It's time for the second edition of Popehat Goes To the Opera. In our last episode, I talked about Wagner's rather self-serious but entertaining Tannhauser. This time, the subject is Mozart's Così fan tutte.
As before my companion text is Sir Denis Forman's hilarious and insightful A Night at the Opera. And which recording of the opera do I recommend? It's not even a close call — definitely this remastered 1962 version by Karl Böhm with, among others, the masterful Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Giuseppe Taddei.
Why Così? Why an opera the title of which is generally translated as "women are like that" or, to modern ears, "bitches, amirite?" Why an opera with a silly plot about fiancé-swapping?
Because it's undeservedly obscure to non-opera-lovers, the music is heartbreakingly beautiful, it's a good illustration of dramatic, operatic, and social conventions, and it illuminates how we approach troublesome texts from different eras. Moreover, it continues the theme I began with Tannhauser — much opera is dramatic junk wrapped in musical genius.
Così's Historical and Social Context
In 1789 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was at the peak of his abilities, producing music that has not been matched and likely will never be. But his health and finances were in decline. When a popular revival of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna inspired Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II to commission a new comic opera, Mozart jumped at the chance. Mozart's commissions had been in decline, possibly because the Viennese nobility was wasting its money on a rather desultory war with the Turks. But Mozart had to hurry. Joseph II was depressed, dying, and so beset on all sides that he couldn't even present a credible threat to the Belgians.
Mozart returned to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. If you need to steal a diamond necklace from an apartment you hire a second-story man; if you need someone to follow literary tradition into a dark alley, knock it on the head, rifle through its pockets for plots and tropes, and sprint away, you go to da Ponte. da Ponte threw together a cross between a morality play, a farce, and a disguise comedy quickly, and Mozart scored it with immortal music with astonishing speed.
Mozart premiered Così before Joseph II died, but only just barely; it had five performances before the theaters closed for the Emperor's death. After that it never found its pace again until the 20th Century. Even bowdlerized versions didn't suit the tastes and moral views of the 19th Century. Richard Strauss led the revival of Così in the 20th Century; Sir Denis refers to him as Così's propagandist.
In Tannhauser we saw an overture written a half-century after Così. The difference shows. Tannhauser, like a modern musical, previews some of the musical themes in its overture. Così's overture sets a tone but can stand on its own and doesn't preview any of the opera's tunes except for the few notes used later by a character to utter così fan tutte. when plot-appropriate.
Così's overture is bright, lively, and has both feet firmly planted in the classical tradition. Listen at 1:33 – :45 for the main hummable tune.
Boy Behaving Badly
We open in an Italian bar with our three leading men: Guilielmo and Ferrando (Bill and Fred to you), two dashing young army officers, and Don Alfonso, an older wealthy gentleman who enjoys hanging out with dashing young men and attempting to persuade them to spend less time in the company of women. "Don" is not short for Donald; it's a respectful title granted to certain operatic characters despite their lack of visible means of support and their tendency to act out badly when bored.
Fred is the tenor, Bill is the baritone, and Don Alfonso is the antagonist; from this information you can confidently predict how each will act for the remainder of the opera. At the moment they are quarreling. Bill and Fred say their girlfriends are the bestest ever; Don Alfonso is telling them that chicks will cheat on you in a nanosecond if you turn your back and don't be a fool. But the boys aren't exactly mad; they're more bemused, as you can hear from the carefree lilt of the tune.
Don Alfonso proposes a bet: follow my lead and play a trick and don't ask questions if I ask you to dress oddly and we'll see how faithful they are. Winner gets a thousand ducats or scudi or loonies or something. Done! Bill and Fred imagine tunefully how they will spend the money on their girls while Don Alfonso rolls his eyes.
Meanwhile, back at the estate, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella — Flora and Dora to you — sigh over thoughts of their respective men Bill and Fred. Flora is the prima donna, who gets the most fireworks throughout. Before everything goes to hell, dramatic convention requires Flora and Dora to talk about how their lives are perfect and how they are lunch-losingly in love with Bill and Fred. It's quite lovely throughout. Listen to the part at 3:52 as the sisters trade off sustaining a high note while the other sings the patter.
Enter Don Alfonso to club the baby seal of love with the crude implement of plot contrivance. He announces to Flora and Dora that their men — nominally army officers, but prone to spend most of their time lounging around bars — have been called up to active duty and must ship out. Alfonso calls the men in to say goodbye. In operatic tradition their military uniforms are ludicrously over-the-top, in a GO FIGHT ALL THE WARS sort of way.
Until now, the music has been good — even very good — but Mozart hasn't turned it to 11. The rest of the goodbye scene shows why Mozart is untouchable. Fred and Bill convey, with over-the-top-acting within the over-the-top-acting, their pain at having to leave Flora and Dora, all the while tossing sarcastic asides to Don Alfonso. Nobody but Mozart could write music making the wry asides sound wry while making the dialogue among the lovers sound traumatized. Listen from 1:58 to 2:51 as Fred and Bill tell Don Alfonso that the girls' anguished reactions show that he's going to lose the bet, Alfonso tells them it's only the first quarter, and then the boys turn back to the girls into a stunningly beautiful quintet of loss.
Most composers could call the scene right there. Mozart isn't most composers. First he changes up the mood with a short but excellent military chorus lauding the life of a solider. It's bouncy, it's catchy, it's cheerful, and you should absolutely not under any circumstances play it for anyone who has been to Afghanistan. Mozart returns the lovers to recitative for a moment1 and then plunges the lovers back into another goodbye that once again manages to sound heartbreaking even though Don Alfonso is making douchey asides and you know it's all a rude prank. Flora and Dora ask their boys to write if they know how and to be faithful and the boys say yes. Listen from the start to hear Mozart add the voices one by one to a heartbeat-like tempo, and then listen at :45 as the boys say goodbye, then the girls, and then they sing together. Sir Denis justly calls that bit, and a trio to come later, "the most purely beautiful thing in the opera."
The boys and the military chorus take off for shooty parts unspecified. Dora, Flora, and Don Alfonso wish them calm seas and safe voyage in an irresistible but brief trio in which Don Alfonso stops mugging and supports the sopranos. It's untouchable.
All of that — from the women singing about their boyfriends, to them bidding them goodbye — is just one scene of one act. No other opera composer outclasses it.
Albanians? Like . . . From Albania?
The next scene introduces us to Despina. She's Flora and Dora's maid, the comic relief, and the working-class character permitted by convention to say things the upper-class lead characters cannot. In this case she is recitativing about how much her job sucks when Flora and Dora storm in. Dora plunges headlong into an aria about how upset she is. It's not a bad aria, exactly. It's just overwrought, and it's Dora's only aria, and she's not the prima donna and is quite frankly resentful about it, and so the soprano usually chews the scenery. Dora gets the first aria about how upset she is the boyfriends being gone, which tells you she'll be the first to fall for Don Alfonso's scheme. Flora is also overwrought; Despina is dismissive. There's more where they came from, and you better believe they're off getting some strange, so get over it, she says. Despina scores Flora and Dora their Valium and can talk to them however she likes.
Flora and Dora mope off, and Despina opens the door to Don Alfonso. Don Alfonso suggests he has some friends from out of town who could cheer up Flora and Dora. Despina thinks this sounds like a good idea; the boyfriends have been gone for about forty-five minutes and her bosses are already being a gigantic pain in the ass. Don Alfonso introduces Bill and Fred, disguised as Albanians.
Yes, Albanians. Why? The Viennese want something exotic, which in the context of opera means mustaches, harem pants, and occasionally fringed jackets. Normally Mozart could go straight to the Turks — that's what he did in The Abduction from the Seraglio — but what with Joseph II being at war with the Turks right now, that would be awkward. So Albanians it is. The Viennese think Albanians are tremendously exotic, even though they're closer neighbors than, say, Spain. That's because even though Vienna is a center of culture and learning, the Viennese are ultimately rather provincial. Perhaps when you eat millet and shit in a trench and die at 35 your bar for exoticism is set pretty low.
So starts a cute number where Bill and Fred act exotic and Despina acts incredulous. She asks in a brisk patter (:50) whether they are Turkish or even Wallachians. Wallachia is southern Romania and is even closer than Albania, but again — Viennese! Despina and Don Alfonso and Bill and Fred have a nice quartet about their mustaches and thus-and-such (1:15) until Flora and Dora show up in a bad mood. Who the hell are you, they ask at operatic length. Our mustaches: let us show them to you, say Bill and Fred. Flora and Dora are uninterested. Mozart wraps it into a brilliant sextet (3:25).
After more recitative, Flora gets her big and tremendously difficult aria, in which she says, at length, and all up and down the scales, HOW DARE YOU. Listen to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as she sings the opening bars. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf could sing the theme to Charles in Charge and you might piss yourself in terror, so she's perfect to sing this indignant number. But listen to the merry little jig the strings are doing under her between her phrases — Mozart's making fun of her and her self-seriousness a bit. That might show Mozart developing as a musical dramatist, or it might show that he couldn't stand da Ponte's latest girlfriend, who was singing the part when the opera premiered.
In a charming and quite funny bit Bill tries to convince the ladies that he and Fred are All That. They flounce off. Bill and Fred dissolve into laughter, bragging that they are winning the bet because the girls aren't having any of this. (1:41). Don Alfonso shouts STOP NOT TAKING MY FARCE SERIOUSLY DAMMIT. The boys agree to try harder.
The scene ends with an oddity that illustrates how much talent Mozart has to burn. Fred sings a slow, lyrical, irresistibly beautiful aria to Bill, suggesting that love is swell. And so it is. But the aria doesn't move the plot forward an inch, Bill doesn't need encouragement, and there's no homoerotic subtext (at least at the moment). So why is it there? Any other composer who penned such an aria would give it to the leading man to sing to the leading woman and make it the centerpiece. Mozart uses it like a comma.
Viennese Magnets, How Do They Work?
Ask opera lovers their favorite part of Così and lots of them will point to the Act One finale. It represents Mozart's facility with extended set pieces, and at the same time reflects the development of opera from concerts with costumes and some light gesturing to through-sung musical dramas. You might remember the scene in Amadeus in which Mozart tries to convince Joseph II to let him produce The Marriage of Figaro; Mozart explains how he has composed a set piece in which he will sustain one scene for twenty minutes building from duet to trio to quartet to quintet and so forth. That scene is indeed brilliant, but Mozart has polished the technique since Figaro.
We open with Flora and Dora musing about how their life has changed so quickly. The tune's nice and the harmony adept. (2:12) Enter Bill and Fred, claiming to have taken poison because of the heartbreak of Flora's and Dora's rejection, Don Alfonso trailing behind. (2:50).2 Flora and Dora call for Despina, who is knowledgeable about overdoses, and she tells them to cuddle the poor dying men while she gets a doctor, and takes off. (5:19) So we've gone from duet up to quintet to sextet back down to quintet. Listen to Flora and Dora sing a new melody while Fred and Bill wisecrack (5:50-6:20) and later as Don Alfonso returns (7:25).
Despina returns, disguised as a doctor. She sells the disguise by being largely incomprehensible. (In a Shakespearean flourish, Despina is in on the plot of the men only pretending to be poisoned, but not in on the plot of the men actually being Bill and Fred.) There's a nice passage (1:05) as Flora and Dora answer the doctor's questions and explain that the cause of distress is love and the method of harm is arsenic so the problem is love and arsenic, though really mostly arsenic. Doctor Despina uses magnets on the boys, who ham it up and thrash around and begin to recover. Bill and Fred pretend to awaken, proclaim themselves in the presence of goddesses, and get somewhat handsy, how much depending upon the staging of the particular production. Flora and Dora are nonplussed and a marvelous sextet ensues (4:40). Eventually Bill and Fred play their hand too strongly and ask for a kiss (7:19). That would be a no. Mozart changes pace and tune and finishes the scene with yet another rather frenetic and soaring sextet. Listen at 8:48: Don Alfonso and Despina are kibitzing, Flora and Dora are telling the boys to go to hell, and the boys are begging. It ends with a crash.
The finale works so well because Mozart is mastering musical characterization — not merely writing beautiful music, but writing beautiful music that suits each character dramatically in each scene, and then harmonizing them during abrupt pacing changes suited to the plot, which is no easy trick. This is no longer a static costumed concert. Scenes like this predict, musically and dramatically, far-distant scenes like the quintet in West Side Story
The Second Act Dilemma, Plus Boffing
The problem with a stone-brilliant first act is topping it in the second. Mozart doesn't. There's some excellent work, but nothing matches the genius of the extended goodbye scene or the first act finale.
We open with Despina telling Flora and Dora that they can wrap anyone around their finger, and why not Albanians? They seem nice, apart from the mustaches. Flora and Dora talk it out and decide to flit, but no tongue, and divvy up the Albanians between them.
Fred and Bill return with a chorus and a symphony and often a boat. Bill and Fred are trying to impress Flora and Dora, and this is often treated as an opportunity for the production company to impress the audience with stagecraft and pageantry and costumes. If the audience doesn't murmur and possibly say holy shit when the curtain rises the thing's regarded as a failure. The tune's simple and sweet (:58). After encouragement from Despina and Don Alfonso, the couples go for a walk, very awkwardly, and separate. Bill and Dora succumb to temptation in what to my taste is the best love duet of the opera, yearning and conflicted and sincere and one of Mozart's best. Listen to the opening idea (:01 – :22), the first time they join to the same phrase in harmony (1:15), the part where Bill feels sort of bad (but not bad enough) for Fred whilst stripping the locket with Fred's picture off of Dora (2:15)3 In the and the rejoining in harmony (2:58). Off they go, with a level of explicitness again depending upon the production. The duet really doesn't work unless you play it that Bill has fallen in love with Dora, which is how it's usually played.
Meanwhile, Flora asks Fred more nicely than he deserves to have pity and not tempt her. Flora rids herself of Fred and gets a second aria, because she's the prima donna. It's another virtuoso piece, though not as difficult as the first, as she asks Bill to forgive her because, apparently, if she goes Albanian she'll never go back. The opening phrase (1:29) is simple and gorgeous, the second idea much more up tempo (7:07).
Fred and Bill meet up again. Bill is unconvincingly sorry that he just nailed Fred's girl and Fred is convincingly enraged. Fred gets an aria, complaining that women will cheat on you just because you engage in a cruel and elaborate hoax employing Albanians of mass destruction to trick them into doing so. He resolves to succeed with Flora, and soon enough does, returning to her and wooing her in an ardent duet. The plot wants to make the seduction extremely creepy; it's saved only by how genuinely happy they sound at the end (4:22).
Don Alfonso gets his one aria: TOLD YOU. Yes, he is smug.
So Bill and Fred, in Albanian guise, are to marry Dora and Flora, respectively. The four lovers offer wedding toasts to each other, a blissful harmony disrupted by Bill grumping to himself about how someone seduced his girl while he was seducing somebody else's girl. Don Alfonso brings in Despina dressed as a notary to handle the paperwork. She's explaining the marriage contracts at length — she gets paid by the hour — when we hear a reprise of the first-act military march (1:58). This is generally an opportunity for some worried mugging by Flora and Dora. Bill and Fred flee in Albanian guise, then return in their own clothes (3:25), saying that the war's been postponed or something. They pretend to find the marriage contract and Despina-the-Notary, pretend outrage, and rush out of the room to kill the Albanians (6:15). They return, quickly, half in the Albanian costumes and half in the solider costumes and mock the girls rather nastily by reprising lines from their love songs (8:15). Don Alfonso offers more smugness, then advises them to get over it, which they do it a loving quartet that even Mozart can't make particularly convincing. We end with a rousing and singularly inappropriate chorus.
So wait. Who's getting married to whom at this point?
The libretto is coy. Productions vary. Do the lovers go back to their original partners, or stay with their new ones? You'll find disagreement. I think they stay with their new partners. First, moral convention requires us to believe they've corrected earlier confusion and found their true loves, or else they've just been screwing around for three hours. Second, dramatic convention requires movement in one direction and is spoiled by shaking the Etch-A-Sketch at the end. Most convincingly, operatic convention requires Flora, the prima donna, to wind up with Fred, the tenor. The prima donna would no sooner go home with the baritone than she'd go home with the guy who throws down sawdust when the barflys in the cheap seats hurl in the aisles.
What Did I Just Read?
Così's plot presents serious impediments to modern tastes. The hoax is nasty and its climax is cruel. What do we do about it? Do we subvert it with staging and acting and vocal inflection, making the men genuinely fall in love with each others' girlfriends, and make the denunciation at the end jokey? Do we treat it as an archaic morality play? Do we try to reinvent it as a criticism of sexism, the way we are tempted to reinvent The Merchant of Venice as a statement about antisemitism? Sir Denis Forman says "please believe Così is no problem unless you want to make it into one." He points out that plain-text implication — that male infidelity is expected and excusable, but female infidelity is not — was the conventional wisdom of the time, and that Mozart and da Ponte simply built entertainment around it. "If each scene worked and the succession of scenes hung together and made a good shape for the act, then it was a success. There was no consideration of the credibility or morality of the story which arises when it is put under the microscope by scholars and other serious persons."
Così didn't re-emerge from relative obscurity to become a favorite because the plot is notable; it re-emerged because the music is stunning. The goodbye scene, the first act finale, and a few other points are as good as opera gets.
Next time: ow! my masked ball!
- Recitative is an Italian word meaning "I can't hear myself think over that fucking harpsichord." It refers to exposition and dialogue spoken in annoying sing-song way whilst the harpsichord plinks. Over the centuries composers abandon it in favor of through-sung style. ▲
- The modern production I've linked there — which has Bill and Fred leave as corporate executives and come back dressed as slackers, one in a Che shirt — is hilarious. ▲
- My father has some excellent videos of Mozart productions at Glyndebourne. In the Così production the locket's chain got stuck rather firmly in Dora's decolletage. They made it work. ▲
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