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Salonen and Mozart Gang Up on COVID-19

August 31, 2020

Prevented by the coronavirus from opening his inaugural season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony here this month, Esa-Pekka Salonen instead conducts Covid fan tutte in his hometown of Helsinki, leading the Finnish National Opera in the first such response to the pandemic.

“Cancelled work, financial losses and insecurity, postponed blockbusters, travel restrictions, social isolation, the adjustment of work around safety distances and equipment, quarantines, video meetings, audience restrictions, etc. are the new reality, which all of society, including the Finnish National Opera and its staff, must navigate long into the future,” the company announcement says.

After being forced to cancel all of its spring performances as a result of the pandemic, Finland’s national opera came up with a 100-minute satirical adaptation of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. Directed by Jussi Nikkilä, the opera features some of the country’s most prominent soloists, including Karita Mattila, Miina-Liisa Värelä, Tommi Hakala, Johanna Rusanen, Tuomas Katajala, and Waltteri Torikka. Minna Lindgren wrote a libretto combining elements of satire and reality shows.

The work conveys “scenes from the coronavirus spring” in Finland, portraying social isolation, job losses and journey restrictions. “Without humor, these extraordinary occasions would have been very arduous to take,” said Mattila, who sings the role of the maid Despina.

Salonen describes it as “absurd comedy,” adding “Mozart was a mischievous and imaginative fellow, who would likely be very enthusiastic about this venture.”

The opera is performed under strict guidelines, allowing only an audience of 650 — half the venue’s capability. The singers are also distanced from each other, and the chorus is prerecorded.

Finland, with a population of 5.5 million, has recorded 335 COVID-19 associated deaths, a record far better than most countries. The nation entered into partial lockdown in mid-March; regulations were relaxed in June.

“We’re not laughing at the COVID-19 tragedy and disaster,” Salonen says. “The work speaks to the actuality around us. Opera is often accused of not responding to current reality — this production offers a response to life today.”

Unlike the usual years-long preparation for a new opera, Covid fan tutte was put together in less than six months. It’s scheduled for 12 performances, with subtitles in English and Swedish.

San Francisco ex-pat singer and journalist Alexandra Ivanoff writes from Budapest:

Salonen and Mattila, who have residences in the U.S., cooked this project up after they both chose to fly to Finland when the borders closed earlier this year. Of course, because of the current travel restrictions, they are unable to return to the U.S.

The overture for the opera will be that of Die Walküre because that opera was in rehearsal back in the early spring. It was announced during the rehearsal process that the cast would be singing Mozart instead. (I imagined the entire brass section exiting the pit after the overture.)

The Finnish opera critic Jan Erik Granberg told me the live broadcast is free, with subsequent local repeats only within Finland.”

“The Wagner overture to Walküre is very much part of the Covid fan tutte comedy,” according to a report from the premiere. “Esa-Pekka conducts the overture and then somebody comes in and says ‘sorry, we are not going to do Wagner today but Mozart.’ They all act surprised. Some of the singers are the same ones who would have taken part in the Ring production which is being prepared and would have been given in August–September. There is a lot of spoken dialogue, but Mozart’s secco recitatives are not performed.”

The producers explained the practical considerations involved in mounting the opera:

[The choice of Così fan tutte] was purely practical, as the opera can be performed with a small orchestra and without a chorus if necessary, which means we could adhere to the strictest social-distancing rules. What’s more, our solution for the keyboard is a very unusual break from tradition. We also decided to condense Così fan tutte so it has no interval and it only lasts 1.5 hours. 

The story is completely new and rather fragmented, and it would fall apart had we stuck to the original order of the music. Sometimes we had to stick an aria in the middle of a duet and skip over unnecessary plot twists in a long scene. 

Despina’s role gained extra importance in our version, as the soprano steals the baritone parts of Guglielmo and Alfonso on a couple of occasions, turning an aria into a duet and adding a gooseberry soprano in a trio of baritones.

We pinched some numbers from Mozart’s other operas, too, one from Don Giovanni and one from The Magic Flute. Another baritone aria is a rarely performed alternative from the original premiere in Vienna. Salonen came up with the necessary interludes, keyboard parts, and the flip in the overture.”

See a video preview of the production.

NOTE: Although sources at the the Finnish National Opera promised that the livestream would be available worldwide, it was only accessible within Finland. 

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].