It's increasingly amusing to see various commentators at this site vying to identify the Mozart production from M22 at Salzburg which best deserves the title of the stupidest and ugliest. My nominee for the prize is Ursel Herrmann's and Karl-Ernst Herrmann's "Cosi Fan Tutte." (I don't say Mozart's and Da Ponte's, as the Herrmanns have in this instance made the work singularly their own, and should therefore receive full credit for what they have wrought.)
In an interview accompanying the performance, while Mr. Herrmann largely sits meekly by, Ms. Herrmann enlightens us as to the rationale behind this ill-conceived eyesore of a production. She is a wholehearted supporter of the conventional idea that classics are not of a time, but instead "universal." What this means to her, unfortunately however, is that as stage director she need not bother to set "Cosi" in any specific locale or period at all. She further acknowledges that she'd never before been especially drawn to this masterpiece because it has women too easily deceived. What this encourages her to do is seriously defy the libretto and have the aforesaid women aware of the men's wager which gets the action started. What an original, necessary insight for our time! Da Ponte and Mozart constructed things differently, but what did they know?
To sum up, because we have characters still singing in Italian and reflecting 18th century social class but dressed at the same time in much uglier, more modern costumes and treading around among the absurdly minimalist scenery that has become a Eurotrash cliche, this production, far from being universal, is simply and mindlessly not taking place anywhere. Its visually unbecoming oddness calls more attention to itself than any other feature. Further, and equally far from "universal," this production to the extent it approaches ideas, fosters Ms. Herrmann's bumper-sticker-deep, sadly dated "feminism" along with her unearned cynicism about human "feelings." The most suitable locale for such a procession of stale images and ideas that complacently thinks itself "cutting edge" would be, I submit, the wall of Plato's cave, with the audience the bound prisoners and the Herrmanns the manipulators of the pantomimes projected on it. "Universal," in short, to the Herrmanns means apparently their directorial freedom to engage in the unwitting promotion of contemporary cliches in sets, costumes, and vision.
The Herrmanns agree further that fussy stage business is necessary at every moment. If clashing swords interfere with chords in the overture, for example, it makes no difference. Who after all still goes to the opera to hear the music? The audience was probably assumed by the Herrmanns to be made up instead of hyperactive types or people forced in the workplace to "multitask." If its members had to hear only miraculous music, glorious singing, and satiric wit, they might get bored.
Not only must the audience be bombarded, then, with excessive stage "business," but even some of the orchestra members have to be irrationally brought into the action, for fear that they too, by just playing their instruments, might begin to feel hopelessly non-interactive.
The saving graces of this production are in the areas where the Herrmanns would have had the most trouble interfering. The music is beautifully played and finely conducted. Despite the seeming effort to dress and make up the characters in as unattractive a manner as possible, everyone is in good to fine voice. These last features alone are what have garnered the stars in this review.