Covid fan tutte – Entertaining time-piece with Salonen and an all-Star cast

COVID-19 looming onstage. © Stefan Bremer

When the Finnish National Operan and Ballet first announced Covid fan tutte, a contemporary adaptation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s timeless opera buffa Così fan tutte, KV 588 (1789-90), I must admit of being somewhat skeptical.

However, the more I though about it, the more promising the project started to appear. The new libretto was to be written by Minna Lindgren, a formidable writer and journalist with profound knowledge and an ever-apt sense of irony.

Onstage there would be a cast of marvellous stature, Finnish singers on the top of their game, now stranded in their homeland due COVID-19 countermeasures. And in the pit, the FNOB Artistic Partner Esa-Pekka Salonen would be conducting the splendid house orchestra and chorus.

Originally, this August-September slot was reserved for Die Walküre (1854-56), the next installment of the new FNOB production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1852-74), augured with Das Rheingold (1852-54) in August 2019, with Salonen conducting. The initital plan was to stage Die Walküre in April, but due lockdown, the production was first postponed until this fall, and then again until next January, with Susanna Mälkki at the helm.

With Die Walküre gone, the FNOB was in search for a new season opening that would meet the both the safety measures and audience expectations. While there were many ways to play it safe with standard repertoire, the house decided upon taking a risk with a time-piece, tailor-made for the occasion.

Yet, time was the luxury the creative team was short of. The new concept needed to be developed within one month in the spring, thus limiting the options available. Thus it was decided that rewriting one of the staples of the repertoire was the goal to pursue. Though doable, crafting a whole new libretto, in thematically, literally and musically intelligible guise, within one month was by no means an easy task.

In course of the process, Lindgren ventured occasionally outside Così, in order to find suitable musical material for to adapt. Therefore, we get to hear an account of the Coronavirus case statistics set to Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from Don Giovanni, KV 527 (1787) and encounter a mask-wearing interviewee taking his cue from the dumbstruck Papageno from the first act of Die Zauberflöte, KV 620 (1791).

”Mozart was a mischievous and the most imaginative person, who was not bound by conventions. He was a renewer. And I’m convinced that he would have been thrilled to join this production, given that many of his operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro, are based on contemporary subjects. I say this with the same authority as anyone, because we cannot really know, but I’m still sure of it”, Salonen said in the FNOB press conference back in August.

FNOB Artistic Partner Esa-Pekka Salonen.
© Veikko Kähkönen

Squeezing a two-act opera into an hour-and-a-half overall scheme also meant significant cuts, including, most notably, the clear-cut omission of original recitatives.

”I know this will upset many people, but I really can’t stand secco recitatives. I’ve always found them boring. In The Magic Flute, whenever I hear Papageno announce himself ’Ja, ich bin der Vogelfängler’ I feel I could just sink underfround. And for once I had the license from the Artistic Director to say to Minna that this time we would not have a single recitative. That was so liberating.”

As a result, Covid fan tutte was constructed ”a series of scenes from the Corona-spring”. Filled with references to the COVID-19-related events and how they were perceived through the Finnish media, the opera is, in its essence an absurdist comedy.

”That is, of course, an age-old means to survive in a crisis. The idea is to take a monster, be it COVID-19 or Hitler and use comedy as means to disarm the monster in the manner of Mel Brooks. This doesn’t mean that we would not acknowledge the seriousness of the pandemic. Instead we aim to provide the people with tools to cope with the situation. And here we had an unique chance to hold a mirror against ourselves under these times.”

Sung in Finnish, Covid fan tutte is, in its essence, a Finnish commentary on the pandemic. Some of its dramaturgy and imagery is quintessentially Finnish, whereas many elements do carry a more universal meaning. To some extent, the production is intelligible for international audiences as well, but its full scope might be grasped only by someone familiar with the Finnish scene.

Yet, one should bear in mind that this has in fact been the case for many of operas now in the standard repertoire too. Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691) can only be fully grasped by one familiar with England’s political scene at the time. Neither can Fidelio (1805-14) be detached from Beethoven’s contemporary roots in the ideals of the French Revolution.

In any case, observing the vivid reactions of the FNOB audience confirmed, that the choice of concept was a successfully communicative one.

As a bittersweet reminder to what was lost, Covid fan tutte opens, not with Mozart, but Wagner’s prelude to Die Walküre. Salonen and the smaller-scale FNOB orchestra charged the prelude with astounding intensity, clad in luminous clarity of texture and phrasing. The oscillating strings carried the root of the wintry storm, pierced by woodwind icicles and brass howls, climaxing in rolling thunder of the timpani.

And here the music comes to a halt over a one long timpani fermata. The Interface Manager, portrayed with a formidable dead-pan by Sanna-Kaisa Palo, appears, announcing the cancellation of Die Walküre and commanding Salonen to switch over to Mozart. The mood is tuned over, as the orchestra ventures into the spirited overture to Così fan tutte.

The stage action begins to unravel. We encounter unemployed Wagner singers being recast in a Mozart buffa, with the Interface Manager seemingly writing the scenery as she goes. This bewilderment becomes the source for parody, en passant. Wisely, Lindgren does not linger in ideas beyond their natural potential, but quickly lets the dramaturgy move forward.

Government briefing. © Stefan Bremer

The main characters of the original Mozart – Da Ponte comedy are transformed into ministers and health officials, issuing government briefings, fatefully staged accoring to the visual appeal of their real-life counterparts, even including a sign language interpreter.

The naivety of the health-department in its initial optimism regarding the pandemic is treated with the clarity of hindsight, often resulting in befitting irony. Occasionally, the libretto resorts to some boomer humour, too, luckily in a self-conscious manner.

One of the key moments in Lindgern’s text is its reworking of Despina’s Aria into a gripping portrayal of the isolation brought upon the seventy plus people by the COVID-19 lockdown measures. Caring by isolating as a solitary effort can be seen as a part of both conscious and unconscious dehumanizing of the elderly, a process sneaking its way through our western society.

Absolutely nailed by Karita Mattila, both in terms of astounding vocal line and enthralling stage presence, the aria presents us with a living, yearning human being, covered from our sight by the stereotypes of frailty and age.

Karita Mattila as Despina. © Stefan Bremer

Naturally, social distancing appears in many of its everyday guises throughout the libretto. In the manner of a montage, we are introduced to the challenges of homeschooling, Zoom-meetings, surviving on canned food and tricky business in the process of getting used to face-masks.

Sung by Minna-Liisa Värelä, Johanna Rusanen, Tuomas Katajala, Waltteri Torikka and Tommi Hakala, the quintet is probably the most relatable, down-to-earth moment in the production. Simple and straightforward, it is an apt portrait of the middle-class during the pandemic.

The choruses are staged, naturally, on a large, multi-user Zoom-screen, still a prevailing reality of choral singing in many countries.

Replacing the recitatives, a meta-level is written in with the spoken text, having the singers appear as themselves, in the manner of a ghostwritten reality show. Mattila’s self-portrait is especially spot on, with delightful irony. While the most of it just simple comedy, there is a more serious undertone, as we are reminded of the repercussions of the standstill brought upon the performing arts by the lockdown.

The sung parts are filled with memorable takes on well-known numbers rewritten for the occasion. Be it Värelä and Rusanen in press briefings, masked Papageno-Torikka, Hakala singing the Catalogue Aria or Katajala serenading socially distanced on Mother’s Day, one feels well-entertained throughout the evening.

Relying on the audience’s familiarity with the recent events, the libretto often deals with things in a condensed manner, yielding to a series of independent scenes, woven together by the dialogue-lead narrative of the opera-in-progress.

In the end, the lockdown is brought to its end not so much by the ill-tested vaccination, as by the needs of the market economy. Onstage, capitalism is personified as a penny-bank in the image of Scrooge McDuck, a staple item in the Finnish homes for decades.

In terms of staging, one of the most intriguing ideas is presenting COVID-19 in the guise of a dancer. Clad in red, Natasha Lommi is omnipresent, sneaking in on each scene, to wander around bearing red roses.

Covid fan tutte closes with an image of the anthropomorphic COVID-19 caught in the middle of a red-hued corona, referring not only to the shape of the virus but also to the closing of Die Walküre, with Brünnhilde’s slumber surrounded by the magic fire of Loge.

All the onstage action stems wonderfully from the music, which, even in its reworked guise, remains true to the spirit of Mozart. In Salonen we have a truly fine Mozartian, combining earthiness and elan into a joyously expressive whole.

The score is brought to life with vividness and wit by the FNOB orchestra, breathing freely in elegant lines, in perfect companionship with the singers.

Although a performance of Der Schauspieldirector,KV 486 (1786) with the Philharmonia and Salonen in London was lost to COVID-19 in June, the FNOB Covid fan tutte makes this loss way more bearable.

The staging makes good use of all the resources available, including technical crew with forklifts and aptly integrated digital visuals, augmenting the clear-cut props. Balanced between real and surreal, the visual aspect is quite appealing.

Stage appeal from Covid fan tutte. © Stefan Bremer

With some scenes more elaborate than others, the stage direction embraces classic comedy lovingly, resulting in communicative, entertaining dramaturgy.

As a footnote, it should be also mentioned, that there is some diagenetic music at play too, in the guise of a Peter Shaffer moment featuring a Mozartian harpsichordist, playing a series of excerpts from The Ride of the Valkyries to Sandstorm.

All things considered, Covid fan tutte is an excellent time-piece, with many insightful observations of both the COVID-19 era and the art of opera itself. On surface, its comedy is often quite straightforward, yet there are those teasingly subtle undercurrents of irony roaming throughout the dramaturgy, providing extra layers as Mozart does with his score.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / Minna Lindgren: Covid fan tutte

Orchestra and Chorus of the Finnish National Opera and Ballet

Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor

Minna-Liisa Värelä, soprano (Fiordiligi)

Johanna Rusanen, mezzo-soprano (Dorabella)

Tuomas Katajala, tenor (Ferrando)

Waltteri Torikka, baritone (Guglielmo)

Karita Mattila, soprano (Despina)

Tommi Hakala, bass (Don Alfonso)

Sanna-Kaisa Palo, speaking role (Interface Manager)

Ylermi Rajamaa, silent role (Mozart)

Natasha Lommi, dancer (Covid virus)

Outi Huusko, sign language interpreter

Minna Lindgren, libretto

Jussi Nikkilä, director

Mark Väisänen, sets

Erika Turunen, costumes

Mikko Linnavuori, lighting and projection design

Riikka Räisänen, choreography

Juha-Matti Vuo, sound design

Finnish National Opera and Ballet

Thursday 3 September, 7 pm

© Jari Kallio

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