Opera: Rock me, Amadeus

Graham Vick's new production of `Cosi fan tutte' gets extremely physical. Ruth Padel met him during rehearsals at Glyndebourne
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The Independent Culture
TWO SINGERS roll about on a beanbag. Vintage Burgundy voices zip through recitative in a hummy whisper at the feet of a gent in specs. We're in rehearsals for Graham Vick's new Cosi fan tutte, which opens this year's season at Glyndebourne on Thursday. Vick's going to upset a few applecarts by staging the whole thing as a rehearsal, shifting radically between the 18th century and now. You wonder what the sort of people whose picnics pullulate with antique butter-knives and who want a museum-piece opera to match will make of it. "When Glyndebourne did Cosi in its first season, 1935", says Vick, "it was very daring. Cosi was unknown here. Glyndebourne rescued it for Britain. That's the tradition to respect: boldness. No one asks the RSC to pickle Hamlet as a Jacobean play. Glyndebourne prides itself on its Mozart his- tory: it should be the seed-bed for study, examination, adventure in Mozart. Not complacency, or over-familiarity."

Fighting talk. This man is serious, to the point of combustion, about adventuring into, discovering, a score. "I want people who respond to the material: obedience is useless. Directors and performers have complementary instincts and my directing grows out of singers: who they are, how they sing."

Vick, who's director of productions at Glyndebourne, started out as a musician, a pianist and horn-player. "You don't have to be trained to direct opera. But a strong musical background is pretty essential."

You can't see his mezzo-soprano Katarina Karneus (Dorabella). She's covered in Italian baritone. "He's got to have his hand on your breast," says Vick. "Better cushions," he tells the watchers marking the score with props. "Beanbags are squashy." "You can't have a leg over," he tells the baritone, Natale de Carolis (Guglielmo). "They'll say we're simulating sex; and that's not the point."

This passage will pass in a flash, but the search for the physicality within the music is taking four hours. No one's imposing interpretation: every movement builds it. How do you start translating music into bodies? "With the designer, I evolve the look of a show: the world I imagine the people moving in. I make very few decisions, to leave room for discovery. Here, we've a rehearsal-room set where anything can happen. I can make one scene 18th-century, another aggressively modern. This allows, I hope - it sounds a bit pretentious - for a Pirandello effect, a theatrical metaphor for an experiment in human nature."

Today's opera audiences, schooled in Merchant Ivory - glamourised past plus takeaway emotion - want a visual good time, the video to go with the CD. "If you don't put in obvious directorial ideas, people don't realise you've directed it. It's ironic - I remember when, if you did put them in, people complained. The bold visual approach of the last 20 years - I'm as much a part of that as anyone - can create lazy audiences. People aren't prepared to concentrate."

He's pretty keen on concentration in other areas, too. This bedroom scene is thigh-deep in textual subtlety. Vick works over half the year in Italy; he's passionate about the layers of meaning in the Italian. They try everything. Girl underneath; girl on top. Graham tries rolling round embracing a satin bolster, then sits up and waggles his feet, which are suddenly, obviously, in the way. "Cosi?" asks Natale, curling round Katarina. "No," he says to himself in English. "Too soft." "Much too soft," agrees Graham. They craft a more nipple-crunching approach.

Maybe making blue movies is like this. But not so exciting. This is music and feeling expressed through action. Who should get to cushion-level first? Katarina tries pushing Natale down. There's a ripple of girlpower assent from the spectators. What if she bounces down first? Girlpower disapproves. "There's other ways of being in charge than throwing a man to the floor," Graham tells them. "Can you sit up?" Katarina extracts a breast from Natale's arm. "Mmm. Difficult." "Can you put your hand here?" "Non posso," says Natale, who's resting on his hand. How difficult seduction is: all these wrong places for bodies to be.

"One problem with operas", says Vick, "is they're written by men, who want to think women can't live without them. Cosi goes against that, gives women dignity in inconstancy. It's subversive, an assertion of women's independence, to say women shouldn't depend on one man. Cosi presents infidelity as normal, understandable. Something to move forward from."

The singers' voices, like steeplechasers tethered in a yard, are longing to escape from recitative into the duet. You suddenly see what Mozart's done. The recitative is foreplay; the duet ... is singers doing what Nick Hornby's High Fidelity calls "entwining naked melody lines".

"Afterwards, everything's softer," says Graham to Katarina. "Cigarette time. It was great but - you're sad." She should be. Her character, whom the opera's opening calls incapable of infidelity, has done it with someone else.

That's what the opera's about: female infidelity, male view of. Worldly Alfonso bets Ferrando and Guglielmo, in their macho pride, that if each approached the other's girl in disguise, they'd find cosi fan tutte: all women stray. Impossible, they smirk. But Alfonso wins. The boys reveal themselves to their original partners, and -

And what? It's been done a million ways. Cynical, lighthearted, noir. Some productions keep the second pairing. ("Absurd," says Vick.) Peter Sellars exaggerated the cruelty: his singers ended catatonic on the floor, waiting for straitjackets. "Too negative," Vick says. "Cosi is a dark journey, but something emerges. There's a move from innocence into understanding. When they get back together, they've learnt a great deal. Not to take love for granted. It's a volcano, what they've discovered in themselves. They'll never be complacent again."

Some of Cosi's best love music is total mendacity. When Guglielmo scores with Dorabella, Ferrando seduces Guglielmo's partner. "His song sounds like passionate love, but he's acting out of appalling macho motives," says Graham. "He wants revenge on his friend. The jealous rage is so strong it produces fantastically convincing love music. This doesn't mean he loves Fiordiligi. It means disturbances in our lives can generate - surprising things."

Cosi is about singing lies in perfect harmony. Isn't that paradoxical? Wrong, even? "It makes Cosi a work of genius. Everyone's credible - the music won't say if they're lying or not. The emotional honesty of the sound belies what's sung. Different guises for different people is an essential element in Mozart." Characters honest in their voices but bendy as Playdoh in relationships: this view of Mozart explains Graham's rehearsal- room setting. Was Mozart Graham's first love? "Italian opera was my obsession in my teens. Then Wagner; Mozart came at 20."

What do boys discovering their sexuality find in opera? "I'm constantly bewildered by opera's appeal to homosexuals, of which I'm one. I fell in love with opera at 13, along with the parallel cliches: Catholicism, Michelangelo. But I think many people, gay or not, need to discover it's OK to be in that state of heightened passion which is vital to opera. As it is to soap opera. Of course I think opera is something soap opera isn't. But the two have sensuality in common; plus removing isolation."

Isn't operatic isolation self-contradictory? A soprano singing "I'm alone and abandoned" isn't alone. She's got a whacking great orchestra - "And an audience," says Vick. "But everyone feels alone along with her. You sit beside a thousand people and you're destroyed, abandoned. Opera extends individual experience; but you also feel you're not the only one who feels these things." The communal experience of solitude? "Yes: it makes solitude all right. Being lonely and sad is not negative. Sometimes you need it. Opera deals in very basic stuff."

The basis of this "basic stuff" is feeling and thought. "Cosi has enormous subtlety. I'd like you to go away discussing the opera, not what I did with it. I want to make people aware of its riches and complexity, and its big issues: instinct, convention, morality, fidelity, love. I don't mind if they don't notice I directed it, or think I've directed badly, as long as they go away thinking about the issues. Then I'd be happy."

'Cosi fan tutte' opens at Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex (01273 812 321) on Thurs, and continues in rep until 2 July.