Always trust a woman

George Fleeton

This article first appeared in the 7th Lismore Opera Festival programme for the production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at Lismore Castle in west Co Waterford on 03 and 04 June 2016.

IN its six epiphanies up to and including last year Lismore Music Festival devoted its burgeoning energies to three Mozart operas: Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro, two of his mature opere buffe; and they were followed by his final singspiel: Die Zauberflöte – which, all three together, are the epitome of 18th century opera.

Between times at Lismore we were then offered two comic operas from the 19th century:  Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola; and this initiative – Ireland’s only Summer Opera Festival - had all started in 2010 with Bizet’s Carmen, also set in Seville but itself a very different creature from a much later period in French opera.

As you read this you may very well be saying to yourself or to your neighbour: ‘Sure, didn’t I see them all here in Lismore.’

This year, rebranded as Lismore Opera Festival, the return of Mozart is both expected and welcome: Così fan tutte (January 1790) was his final opera buffa and the third such written for him by Lorenzo da Ponte.

The title, an expression which neatly paraphrases as ‘never trust a woman’, is taken from Don Alfonso’s final cynical exhortation to Ferrando and Guglielmo:  Così fan(no) tutte (le donne) - all women do this, i.e. latch onto the nearest man, so love your fiancée but don’t trust her out of your sight - as he prepares them, in the penultimate scene of the opera,  each to marry the other sister, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, or should that be Dorabella and Fiordiligi..?

An old friend of mine once asked me many years ago: ‘Così? Isn’t that the one where these two young rakes take on a bet that their mots will be faithful, so they come back in mufti, seduce each other’s girl and find that they aren’t?’ - to which I could only reply ‘You’ve got it in one.’

We then proceeded to see the opera and he slept through most of it; yet in the car coming home he discussed the plot, the characters and the music in great detail.

COSÌ was Mozart’s fifteenth completed opera and there were two more in the pipeline: La Clemenza di Tito and Zauberflöte, each opening in September 1791 within three months of his death.

We don’t know where da Ponte found the story for Così so it may be one of the few genuine original scripts in opera history.

For instance, at a time when Dr Mesmer was peddling animal magnetism or mesmerism (living beings have magnetic fields that can be manipulated for healing purposes) Mozart and da Ponte were making fun of it as a cure for love’s ills in Act 1 of Così.

Mozart’s patron Emperor Joseph II had probably commissioned the opera but, unfortunately for the composer and da Ponte, Joseph died about a month after it had opened in Vienna’s Burgtheater; I say unfortunately because there were only five performances and then the theatre was closed.

However when rehearsals began for a new production later that year another Joseph, Herr Haydn, was entranced saying he had had ‘a lovely time’ and he became Mozart’s biggest fan.

After Mozart’s death the opera was cut up and rewritten to sanitise it in an effort to  avoid the accusations of ‘shocking and licentious’  immorality - not misogyny, note - that were being levelled at it, especially in Germany.

Then over one hundred years later the balance was somewhat redressed when Richard Strauss came upon it, proclaimed it a masterpiece, promoted it influentially and revived it in Munich in 1910.

Thomas Beecham joined the club but Così’s first great production in our era was left to John Christie at the opening of his Glyndebourne Festival in 1934.

Since then no self-respecting opera house or festival anywhere can afford to neglect it.

ARE da Ponte’s characters and plot ‘trivial and artificial’ as those intent on giving it a hard time in Mozart’s day were saying?

Yes and probably more so today when all opera is prohibitively expensive to produce, properly that is, and where the operatic drama is patently unrealistic to most of us watchers in the dark.

All complicated of course by the modern audience’s inability to suspend disbelief, switch off its screens and let the music invade its collective imagination.

And that’s precisely where the music comes in to play because music makes opera the most extra ordinary artistic medium of the last 400 years: music which can paint and reflect back to us shared and inter-related human passions with astonishing power and emotional effect and where the tingling tensions between the words and the music, between the theatrical characters and the singers, sustain us and enliven great productions of great operas which then resonate in our souls long after the event.

The music of Così illustrates some of those fundamental truths about all operas’  most popular and enduring works, albeit music written in a more remote European past and in political, social and economic circumstances radically different from our own.

Listen as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella bid a sad farewell to their fiancés in that most beautiful of short trios Soave sia il vento; listen later to Fiordiligi’s big set-piece aria Come scoglio where she insists, with rock-like constancy, that this lady’s not for turning.

Then contrast that with Ferrando’s love song Un’aura amorosa with its golden, persuasive phrases, meant to disarm Dorabella who, misfortunately, isn’t even within earshot as he pours it out.

And finally wait for Fiordiligi’s rock-hard resolve to weaken at the knees and keel over in the four passages (a crucial encounter and the opera’s finest and most complex writing) - from Fra gli amplessi to Abbracciamci, o caro bene in Act 2 - as she moves on from Guglielmo (boy, will he be cross) to clinch with Ferrando - he was Dorabella’s flame at the start, if you have lost the plot.

I have always heard this opera as an allegory of female empowerment; however these characters, given the times 225 years ago, are placed in situations potentially destructive of developing lasting relationships and the cynicism at the end of this opera (as in Figaro and Giovanni) closes the door on any further consideration of tangled lives.

SO is it fair that what was originally intended to be funny turned out to be the most disturbing of Mozart’s operas to modern sensibilities?

Studied closely his music tends towards the subtly subversive: boundary-crossing is easier to do in opera where music is the great leveller of social pretension so by way of these musical transformations Fiordiligi and Dorabella  are ultimately revealed to have depths and human frailties which their lyrics have barely suggested.

Yes superficially the plot points in the narrative may seem trite and predictable, but the levels of possible ambiguity are denser than elsewhere in Mozart’s operas.

Where Così is different (from Figaro and Giovanni) is that there are no social barriers between the sisters and their officer lovers which means that they can converse in a shared if complicated musical language.

In our day we no longer have hang-ups about its moral tone nor about its bizarre plot conventions, its improbable 24-hour timespan, its speed-dating-like seductions, and those outlandish Albanian disguises - to which I have always objected, because I worked in Albania in the 1990s and found them wonderful people, undeserving of this kind of operatic ridicule; so hats off to enlightened directors who have moved beyond that.

AMONG others Beethoven and Wagner were disappointed that Mozart had expended his genius on such immoral stuff while admitting to admire the music, especially the women’s.

Callas was not a great Mozart fan either: There is a lack of overt emotionalism in his music; I find most of it dull, speaking to students in 1971.

Then in her analysis of how to sing Mozart she added: His music is usually sung with too much fragility; it should be sung with the same frankness with which you sing Verdi – but in a Mozart style.

I’ve been studying, teaching and writing about Callas’ work for nearly twenty-five years and still don’t understand what she was getting at; so please discuss among yourselves while we concentrate on presenting for you a very fine production of Così fan tutte.