I first became aware of the work of Austrian film director Michael Haneke a few years back when I followed a tip from a friend and rented the well-reviewed The White Ribbon.  I was immediately hooked—I’d never seen anything quite like it. I watched it three times over, seeking to get all the intricate details of the story: a small town in Germany just before World War I, where mysterious and bizarre events happening to both children and adults mirror a repressive atmosphere that may or may not be pre-Fascism.  I sought out all his films, notably the truly terrifying Funny Games, the mysterious relationship films Cache and The Piano Teacher, and finally his Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, Amour.  

Haneke’s films maintain a dramatic tension, with a dark world view and an almost Chekhovian use of subtext.  There is a palpable sense of danger lurking in all his films. He has brought exactly these qualities to his second opera production, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte , a co-production of Teatro Real de Madrid and La Monnaie-De Munt of Brussels.  The DVD from C Major was filmed at the Madrid venue in March 2013.  Those who come to the Mozart/ Da Ponte operas for their playfulness, charm, and good humor will not be pleased with this production.

Haneke sets the scene at a fancy dress ball at the villa of Don Alfonso, who is either married to or living with Despina.  Some guests dress in clothing of the 18th century, others are in contemporary clothing.  With hints of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Don Alfonso and Despina are framed here as masterful manipulators in competition; they take pleasure in playing mind games with the two love-addled couples.

The farcical use of disguises usually seen in Cosi is very limited in Haneke’s production: after one silly stab at “Albanian” disguises, the four lovers abandon them entirely.  The scenes where Dorabella’s and Fiordiligi’s fidelity are tested are sans disguise, raising fascinating questions of whether the women are “in on it” and whether Guglielmo and Ferrando are indeed interested in seducing the other’s lover.  Despina’s “doctor” disguise is merely a red nose added to her Pierrot-style costume.

Haneke has at his disposal a young and attractive cast, all of whom are capable of good singing and fine, detailed, rather cinematic acting.  Haneke was given the luxury of eight weeks (!) of rehearsal, and his cast responded to his demanding schedule with excitement.  Baritone William Shimell, who had a major supporting role in Haneke’s film Amour, commands the stage with his rich, mature sound and his multi-faceted characterization, moving from father figure to devilish manipulator.  Soprano Anett Fritsch gives us a vivid, gutsy Fiordiligi, though she strains a bit with the highest and lowest notes in “Come scoglio” and “Per pieta.”

I loved the Dorabella of Paola Gardina, a real Princess Di look-alike whose passionate yet subtle acting was matched by some gorgeous colors in tone and excellent phrasing.  The young men are not as comfortable in their acting as the women, but Andreas Wolf as Guglielmo and Juan Francisco Gatell as Ferrando are ardent lovers and negotiate all of Mozart’s considerable musical demands with ease and gusto.  In this unusual interpretation of Despina, Kerstin Avemo brings an icy darkness and a vulnerable desperation that fit beautifully with Haneke’s conceptions; unfortunately, her voice frequently turned hard-edged and shrill.

Conductor Sylvian Cambreling leads the Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real de Madrid with uneven results.  Most of the recitatives seemed glacially slow, though Haneke says in the accompanying interview that he wanted it that way to give more opportunities for dramatic pauses and acting choices.  But it was unfortunate that the music seemed to keep starting and stopping rather than achieving a flow.

Cosi fan Tutte contains some of the most exquisite music Mozart ever wrote—“Soave sia il vento” and “Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro” in particular.  On the other hand,  many of the recitatives and the chorus music do not rise to the quality of his other operatic works.  Cosi seems to inspire some and bore others; it is frequently on operagoers’ 10 favorite lists and equally on others’ lists of “operas they could do without.”

Michael Haneke’s fascinating ideas do much to bring depth and emotional clarity to the story, and, though the production eliminates the expected irony and humor from the performance, the results are nonetheless fascinating.  I think this production’s merits will be much debated; those who demand only “voice, voice, and more voice” will find it too focused on the cinematic acting, but those who view opera as a theatrical whole will not be disappopinted.