The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's production of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte has read like a film script. First seen at Aix-en-Provence last year, the production, which opens this month as part of the English National Opera's (ENO) summer season, has been directed long-distance by Kiarostami from Tehran.
Having encountered frustrating treatment at the hands of the British embassy in Iran while attempting to arrange a visa, the director took the decision not to travel to London. Instead, the reins were passed to the assistant director Elaine Tyler-Hall, and Kiarostami remained director in absentia, guiding the cast through e-mails and telephone calls. His involvement marks the film world's latest foray into the world of opera, but the idea of film directors taking on the genre of opera is nothing new. In 1940, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow invited Sergei Eisenstein to stage Richard Wagner's Die Walkure. Since then, Ingmar Bergman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Baz Luhrmann, Luchino Visconti, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Woody Allen have all turned their considerable talents to opera. Later this month, Anthony Minghella's Madame Butterfly will return to London after a successful spell in New York. The Chinese film director Zhang Yimou will stage a production of the opera Turandot at the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing this autumn. Since the Olympics ended last summer, organisers have struggled to make use of the space afforded by the building or to draw visitors. It is hoped that this large-scale production will help to transform the Bird's Nest into an arts venue.
Despite this long and successful association between film and opera, Kiarostami was initially concerned about taking on the commission. He frequently scores his films with classical music, but Cosi fan Tutte marks his first opera. Having been approached by Bernard Foccroulle, the general director of the Aix-en-Provence festival, to direct the work, the Iranian said yes, despite harbouring reservations about cultural differences and a lack of operatic knowledge.
But on reading the libretto, he realised that the themes of the opera were both universal and timeless, and therefore would potentially appeal to a wider audience. He also recognised that the theatrical intimacy of the opera, which revolves around the dealings of six main characters, was not dissimilar to the intimacy promoted in much of his screen work. Such works include The Wind Will Carry Us, the story of a city engineer who journeys to rural Iran and discovers new social values; Ten, which details a female driver's conversations with passengers, and A Taste of Cherry, a contemplative tale of a middle-aged man who has resolved to commit suicide for which Kiarostami won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1997.
The opera begins with an elderly gentleman known as Don Alfonso suggesting to two lovers that their fiancées are not to be trusted. The men, however, maintain that their women are loyal and faithful. A cash bet ensues and a plan is concocted by Alfonso to prove that all women are the same, the suggested meaning of "cosi fan tutte". The plot involves the men pretending that they have been called up for obligatory military service, but secretly disguising themselves and testing the honesty of the other's female companion. What starts out as harmless fun degenerates into something more sinister as the women become receptive to their new partners. Billed as an opera buffa, or comedy, Cosi fan Tutte is a revealing and at times disturbing portrait of fickleness, self-deception and the duplicity and arbitrariness of love.
For Kiarostami, a director concerned with human interaction and notions of selfhood, the opera's interrogation of morality and interest in the competing notions of ruthless pragmatism and naive idealism, was an attractive formula. Kiarostami's film roots are clear in the ENO production and scenes are played against pre-recorded backdrops. In the opening act, Don Alfonso, Ferrando and Guglielmo argue about the nature of women in front of shocked customers at a Neapolitan café. The filmed crowd reacts to the protagonists, amplifying and increasing the resonance of the three performers on stage. There are parallels in this technique with his recent film, Shirin, in which the faces and emotional reactions of 100 women are recorded as they watch a film.
In many of Cosi fan Tutte's later scenes, Kiarostami uses a series of shots of the Italian coast. Boats are shown arriving and departing, helping to disguise the men's plot and heightening the emotional response of the women as they watch their lovers helplessly from the shore. In the final scenes, film of ENO's orchestra and the director Stefan Klingele accompanies the mock wedding; Klingele's celluloid figure takes a bow as the final chords die away.
The effect of these backdrops is to transform the often static and remote world of the opera into something living, breathing and believable. The backdrops never distract from the central action on stage, but instead enhance its presence. Kiarostami combines his filmmaking abilities with a passion for photography, graphic art and set design to produce a multilayered, dimensional setting. Images of the vast sea seem to open up the walls of London's Coliseum theatre, disintegrating the barrier between real and imagined, while the inclusion of the orchestral footage paradoxically - and quite deliberately - reminds the audience that it is exactly that; a spectator in a staged drama.
"Film, music and theatre are currently so linked that it is difficult to separate them," says Tyler-Hall. "The different media are so mixed nowadays that people from different backgrounds and with different approaches are able to bring something new to fields beyond that of their own expertise. It isn't that opera was stuck in a rut before film directors turned to the genre, but that we now have an overarching and detailed view of the opera, from different angles. Film directors often have unique vision and imagination."
"It is a very different way of working," she continues. "But once they appreciate the different demands of the genre, they are able to fully explore their vision. When you are using new techniques and rehearsing and rehearsing sometimes it is easy for film directors to become frightened of losing the freshness. On screen, they strive to capture that freshness. If they lose that freshness, they need to find a way of rediscovering and recapturing it for each audience, so that it remains tangible over and over again.
"The presence of film directors in the world of opera is a positive thing. They are making productions accessible to a whole new audience and that is something that the ENO is passionate about. The joys of opera should not be locked away or reserved for a select audience. Directors like Kiarostami are helping to bring a new audience to opera and opera to a new audience."