A world-weary observer of life goads a pair of impressionable young soldiers into testing the constancy of their innocent fiancées. Tricks are played, love strained, partners switched, all to prove a theory. Given the right conditions, the old philosopher proposes, even the most devoted female partner will inevitably stray. “Così fan tutte”. Women are like that.

Period comedy of manners or calculated parody?

Preceded by The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, Mozart’s final collaboration in 1790 with urbane satirist Lorenzo da Ponte resulted in what proved to be a singularly uncomfortable experience for post eighteenth century opera goers. Enlightenment audiences were less critical of what came to be seen as the work’s decidedly misogynistic stamp. Over two hundred years have done nothing to soften the latter impression. And yet Così fan tutte endures, even flourishes in today’s repertoire.

The levels of paradox are striking. A melodrama built on masquerade and disguise is abundantly overlaid with a generous acceptance of the less than predictable ways of the human heart. Così fan tutte is a challenge, maddening and touching in equal measure. This is a problem piece of major proportions, wildly inappropriate, preposterously farcical and completely disarming with some of the most exquisite music ever composed for ensemble voice.

The Canadian Opera Company’s new, self-originated presentation directed by film-maker Atom Egoyan grapples with the timeless dilemma of Così fan tutte’s irksome reputation and in the process adds an entirely fresh layer of perversity.

A single conceit anchors Egoyan’s production. Here the opera’s subtitle, La scuola degli amanti (“The School for Lovers”), is literally translated to setting, a private academy where students explore the mysterious principles of masculine-feminine dynamics. An immense cabinet of curiosities, lab tables littered with apparatus, huge blow-ups from a lepidopterist’s field guide — the stuff of scholarly research is everywhere. Eighteenth century rationalism hangs in the air, modern costumes notwithstanding. Just as the belief that human nature, like nature at large, could be scientifically manipulated came to dominate Enlightenment thinking, the blunt metaphor of Egoyan’s school engulfs the Four Seasons Centre’s ample stage.

There is darkness in this, arguably most psychologically complex of all Mozart’s operas, but there is sunlight and optimism, too and it is this spirit of humanism that never breaks loose. We are in a world of mind control and petty authoritarianism in Egoyan’s treatment and it is all frankly suffocating. Mozart’s music, an irrepressible outpouring of vitality, is held prisoner, like some high-spirited adolescent serving detention, unable to escape from captivity however grand the hall.

Even at its most basic design level, this Così fan tutte struggles for breath. Set pieces, although admittedly striking, are almost without exception overtly allegorical, either blatantly so or grossly misappropriated. A lifeless pair of enormous open-winged butterflies pinned for display stands in for fiancées Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s loss of happiness and freedom. An immense image of Frida Kahlo’s emblematic 1939 double self-portrait, Las Dos Fridas, depicting the iconic Mexican artist baring twin anatomically correct hearts is appropriated for use as a backdrop. Egoyan has described the element as a “wry artifact”, but the painting, a grisly testament to Kahlo’s suffering after being abandoned by her promiscuous husband, muralist Diego Rivera, means so much more. Kahlo’s work, dripping with blood, evokes a life of searing pain, physical and emotional, light years removed from any opera buffa reality, however stained with sadness. Fiordiligi and Dorabella share nothing in common with the fiercely courageous Kahlo. To evoke her portrait simply for shock value trivializes its significance and raises important questions about Egoyan’s respect, not only for Kahlo as an artist, but for Mozart as well.

Thankfully from a musical standpoint, the COC’s signature winter 2014 production is infinitely better served.

As Così fan tutte’s guileless sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, Layla Claire and Wallis Giunta make an enchanting pair. Strong, gifted singers both, each clearly delights in her role. Their energy and zest are infectious. Tonal colours are vivid, phrasing precise, harmonies warmly blended.

Claire’s rendition of the opera’s legendary soprano showstopper, Come scoglio (“Like a rock”), trades a convincing air of barely suppressed rage for the more conventional fullblown eruption of wrath voiced by most singers. It is a unique redefining moment and Clare deserves a chorus of loud “Bravas!” for her inventiveness.

In a glorious performance of Dorabella’s youthful anthem to the joy of teen heartache, Smanie implacabli (“Implacable pangs”), Wallis Giunta mines the entire range of her heavenly mezzo. There is an expansive sweep to Mozart’s diminutive but intensely powerful Act I aria and Giunta spans it with apparent natural ease.

Paul Appleby and Robert Gleadow inhabit the roles of soldier/true loves Ferrando and Guglielmo respectively. The pair discharge their singer actor assignments with confidence although tenor Appleby’s tunefulness tends to wander precipitously off course from time to time. Gleadow, with his rich, honeyed sound, is at his best in ensemble moments, his instrument consistently fine-tuned to that of each of his vocal partners. Like others in the cast, the imposing young baritone ultimately sings with everyone before the show is over, but never more memorably than with Dorabella. In Giunta and Gleadow’s hands, Il core vi dono (“I give you my heart”), the penultimate Mozart love duet, flirty and fleeting, is given a vigorous, sexy reading. This Guglielmo is an accomplished seducer, but not without a tender side. There is a slyness to Gleadow’s vocal stylings. And an openness too.

Seasoned performers, legendary Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso and Tracy Dahl as Despina, Fiordigili and Dorabella’s maid, round out the cast. Allen is the very embodiment of the aging philosophical schoolmaster, brilliantly capturing the old provocateur’s biting cynicism and calculated reserve in an endless stream of crisp, superbly declaimed Mozartian recitatives. Don Alfonso has a great deal to say in Così fan tutte. We hang on Sir Tom’s every word.

Tracy Dahl’s Despina is no less engaging. Dahl is an inexhaustible theatrical powerhouse forever on the go, scurrying, bustling, darting, a wicked twinkle in her eye, full of advice, not to mention complaints. It is no easy feat to sing in character, particularly when that character is awarded some of Mozart’s meatiest arias. Dahl’s In uomini, in soldati (“In men, in soldiers?”) is nothing short of thrilling.

The Canadian Opera Company Orchestra led by Johannes Debus launches the proceedings with a boisterous overture cracking on in quick succession to a blistering first act. By mid Act II, however, the energy begins to wane. This all-original Così fan tutte is presented without the raft of customary timing cuts. At three and a half hours with only a single twenty-minute intermission, the physical demand on players takes its inevitable toll.

This production is taxing for its conductor, as well. Maestro Debus is called on to serve double duty on the podium and at the keyboard of a Steinway concert grand as continuo soloist. The transposition of  recitativo secco from more conventional harpsichord or pianoforte to modern piano sounds strangely thunderous at first and Debus’ accompaniment somewhat minimalist, but the ear tends to adjust.

At the end of a long evening, despite some fine musical moments, our appreciation of the COC’s regie Così fan tutte largely depends on whether we find ourselves still lost and confused in Egoyan’s post modern opera world or succeed in finding our way out. Either way, the experience is frustrating.