The world of opera has had a problem with the plot of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte from the moment it appeared in 1790. The story of two soldiers who accept a wager to prove their lovers unfaithful by wooing each others' sweetheart, in disguise, has been lambasted as misogynistic (because Cosi fan tutte – "all women do it" – is the supposed moral of the story), trivial (Wagner's opinion), beneath the dignity of a Mozart (Beethoven's take) or just plain stupid (the current view). For more than 150 years, the story of the opera was routinely rewritten to make it more palatable to European audiences. It wasn't until the mid-1930s that Cosi fan tutte was routinely played on world opera stages as Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, actually wrote it. So much for authenticity in the world of opera.
Enter Joel Ivany and Topher Mokrzewski, the brilliant duo at the creative heart of Toronto's Against the Grain Theatre Company. On the one hand, what Ivany and Mokrzewski have done with Cosi fan tutte has a 220-year tradition behind it – because Ivany, too, has rewritten the story. But unlike all their previous adapter colleagues, the two have done something new – they have rewritten Cosi fan tutte to make it more itself, to make it both more relevant to our times and more relevant to its own times. Something of a minor miracle.
The result is A Little Too Cozy, which opens on Thursday, an adaptation of Cosi that does for it what Against the Grain's #Uncle John did for Don Giovanni a year or so ago. The music of the Mozart original is untouched, but the story now centres on a reality-TV dating show on whichthe winning couple has a chance at a $100,000 prize if they marry without ever having seen one another. In keeping with Against the Grain's tradition of placing its productions in site-relevant spaces, Cozy will be presented in a real TV studio (Studio 42 at the CBC Broadcasting Centre in Toronto) and the various complications of the plot as they unfold in that space will seem as implausible and as likely as last night's episode of The Bachelorette. In other words, very real and very unreal at the same time. Exactly like the original Cosi.
It's this balance between old and new, this alchemy, that allows the true nature of the work to shine through a radical transformation that makes Against the Grain's Mozart adaptations so fascinating and unique. For a lot of people coming to the show, Cozy will be a great contemporary treat. They'll sign in in the lobby of the Broadcasting Centre, be ushered upstairs to the studio, as they would be for a normal CBC taping. They'll see prerecorded segments featuring the show's contestants, be able to follow their favourites online, live-tweet during the show, treat the experience exactly the same way they respond to other reality-TV shows they know and follow.
The fact that the story is based on some opera first presented in Vienna 200-plus years ago will be largely irrelevant to them. Except that they'll be hearing that opera at the same time – note for note, and beautifully rendered (an Against the Grain trademark – musical excellence). It's a perfect way not just to introduce new audiences to opera, but to introduce opera itself into the "real" world, to make it come alive in the first decades of the 21st century for a 21st-century audience in a perfectly natural and spontaneous way.
Of course, for those in the audience who know Cosi fan tutte, and can appreciate the skill and care with which the original has been transformed, the show will take on another level of pleasure as well. It works on several artistic planes simultaneously.
Watching Mokrzewski and Ivany in rehearsal brings the essence of A Little Too Cozy into focus. It's a relaxed rehearsal room that the duo run. This afternoon, Mokrzewski is running through the opening aria of Act 2, "I will take the cute one" ("Prendero quel brunettino" in the original Cosi) with his Dora and Felicity (Dorabella and Fiordiligi in the original), as though they were preparing for a COC production. He coaches his singers on phrasing, breathing, diction, working with them to manage crescendi and diminuendi, milking the score for all the comic effect Mozart crafted into it.
Then Ivany takes over – and the two female characters are catapulted from the 18th century into our own, checking their phones, counting up their Twitter followers, figuring out how to play with their new-found TV celebrity and the challenges presented them by Despina, their handler, and the TV host, one Donald L. Fonzo (Don Alfonso for those of you keeping Cosi score). Even though it would be easy to play the piece for its novelty value, everyone in the room understands that there is a serious story being presented here, one steeped in the sensitivity Mozart lavished on his original characters. As Mokrzewski notes, "It seems like this adaptation is quite a departure from the original, but actually, Joel's libretto boils it down to its very true essence. The music is infused with deep humanity, but it gets a little lost sometimes in traditional productions. We're trying to recover it." Or, as Ivany adds, "I'm interested in having people see Cosi fan tutte for the first time."
And if the past is prologue, and Against the Grain's previous outings are any indication of future success, that's exactly what's going to happen in the CBC's Studio 42 starting Thursday night. If it does, it's an alchemy you will be very glad to have witnessed.
A Little Too Cozy runs May 12-21 at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto (againstthegraintheatre.com).