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So, we’ve got Alfonso as sometimes frustrated manipulator of others. This is standard for this opera, in some ways – but it doesn’t feel so in this version. Perhaps this is because Alfonso is not teaching these silly young things a lesson. Rather, he appears to be manipulating them out of a kind of compulsion. I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that part of the vulnerability that is being showcased here is Alfonso’s.
It’s not just via their susceptibility to being literally jerked around by Alfonso that we see the two couples’ weaknesses. One of the things I noticed on watching this again is the lighting. During “suave sia il vento” in Act I, as they wave goodbye to their departing sweethearts, the two women’s shadows are projected very starkly on the wall behind them. There’s a visual doubling that mimics the doubling and swapping of the couples – it’s worth noting that when they return in ‘disguise’ the men are wearing not masks or even moustaches but rather just white suits, and the swapped pairings are not always consistent – after the men drink poison at the end of Act I, initially the two women are comforting their ‘real’ fiancés.
But about those shadows. There is a lot of raising and lowering of light in this production. It’s often dark when characters are at a moment of vulnerability – Alfonso cuts the power out for Fiordiligi’s “come scoglio,” for example, and she has to feel her away down the stairs with a flashlight.
And this is where the trees come in. During “ah, che tutto in un momento” near the end of Act I, as the characters are reflecting on how their situation has suddenly changed, Alfonso causes the back wall of the apartment to vanish, revealing the dark woods. By the beginning of Act II, the woods have crept into the apartment in the form of two trees and a layer of pine needles and dirt on the floor. By this point in the opera, everyone is indeed feeling vulnerable – the walls have come down and things are not as antiseptically bright as they are in the opera’s very first scene. I say antiseptically with reason, because the four lovers at this point are physically grimier than they were earlier — all that dirt! But interestingly, it’s the men who get really dirty. During “tradito, schernito” Ferrando is literally rubbing handfuls of dirt all over himself. Which makes sense. After all, these guys have begrimed themselves in the course of carrying out their ‘test’ of their girlfriends. They are the ones who let the forest into the house.
The penetration of the house by the trees/forest also made me wonder if something isn’t being said here about motivations. Ferrando and Guglielmo let the woods into the house, yes. But they’re Alfonso’s woods. He raises the wall. Those dark woods out there are Alfonso-space. A person could read the woods/house barrier as a question about where motives come from – within, or outside? The emotions are real, but that doesn’t mean that their sources are entirely internal.
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