which the old "philosopher" Don Alfonso sends four sensitive young people daring them to test the women's loyalty in partner swapping games, releases a hurricane of conflicting passions which destroys every last perceptional certainty. By the end, Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Ferrando are completely at sea.

Perhaps the guests at the premiere feel much the same way; it's hard to gauge the effects of the impact. So beautiful and cool, so touchingly simple and artificial at the same time; the opera production towers up into the Provencal night sky. Patrice Chereau was the director. Twenty nine years ago he made theatre history with his "Ring" Cycle at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, only to turn a cold shoulder to the operatic form. You can count the pieces that he's done outside of his film work on one hand - right at the beginning of his career, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann", Mozart's "Lucio Silla", Alban Berg's operas "Wozzeck" and "Lulu". This mini-repertoire earned Chereau an almost cult following. He has an aura of a musical theatre miracle-maker who turns everything he touches to gold.

Eleven years after his "Don Giovanni" which was conducted by Daniel Barenboim at the Salzburg festival, Chereau has returned to the operatic stage. It's easier to talk about what he doesn't do with his "Cosi": he does not stage a turbulent comedy of errors reliant on the joke with the stick-on beard. He doesn't name a specific place, a specific society, or a particular world for Mozart's tangled love game. He doesn't speculate about the psychological motivation of the characters. And he's not into directorial additions. There's none of the usual "Cosi fan tutte" paraphernalia: huge red plastic hearts that gradually deflate, lots of happy paint-bucket guzzling, praline-gobbling geese and modish costume orgies, the white neon light of a cynical human rat laboratory, and let's not forget Hans Neuenfels' treacherous hounds of sexual craving, tearing at the leash of constancy in Fiordiligi's "Come Scoglio" aria: God help us when they break free!

None of that from Chereau. He gives us nothing but an empty room, the characters, the music and the breath-taking virtuosity of a director converting sound and sensitivity into movement. A minutely planned choreography of staggering lovers, a perpetual play of gestures of retreat and desire, the aggressive attacks and fearful yielding, circling disorientation and depressed breakdowns. Chereau starts with "Cosi fan tutte" where he left off in his Salzburg "Don Giovanni": stylised human wrestling matches against overwhelming loneliness define the scene, then as now.

Just as Mozart's ensembles are a seamless blend of candid emotions and the ironic-cynical "as if", Chereau's production shows the synchronicity of contradictory psychological states. In the "Adio" quartet of the first act, in which the men mime passionate farewell poses, the women wilt from the sheer pain of the loss, and Don Alfonso is almost exploding with laughter, the protagonists form a winding human chain – clawed creatures that can't bear to leave one another and yet tear away desperately in all directions. Or on their own, searching for a place of inner security Chereau's characters swirl about on the empty stage like individual floating particles in an unmixed substance. Dorabella crawls under an iron staircase, Fiordiligi is washed up on a dock which extends over the orchestra pit. From there she sings her "Per Pieta" aria and Erin Wall gives her most powerful performance. Her lament does not express regret for a breach of fidelity, but rather the deep sadness of the final farewell. There is no chance of return to the old love for this Fiordiligi.

It is much to the credit of conductor Daniel Harding that the ensemble of singers, with the excellent Elina Garanca (Dorabella), Shawn Mathey (Ferrando), Stephane Degout (Guglielmo), Barbara Bonney (Despina) and Ruggiero Raimondi (Don Alfonso) repeatedly display such captivating moments of oblivious introspection, only to be pulled back into the maelstrom of events a moment later. Harding drives the action forward with pulsating energy, sharp accents and elastic phrases. Then in the lyrical passages the retreat to a tender pianissimo is all the more pronounced, supporting and buttressing the singers. Harding has clearly matured since he conducted "Don Giovanni" in Aix seven years ago. His Mozart style is now more controlled, more contoured, and no longer reliant solely on the stormy boisterousness of youth.

All Photographs: Josep ROS Ribas. Credit: MAXPPP

Above all, Harding's vitality (and that of the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra) lends the performance its cutting edges and raucous touch. For there is something self-sufficient in Chereau's highly aesthetic, flawless art of directing. Chereau creates his characters with a flourish reminiscent of a calligrapher painting with his eyes closed. No stroke goes amiss, no blot clouds the image. Even the cones of light created by the spotligh ts paint meaningful figures on the stage. This all creates a precious, fragile yet in its perfection inaccessible entity, a "don't touch me" Mozart that for all its subtlety and balance is lost in itself, a darling of the gods. Harding's music provides the appropriate harsh and austere counterbalance.

Yet Chereau's ingenious classicism is both infatuating and infuriating, and one can't help wondering what he wants. Four years ago he said in an interview that he had got all he could from opera as a medium. His time with opera was over, he said, cinema was all that interested him now. "There was a time when my expectations of opera were incredibly high, when it was theatre to the highest power, a dream." He fulfilled this dream in Bayreuth with Wagner's Ring. So what does it mean when he now returns to the opera in Aix, with such perfection of form? Is it just to show he can still do it like nobody else if he only puts his mind to it? Or is this "Cosi" really the fulfilment of a long-time dream?


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on July 14, 2005.

Claus Spahn is a music journalist for Die Zeit.

Translation: nb, jab. - let's talk european