Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Invention of Angela Carter

Why read writers' biographies? The aspect of their lives that we most want to know about—"the unique motivations and the psychological origins of literary production," as one critic has written, or as I would put it, "How did they do it?"—is one that is largely inaccessible to an external observer. If the goal of literary biography is to "help us to comprehend. . .how literary art happens," another critic writes, "this admirable objective never seems to be reached." It's telling that a recent book on literary biography is entitled The Impossible Craft. [1]

So it was in full consciousness of the inevitability of disappointment that I began reading Edmund Gordon's The Invention of Angela Carter (Oxford University Press, 2017). The title refers, of course, to her self-invention as a writer and a person, but it could also apply to the posthumous growth of her reputation and the accretion of distorting myths around her. Gordon writes in his epilogue that his biography "is intended as a first step towards demythologising Angela Carter." [2]

Ironically, Carter is far more widely read, appreciated and studied now than at any time during her tragically truncated life. As a sign of this change, in 2012 Nights at the Circus (Chatto & Windus, 1984) was named the best novel ever to have won the nearly century-old James Tait Black fiction prize. Previous winners had included novels by D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, Iris Murdoch, John le Carré, J. M. Coetzee, J. G. Ballard, Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith, and Cormac McCarthy: heady company.

I don't remember when I first encountered Angela Carter's work, or even which of her books I read first. I suspect that it was her short story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (first published by Gollancz, 1979), parts of which were adapted into a striking film directed by Neil Jordan, The Company of Wolves (1984). Other early encounters included her second novel, The Magic Toyshop (Heinemann, 1967), adapted into an excellent film in 1987, and her book-length essay on the writings of the Marquis de Sade, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (Pantheon, 1978). With the film adaptations, her extensive journalism, and the success of her novels Nights at the Circus and Wise Children (Chatto & Windus, 1991), Carter had begun to achieve some popular acclaim in the early 1990s when she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. She died in February 1992 at age 51, less than a year after her diagnosis.

Gordon has produced a thoughtful, thoroughly researched and well-written biography; if you are interested in Carter's writing you will find that it provides much to reflect on. But on occasion in describing connections between Carter's life and work he can be reductive, and there are other areas that he simply doesn't investigate fully—leaving as an exercise for the reader questions that perhaps he should have probed more deeply.

In the first category is Gordon's tendency to identify Carter's fictional characters as versions of her family and acquaintances. Carter wrote that "all fiction is symbolic autobiography" (a quote she later attributed to Balzac, although I have been unable to trace it). [3] Gordon, though, often seems to discount or ignore the modifier "symbolic."

For example, he asserts that Uncle Philip in The Magic Toyshop "was a grotesquely exaggerated version of [Angela's first husband] Paul Carter." [4] Angela had married Paul when she was only 20 to escape her stultifying family home; later in her journal she described this act as a "flight from a closed room into another one." [5] According to Gordon, Paul was undemonstrative, uncommunicative, and resented Angela's initial success, but he was not an ogre. During their marriage he had at least one serious bout of depression; perhaps it was during that period that Angela came to feel that "he needed me for a mother." [6]

Uncle Philip, in contrast, isn't dependent, withdrawn or depressed. Instead he is a creepy, controlling and perverse father-figure. Even if Paul matched Uncle Philip's attributes more closely, though, to attempt to map the character so directly onto a real person is to turn the sinister, dreamlike atmosphere of the novel—in my view and Gordon's one of her best—into that of a mundane domestic drama.

If at places Gordon can be too insistent about making direct connections between Carter's fiction and her life, though, what about the many characters in her novels who are orphans? (Her mother was, if anything, overprotective rather than absent.) And what are we to make of the many scenes in her fiction of incest and rape? Incest features in her short stories "The Events of a Night," "The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter" and "Penetrating to the Heart of the Forest," and in the novels The Magic Toyshop and Wise Children. Should we assume that these motifs are thinly fictionalized versions of her own experience, or is their significance purely imaginative? Carter herself wrote approvingly of "a fiction absolutely self-conscious of itself as a different form of human experience than reality." [7]

There are also moments where Gordon makes some odd, or at least superficial, judgments. The screenplay Carter co-wrote for The Company of Wolves employs as a framing device the dream of a teenaged girl, Rosaleen, about the terrors and allurements of adolescence.  Gordon writes that this "is largely an excuse to bombard the viewer with strange and disturbing scenes and images. A lot of it wasn't intended to signify anything in particular."

To illustrate this lack of meaning Gordon describes the following scene:
At one point, Rosaleen runs away from an 'amorous boy' and climbs a tree towards a stork's nest in the crook of a bough. The bird flies away, and Rosaleen looks into the nest, which contains four eggs and a small mirror with a gilt handle. She begins applying her lipstick in the mirror. As she does so, the four eggs burst open to reveal four statuettes of babies. [8]
Far from signifying "nothing in particular," this scene seems if anything overdetermined with meaning and oversaturated with symbols of sexuality and fecundity. If Gordon didn't tell us that Carter was pregnant while writing the screenplay, we might have guessed it from this scene.

Gordon interviewed the film's director (and screenplay co-writer) Neil Jordan, but he is a bit too ready to accept what Jordan tells him. Gordon writes,
The only constraints on the writing of the film were those of the medium of cinema itself. Angela wanted it to end with Rosaleen waking from her dream and diving into her bedroom floor, as into a pool of water. 'It was such a simple image, it would be easy to do now,' Jordan reflected in 2014. 'But then it was impossible.' [9]
Really? Somehow the "constraints. . .of the medium of cinema itself" did not prevent Jean Cocteau from showing a character plunging through a mirror as if into a pool of water in his film Blood of a Poet, made in 1929. More than five decades of cinematic innovation later, and such a shot was "impossible"? Permit my skepticism, and my suspicion that Jordan preferred his ending, in which a pack of wolves bursts into Rosaleen's bedroom and she screams in fear.
Angela was dismayed: 'When I went to the screening I sat with Neil and I was enjoying the film very much and thinking that it had turned out so well—just as I had hoped,' she told an interviewer a few years later. 'Until the ending, which I couldn't believe—I was so upset. I said, "You've ruined it."' [10]
It's been many years since I've seen The Company of Wolves, but I don't remember feeling that the ending had ruined the film. It is, though, the mirror image, as it were, of the ending Carter had wished for. In her version, Rosaleen wakes from her dream only to choose to plunge deeper into the unconscious; in Jordan's version, the dream-world (in the form of the wolf pack) terrifyingly irrupts into Rosaleen's reality.

I don't want to be too negative; Gordon's book is very worthwhile, and future writers about Carter's life and work will rely heavily on his interviews with Carter's intimate friends and on the many letters and journal passages he has unearthed. And it will undoubtedly inspire readers to discover or rediscover Carter's writing, which is the greatest compliment that can be paid to a literary biography. But as Gordon himself acknowledges of his subject, "She's much too big for any single book to contain." [11]

One of those readers that Gordon has inspired to rediscover Carter's writing is yours truly. In future posts I hope to discuss my re-reading of two of my favorite of her works, The Magic Toyshop and The Bloody Chamber, and two novels I found disappointing when they were first published, Nights at the Circus and Wise Children.

  1. "Unique motivations": John Richetti, "Writing about Defoe: What is a critical biography?" Literature Compass 3/2 (2006): 65–79, 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2006.00302.x; "help us to comprehend": Daniel Green, "Literary Biography," The Reading Experience: On Contemporary Literature and Criticism, http://www.thereadingexperience.net/tre/literary-biography.html; Scott Donaldson, The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography. Penn State University Press, 2015.
  2. Edmund Gordon, The Invention of Angela Carter. Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 420.
  3. Angela Carter, Introduction to Walter de la Mare, Memoirs of a Midget. Oxford University Press, 1982.
  4. Gordon, p. 90.
  5. Quoted in Gordon, p. 48.
  6. Quoted in Gordon, p. 113.
  7. Quoted in Helen Simpson, "Femme fatale: Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber." The Guardian, 24 Jun 2006. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jun/24/classics.angelacarter 
  8. Gordon, pp. 335-36.
  9. Gordon, p. 336.
  10. Gordon, p. 336.
  11. Gordon, p. 421.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The first Glyndebourne Mozart recordings

Glyndebourne in the 1930s. Photo: Glyndebourne Archive

Today, when it seems that every sizeable English country estate offers its own summer opera series, the utterly radical nature of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera at its inception may not be readily apparent. Of course, at the time of the founding of the Festival in 1934 there were long-established opera festivals on the European continent. But Glyndebourne was unprecedented in several respects:

The setting. Spike Hughes writes in Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera that "ever since the Teatro San Cassiano was opened as the world's first public opera house in Venice in 1637, opera had always been an essentially urban form of entertainment." [1] Not quite "always," perhaps, but before Glyndebourne only princes had built opera houses on their country estates. And performances at, for example, Esterháza or Versailles were entertainments for the court, not a ticket-buying public. Opera festivals that depended on selling tickets located themselves in cities, such as Munich and Salzburg. Even Bayreuth at the time of the founding of the Wagner Festival had a population approaching 30,000. In contrast, in 1931 the population of the village of Glynde was 257. [2]

The funding. Other opera festivals were not only located in urban settings, they were the undertakings of whole communities. They were funded publicly, by musical societies, and by private donors. The financial and logistical burdens of the Glyndebourne Festival were borne entirely by one man: Glyndebourne's owner, John Christie. Over the first three seasons the Festival's deficit totaled £21,000 (close to £1.5 million today). [3] Christie, undaunted, continued the Festival until World War II forced a hiatus, and resumed it after the war ended. The Festival's survival is a monument to Christie's dual devotions: to opera, and to his wife, the soprano Audrey Mildmay.

The languages. At the end of January 1934, it was announced that the first season of the Glyndebourne Festival would involve six performances each of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Cosi fan tutte (That's what they're all like) sung in Italian. In our current era of supertitles, performing an opera in the language in which it was originally written may not seem unusual. But in Britain at the time of the Glyndebourne Festival's founding Mozart's operas were generally sung in English. Before marrying John Christie, Audrey Mildmay had regularly performed the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, but she had to re-learn the part in Italian for the 1936 Glyndebourne première.

The recordings. As Paul Campion and Rosy Runciman write in Glyndebourne Recorded, before Glyndebourne "no attempt had ever been made to record a Mozart opera." [4] But after the Festival's opening night on 28 May 1934 had made clear both the high quality of the musical performances and the suitability of the theater as a recording venue, The Gramophone Company sent a mobile unit to Glyndebourne. On Wednesday, 6 June 1934, the Festival cast and orchestra performed 14 excerpts from Figaro (primarily the ensembles from Acts II and IV), most recorded on two "waxes" simultaneously as insurance against damage. All but four of the excerpts were recorded in one take.

The recordings were judged a success by all involved. During the Festival's second season in 1935 the mobile unit returned to Glyndebourne to record much of the rest of Figaro as well as Cosi fan tutte, and the following season Don Giovanni was recorded.

All of these recordings have been reissued (and re-ordered, in the case of Figaro) on the Naxos Historical label. After our experience of Glyndebourne, and especially after seeing David Hare's play The Moderate Soprano on the life of Audrey Mildmay Christie and the founding of the Glyndebourne Festival, we were very curious. As I wrote in my post on Audrey Mildmay, "The Glyndebourne recordings were the first (nearly) complete recordings of Mozart's operas in Italian, and so are landmarks of recorded music." But how well would these recordings stand up after the passage of more than eight decades?

As it turns out, remarkably well. Few allowances need to be made for the age of the recordings. They have all been splendidly remastered by Ward Marston, reducing surface noise without dulling the sound. They are in mono, of course, lack the full frequency range of modern studio recordings, and the orchestra is somewhat recessed relative to the singers. But we found that our ears soon adjusted. The performances of the singers are generally quite good, and some are extraordinary.

Le nozze di Figaro

Recorded 6 June 1934, 24 & 28 June 1935. Released as The Mozart Society Volume One (June 1935), Volumes Two and Three (December 1935).

One reason the Glyndebourne performances sound so accomplished is that they were all preceded by an unusually extensive rehearsal period. Hughes states that there were twenty-four full orchestral rehearsals for Figaro, and the results are certainly audible in the crispness of the orchestral playing and in the cohesion of the vocal ensembles. Conductor Fritz Busch "had endeared himself to the players from the first moment when, on raising his baton to rehearse the overture to Figaro for the first time, he had dropped his arm and said 'Already too loud!'" [5]

Busch favored extremes, not only of dynamics, but of tempo. The overture is so fast that I wondered briefly whether, in order to fit it onto one 78 rpm side, it was recorded at the wrong speed (it wasn't). Busch flashes through it in under four minutes (3:55 to be exact), requiring some truly astonishing feats of musicianship from the Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra (made up of players from the London Symphony). For some later comparisons, in his 2004 period-instrument recording René Jacobs takes 4:11, while in his classic 1959 version Carlo Maria Giulini (whose tempos strike me as very well-judged) requires 4:16.

If Busch's overture is among the fastest on record, he takes some arias more slowly than I'm used to (for example, both of the Countess's arias, and Susanna's "Deh vieni"). Although the slow tempos allow us to revel in Mozart's gift for melody, they also slow the momentum of the comedy. Busch's tempos seem to work best in the ensembles, which thanks to the cast's long stage work together are wonderfully vivid (and where some of the rapid patter had me laughing out loud).

Hughes writes that "Audrey Mildmay's success as Susanna was not done justice to on the Glyndebourne recordings, for it was the result of a unique combination of charm of spirit and temperament and physical attraction which no record could possibly capture." [6] Not having seen Audrey Mildmay on stage, I can't compare her live to her recorded performances, but her "Venite, inginocchiatevi," sung in the Countess's bedroom while Susanna is dressing the ardent page Cherubino in women's clothes, seems full of charm:

Venite, inginocchiatevi;
Restate fermo lì.
Pian piano, or via, giratevi:
Bravo, va ben così.

La faccia ora volgetemi:
Olà, quegli occhi a me.
Drittissimo: guardatemi.
Madama qui non è.

Restate fermo, or via,
giratevi, bravo!

Più alto quel colletto. . .
quel ciglio un po' più basso. . .
le mani sotto il petto. . .
vedremo poscia il passo
quando sarete in pie'.

piano alla Contessa

Mirate il bricconcello!
Mirate quanto è bello!
Che furba guardatura!
Che vezzo, che figura!
Se l'amano le femmine
han certo il lor perché.
Come, kneel down;
Stay right here.
Keep quiet, now turn around:
Bravo, that's very good.

Now turn and face me:
Here, keep your eyes on me.
Straight ahead: look at me,
Madame isn't here.

Keep still now,
Turn around, bravo!

That collar a bit higher. . .
Those eyes lowered. . .
Your hands clasped before you. . .
Now get on your feet
And let's see how you walk.

softly to the Countess

Look at the little scamp,
How beautiful he is!
What roguish glances,
What airs, what graces!
If women fall in love with him,
They have good reasons why.

The Countess of Aulikki Rautawaara is the outstanding performance of this first Figaro recording, and she is ably partnered by the stentorian Count of Roy Henderson and the hearty Figaro of Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender (father of Brigitte Fassbaender). As Cherubino, Luise Helletsgruber may not sound very much like a teenage boy, but that's true of many other recorded Cherubinos as well.

This first Figaro was recorded with substantial cuts. Left out were almost all of the recitative, the Act I chorus "Giovani lieti," and the Act IV arias of Barbarina (Winifred Radford), Marcellina (Constance Willis), and Don Basilio (Heddle Nash). Nonetheless, if you know the opera it's easy to follow the story. Busch also omitted all unwritten appoggiaturas, an omission that most of us won't notice as to this day appoggiaturas are applied very inconsistently. (For an explanation of appoggiaturas, see NPR's "Another Take on The 'Appoggiatura.'")

So while I wouldn't recommend this recording to someone coming to Figaro for the very first time, it's fascinating document of the first season of Glyndebourne. The "freshness of the voices," "the precision of rhythm" and the "perfection of ensemble" noted by reviewers certainly remain audible, even after the passage of nearly a century. [7]

Cosi fan tutte 

Recorded 25, 26, 27 & 28 June 1935. Released as The Mozart Society Volumes Four, Five and Six (March 1936).

The impression that conductor Fritz Busch was at his best in ensembles is borne out by the recording of the ensemble opera Cosi fan tutte. Hughes writes that the first audiences for the Glyndebourne Cosi "enjoyed an experience that was even more exhilarating than the opening Figaro. . .To most people in the audience Mozart's last Italian comedy came not only as a revelation but in many cases as a complete novelty." [8] (The reasons Cosi was so rarely performed in the years before Glyndebourne are discussed in the post "Was Mozart a misogynist?") Mary Hunter writes that Cosi did not enter "the canon of routinely performed Mozart operas until three decades into the twentieth century; it is generally agreed that the Glyndebourne production of 1934 was the turning point." [9]

It's easy to hear why. In "Di scrivermi ogni giorno," the violins pulse in time with the heartbeats of the four lovers—Fiordiligi (Ina Souez) and Guglielmo (Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender), Dorabella (Luisa Helletsgruber) and Ferrando (Heddle Nash)—as they promise to write one another every day during their enforced separation. That the men are playing a cruel trick on the women is known to the audience and commented on in asides by Don Alfonso (John Brownlee), but is unacknowledged by the sublime music:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45D5ftMVaOA (the chorus "Bella vita militar," calling the men away to war, begins at 2:01)

As he did in Figaro, Busch chooses slow tempos for some of the arias, especially Fiordiligi's "Come scoglio" (Like a rock) and "Per pièta" (Have pity). And one feature of the recording that will strike a modern listener as dated is the treatment of the recitative: the accompaniment is a piano playing single chords, one chord per measure (or two or three) of singing. The difference in the sound-world between the accompanied sequences and the spare recitative is a bit jarring. Nonetheless, thanks to Mozart's gorgeous ensembles and Ina Souez's striking performance as Fiordiligi, it's clear why this recording had such an impact. Fiordiligi and Dorabella in "Ah, che tutta in un momento si cangiò la sorte mia" (All in a moment my fate has changed), their first acknowledgment of an attraction to the two handsome strangers (their fiancés in disguise, of course):

Curiously, Souez almost did not participate in the second Glyndebourne season. According to Hughes, at the end of the first season in June 1934 Souez had been told that she would be hired to repeat the role of Fiordiligi the following year. However, Glyndebourne's artistic management did not send her a contract until mid-February 1935, by which time she had quite understandably made other commitments. It wasn't until 5 May—just over three weeks before the opening night of Cosi on 30 May—that Souez was secured. It didn't seem to affect her performance in the house or on the recording.

Hughes writes that "the Glyndebourne performance revealed this enchanting work in all its glory." [10] In 1936 an anonymous critic in the New English Weekly wrote of the recording, "It is Mozart at his very best, sparkling like champagne." [11] The critics' glowing praise for an opera that before Glyndebourne had been rarely performed is a testament to the excellence of both the production and the recording.

Don Giovanni 

Recorded 29 & 30 June, 1, 2, & 5 July 1936. Released as The Mozart Society Volumes Seven, Eight (March 1937), and Nine (May 1937).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries Don Giovanni was far and away Mozart's most popular opera. So it's interesting that the Glyndebourne Festival, wholly devoted to Mozart in its first years, didn't stage it until its third season in 1936. Don Giovanni didn't appear on the Glyndebourne stage until after Figaro, Cosi, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Harem), and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Perhaps Glyndebourne was trying to offer audiences experiences they couldn't readily have elsewhere.

Hughes called the Glyndebourne Don Giovanni "a performance that left no corner unilluminated of this score's miraculous variety." [12] (A corner of variety? Never mind.) Even with the limited frequency range of these recordings the "Don Giovanni" chords that begin the overture send shivers up the spine:

Hughes thought that the 1936 season offered Audrey Mildmay's best singing; he wrote that she "was bewitching and unforgettable as Zerlina." [14] The slow tempos that Busch chooses for Zerlina's music make her character seem less flirtatious and more serious than she is sometimes portrayed, as you can hear in her duet with Don Giovanni (John Brownlee), "La ci darem la mano" (There we will join hands):

Là ci darem la mano,
Là mi dirai di sì.
Vedi, non è lontano;
Partiam, ben mio, da qui.

(Vorrei e non vorrei,
Mi trema un poco il cor.
Felice, è ver, sarei,
Ma può burlarmi ancor.)

Vieni, mio bel diletto!

(Mi fa pietà Masetto.)

Io cangierò tua sorte.

Presto. . .non son più forte.

. . .

Andiam! Andiam!


Andiam, andiam, mio bene,
a ristorar le pene
d'un innocente amor.
There we will join hands,
There you will tell me 'yes.'
See, it's not far;
Let's go there, my dearest.

(I would like to, and I wouldn't,
My heart is trembling a little.
True, I might be happy,
But it could be a trick.)

Come, my beautiful delight!

(I feel pity for Masetto.)

I will change your fate.

Soon. . .I won't be able to resist.

. . .

Let's go! Let's go!

Let's go!

Let's go, let's go, my dearest,
To soothe the pain
Of an innocent love.

There was a dispute involving the Don Giovanni recording. It had become regular practice for two takes—and on rare occasions three takes—of each number to be recorded. Busch would then listen to test pressings and select the take to be issued on the final album.

But after the Don Giovanni albums were released John Christie and Audrey Mildmay took issue with Busch's choices for two of Zerlina's arias. Christie wrote to The Gramophone Company,
My wife maintains quite definitely that some of her worst records have been used. For instance, record No 9 in Act 1 of Don Giovanni. The record was made, I think, three times. The one chosen shows her quite often to be flat. The alternative records, I believe, did not do so. [14]
A meeting was held on 20 June, and a letter was sent shortly afterwards to Audrey Mildmay:
This confirms our interview yesterday on the alternative recordings. Altogether we heard three records, and in two cases we will alter the previous masters.
2ER 149-1   Batti Batti — original master
2ER 149-2      "       "    — new master

2ER 169-2   Vedrai carino — original master
2ER 169-1       "         "      — new master
So two different versions of the opera were issued commercially. As a result it can be impossible to determine which takes of Zerlina's arias appear on the various reissues of these recordings. I notice that the timing of "Vedrai carino" on the Naxos Historical Don Giovanni is several seconds different from the version that appears on the Warner Classics Fritz Busch at Glyndebourne compilation, which may indicate that different versions were used. Which is which, though?

The Glyndebourne Don Giovanni has also stood the test of time. Reviewing a reissue in 1989, David Cairns wrote that "[John] Brownlee remains in many respects an ideal Don Giovanni. His voice may lack honey, and his Italian is a little suspect, but he sings with superb authority. . .Ina Souez's fiery Donna Anna is one of the best on record" [15].

There are many excellent later recordings of each of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas that feature full-spectrum stereo sound and accomplished singers. Nonetheless, these early recordings are invaluable, if inevitably imperfect, documents of Glyndebourne's early seasons. But more than that, they remain highly pleasurable listening after nearly a century. They are another remarkable aspect of Glyndebourne's unique legacy.

  1. Spike Hughes, Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera, David & Charles, 1981, p. 15.
  2. GB Historical GIS / University of Portsmouth, Glynde CP/AP through time | Population Statistics | Total Population, A Vision of Britain through Time. URL: http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/unit/10290454/cube/TOT_POP, accessed 5 August 2018 
  3. Bank of England inflation calculator: https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator
  4. Paul Campion and Rosy Runciman, Glyndebourne Recorded: Sixty Years of Recordings 1934-1994, Julia MacRae Books, 1994, p. 7.
  5. Hughes, p. 58. If I rely rather heavily on the testimony of Hughes in what follows, it is because he was an eye-witness, as so many later writers (including me) weren't.
  6. Hughes, p. 63.
  7. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, pp. 10-11.
  8. Hughes, p. 71. 
  9. Mary Hunter, Mozart's Operas: A Companion, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 163.
  10. Hughes, p. 71. 
  11. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, pp. 16-17.
  12. Hughes, p. 105. 
  13. Hughes, p. 105. 
  14. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, p. 23. "Record No 9" is probably "Batti, batti"—it appears on the flip side of the first record in Volume Eight, making it the ninth record (18th side) of the complete set. Two takes of this aria were recorded, both on 1 July 1936.
  15. Quoted in Campion and Runciman, p. 24.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The moderate soprano: Audrey Mildmay

Audrey Mildmay. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

John: I ask on behalf of the audience. . .Mozart. Is he any good?
The professionals look amused to each other, but John is ahead of them.
And before you say that's stupid, oh look, I know he's a genius. . .But it's a different matter, isn't it? Genius. It's a different thing. Because, frankly, Goethe's a genius, but I've never read Faust, have you? I can't get through it. And Dante's a genius but I've never read — the Quartos.
Ebert: Cantos.
John: Exactly.
Ebert: That make up the Divine Comedy.
John: Nor wanted to.
John is shaking his head.
I know everyone says that genius sees things other people don't. But geniuses aren't always so bloody brilliant at seeing what other people do. . .What I'm saying: Mozart may be great, but is he any good? That's my question. Because it's by no means the same thing.
—David Hare, The Moderate Soprano, Scene 12
This is one of many wonderful exchanges in Hare's play, but it's not quite true to life. John Christie, who together with his wife, Audrey Mildmay, founded the Glyndebourne Festival Opera, was not as unfamiliar with nor as skeptical of Mozart as Hare makes him appear. While it's true that Christie's greatest operatic passion was for Wagner, he also attended Mozart operas at festivals in Munich and Salzburg. And in the Organ Room at his family's country estate, Glyndebourne, he brought in professional and amateur singers to perform scenes from Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Harem). [1]

In the Christmastime 1930 performance of scenes from Die Entführung the soprano who sang the part of the Blonde was Audrey Mildmay. [2] She had been born in Sussex—in Herstmonceux, just 10 miles east of Glyndebourne—but had grown up in Canada, returning to England in her mid-20s for vocal studies. Ultimately she joined the Carl Rosa Opera Company, which performed operas in English or English translation, and which gave an annual season in London and spent the rest of the year touring throughout the British Isles.

On first hearing Audrey, John was instantly smitten. After a proverbial whirlwind courtship the couple married in early June 1931, just five months after they met. The groom was 48, and the bride was 30; it was the first and only marriage for both. It was apparently Audrey who convinced John to alter his plans for an expansion of the Organ Room into the construction of a full-fledged 300-seat theater, where the Glyndebourne Festival was staged beginning in 1934 and continuing (with a hiatus during World War II) to the present.

In Hare's play it is conductor Fritz Busch, director Carl Ebert, and manager Rudolph Bing, who, with support from Audrey, persuade John to shift the plans for his theater from Wagner to Mozart just eight weeks before the opening of the Festival (that is, around the beginning of April 1934). In fact, with John's encouragement Audrey had begun studying the roles of Susanna (in Le Nozze di Figaro) and Zerlina (in Don Giovanni) in the fall of 1932. She travelled to Vienna to learn the roles in Italian with vocal teacher Jani Strasser (while Zerlina had been in her repertory with Carl Rosa, she had performed it in English). So apparently Mozart operas, in Italian, were being planned for the Festival quite early on.

Audrey Mildmay in costume as Susanna in Act IV of Figaro (?), 1939. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

As late as November 1933, though, John was still hoping to inaugurate the theater with a performance of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), the second opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle. But two months later, at the end of January 1934, it was announced that the first season of the Festival would involve 6 performances each of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. In Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera, Spike Hughes writes that "John Christie's decision to present an all-Mozart festival instead of the mixed Wagner-Mozart affair he had originally planned was the satisfactory result of some concentrated pressure recently exercised on him by Audrey Mildmay and [scenic designer] Hamish Wilson," although it's also implied that Busch had a role. [3] Ebert and his protége Bing seem to have been hired after the repertoire had been chosen.

One of many affecting moments in Hare's play comes later in Scene 12. John has resigned himself to the lack of Wagner in Glyndebourne's first season, but he insists that for the Mozart operas that are now programmed his wife must be cast without auditioning. Audrey herself demurs. As she explains,
Audrey: These men are artists, John. . .They have to do it in a way which has integrity. They can't employ the chatelaine for no other reason but that she's married to the man who owns the chateau. . .the role isn't mine by right. It can't be. I have to prove my suitability like any other singer. Anything else would be unethical.
This moment is grounded in historical fact. Audrey was asked to audition, which she did on February 21. We can question how much freedom Busch, Ebert and Bing felt they had to form any negative judgments about the wife of their host and employer, but Busch's notes from the audition seem genuine: "a delightful voice, well-trained and full of artistry. Italian good. Strongly recommended. Properly used, her talent would have success in Dresden and Berlin."

Audrey Mildmay in costume as Susanna in Act II of Figaro, 1939. Photo: National Portrait Gallery.

Fortunately three of the early Glyndebourne Mozart productions were recorded, so we can hear for ourselves something of what Audrey Mildmay sounded like. The Glyndebourne recordings were the first (nearly) complete recordings of Mozart's operas in Italian, and so are landmarks of recorded music. These versions are of far more than historical interest, though: they capture vivid renditions of the operas. Few allowances need to be made for the age of the recordings, as you can hear for yourself in "Canzonetta sull'aria":

The singers are Aulikki Rautawaara (Countess Almaviva) and Audrey Mildmay (Susanna). The Countess dictates a love note, ostensibly from Susanna to the Count: "'A song on the breeze: A gentle zephyr / This evening will sigh / Beneath the pines in the grove.' The rest he'll understand." Susanna agrees: "Certainly, the rest he'll understand." The Countess intends to dress as Susanna and meet the Count in the garden; in the darkness and with the disguises, though, the plan begins to go awry. . .

Aulikki Rautawaara (Countess Almaviva) and Audrey Mildmay (Susanna) performing "Canzonetta sull'aria." Photo: Glyndebourne.com

I don't fault Hare for not cleaving strictly to the historical truth. Plays must work dramatically, and I can attest that The Moderate Soprano is very effective in the theater. There is one theatrically effective moment, though, that I wish had been staged differently. The final scene of the play (I don't think this is spoiling anything, but if you don't want to know, stop reading here) is the opening night of Figaro on 28 May 1934:
. . .Fritz Busch, wearing tails, walks out in front of the curtain. . .There is an expectant moment. Busch raises his arms, and on the beat, the orchestra is heard to begin Mozart's overture for The Marriage of Figaro. . .The music grows louder and louder till it fills the theatre, sublime.
The overture to Figaro is rousing, and reliably brings the audience to its feet. But I think a more moving finale would be Audrey Mildmay's rendition of Susanna's aria "Deh vieni non tardar" from Act IV—a more fitting tribute to the "moderate soprano":

The words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses."

Audrey appeared as Susanna in Figaro in five of the first six seasons of the Glyndebourne Festival. During the war the Festival went on hiatus, and with the Christie children Audrey went to Canada. Her last professional performance took place there in 1943; conductor Sir Thomas Beecham wired John back in England that "Audrey as Susanna has scored a brilliant and special success. . ." But after the war Audrey suffered increasingly ill health and increasingly desperate medical interventions. She died in 1953 without ever performing again in a fully-staged opera. [4]
John: I remember saying to Audrey. . .'The best fun is when you're starting out. That's the best bit.' Of course, you don't know it at the time.
Rudi: No.
John: That's the sad thing.
Rudi: Yes.
John: You're not really aware.
Rudi: No.
John: Not really.
They both stare ahead, not moving.

If only someone could tell you, eh? Wouldn't that be grand?
Rudi: Yes. 
John: If there were someone to tell you.
Rudi: Yes.
John: 'This is the best bit.'

Further reading: Glyndebourne

  1. The information in this post is largely taken from two books on Glyndebourne that don't always agree, and from the official Glyndebourne website (glyndebourne.com). The books are:
    —Spike Hughes, Glyndebourne: A History of the Festival Opera Founded in 1934 by Audrey and John Christie, New edition, David & Charles, 1981 (original edition Methuen 1965).
    —John Joliffe, Glyndebourne: An Operatic Miracle, John Murray, 1999
  2. Hughes reports this as Act I, which is doubtful as there are no arias for Blonde in Act I. It is far more likely to have been Act II.
  3. Hughes, pp. 41-42.
  4. Quoted in Julia Aries, "Glyndebourne's unsung heroine," glyndebourne.com

Friday, June 29, 2018


Glyndebourne. Photo: Bill Hunter (thestage.co.uk)

Audrey: I nearly fainted when I read what we're charging.
John: They have to respect us. They have to show us respect.
Rudi: He's right.
Audrey: And they do that, do they, by emptying their wallets?
Rudi: What better way?
Audrey: . . .No one's ever charged this much for music. It's unheard of.
John: . . .What have we been doing these last months? I'll tell you. We've been working harder than any of us have ever worked in our lives. We've been putting in a colossal effort. Now it's time for the audience to put in some effort as well. They must go to a London terminal at 2.30, they must give up their whole day to getting to an obscure part of Sussex, they must dress properly, they must spend the morning polishing their shoes and starching their dress shirts and searching out their cufflinks, and trying to tie a proper bow tie, a bow tie which will still have dignity at bedtime, they must for once in their lives take time to dress, and if it's an effort so what? So what? Wasn't starting Glyndebourne an effort?
Audrey: Jack, they just want a night out.
John: No! No! And if that's what they want, they're not getting it. . .Art can't be the sideshow. It mustn't be. I'm not having business people spending all day in their offices, talking on telephones, fiddling with stationery—whatever they do—and then in the evening saying, 'I'll pop back, pick up my wife and we'll take in a show.' No, I won't allow it! Not here! Not at Glyndebourne! Why? Because as far as I'm concerned, it's time someone told them in ringing tones: 'Gentlemen, your lives are the sideshow. Opera's the thing.' And if it takes a whole day and wipes out their savings, then so much the better. Because it matters! It matters, dammit. We're talking about the sublime.
—David Hare, Moderate Soprano, Scene 18
In Hare's play John is John Christie, owner of a 500-year-old English country estate on which he has built an opera house; Audrey is soprano Audrey Mildmay, his wife; Rudi is Rudolph Bing, a refugee from Nazi Germany and the newly hired general manager of what is about to become the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

Not much has changed at Glyndebourne since 1934, when this imagined conversation among real people takes place. Tickets are still very expensive and very hard to come by. Attending still requires most of a day; the shuttle to Glyndebourne picks up passengers at the nearby Lewes Rail Station around 1:45 pm and returns them around nine hours later. (The opera starts in the late afternoon, but this span allows time for a leisurely pre-performance lunch in the estate gardens and a 90-minute intermission for dinner.) And audience members are still requested to dress in evening clothes: black tie for men, gowns or something similarly formal for women. Who on earth would be willing to subject themselves to these outrageous impositions for the sake of an archaic art form?

Well, we were. And to our pleased surprise we were able to get excellent seats. (Of course, Glyndebourne is so intimate and has such wonderful acoustics that there really aren't any bad seats.) Neither of us owned formal evening wear, but visits to the Bay Area's numerous well-stocked thrift stores soon outfitted me (I was able to buy a tuxedo, wing-collar shirt, suspenders, and black tie for under $50), and my partner cleverly combined items from her closet, her own exquisitely tatted accessories and donations from friends for a stunning look.

We decided to buy our food on site, a more expensive—about twice the cost of an equivalent meal in a local restaurant—but more practical option. Many regular Glyndebourne attendees haul in elaborate picnics and set up tables and chairs on the broad lawns, but that was logistically too complicated for us. (I have to say that the sound of champagne corks popping around us as we strolled in the gardens created quite the festive air.)

In the grass at Glyndebourne.

In Hare's play, John attempts to justify the high ticket prices (£2 in 1934, serious money in the middle of the Depression) by saying "They have to dig deep in their pockets, and if they do, by God, it'll make them sit up. They'll listen to the music with far keener attention." At one of the operas we attended the woman next to me fell asleep during the first act, probably due to a glass or two too many of champagne during her pre-performance picnic. Another woman in the same party had to make an urgent exit from our row after the lights came down at the beginning of the second act, probably for the same reason. (Their taller husbands were sitting in the row in front of them, blocking their view of the stage. As my partner put it, often the British have an exquisite sense of manners and no sense of courtesy.) At the same opera a man directly behind us with his loud voice, inane comments and braying laugh seemed to be competing for Upper Class Twit of the Year. If by setting prices outrageously high Christie hoped to keep out the boors and status-seekers and their trophy wives, his strategy didn't entirely succeed. But we also met several people who (like us) clearly had to make a financial sacrifice to attend, and who (like us) were willing to do so out of a sheer irrational love of opera.

We saw two operas on successive nights: Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911) in a production by Richard Jones that dates from 2014, and George Frideric Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt, 1724) in a production by David McVicar that dates from 2005.

Der Rosenkavalier

Mariandel/Octavian (Kate Lindsey), Valzacchi (Alun Rhys-Jenkins), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Der Rosenkavalier. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

In its 2014 incarnation this production caused a huge controversy by the casting of the trouser role of Octavian. Irish mezzo Tara Erraught's singing received universal praise, but she was described in reviews by male critics as "diminutive," "stocky," "dumpy," "unsightly," and a "chubby bundle of puppy-fat." In this year's production Octavian was played by Kate Lindsey, who has a beautiful voice and was convincingly and ardently boyish. In my view her Octavian ranks with that of other great exponents of the role such as Brigitte Fassbaender and Elina Garanča.

It's no shame that neither the Marschallin (Michaela Kaune) nor Sophie (Louise Alder) were quite at the same level as Lindsey. As singers they weren't as subtle or nuanced, and as actresses they weren't as convincing, although here the fault may lie with Jones' sometimes blunt, over-obvious direction. At one point the Marschallin gropes and plants passionate kisses on Octavian behind the back of the boorish Baron Ochs (wonderfully sung and acted by Brindley Sherratt)—not only does this highly risky behavior seem unlikely for a woman of her class, situation and era, it makes her sudden coldness to Octavian even more bewildering.

Speaking of bewildering, the curtain opened on an empty bathtub, with water cascading down from a shower head. I later read that in the 2014 production when the curtain rose the Marschallin (Kate Royal in that production) was standing naked under this cascade; Kaune apparently declined to appear nude, so the shower was left puzzlingly empty. If Kaune was not willing to be seen showering, this stage element should have been cut; instead it remained, flowing unused throughout much of the first scene. The intention may have been to evoke Klimt's Danaë, but Danaë was missing.

Gustav Klimt, Danaë (1907) Photo: Wikipedia.org

Jones and his designers made some other odd choices. The first act of the opera seemed to be set around the time of its composition (rather than the eighteenth century as specified in the libretto): at one point the Marschallin strikes a pose for Octavian that is reminiscent of a Klimt painting, and her great Act I monologue about aging and loss is staged as a psychoanalysis session during which a silent figure who seems to be Sigmund Freud listens and takes notes. But in Act II we seem to have jumped forward in time by 20 years: Sophie's father Faninal (the excellent Michael Kraus) runs an Art Deco hotel that looks like a set for a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie. (It's not clear why Jones makes Faninal a hotelier; in the libretto he has made his fortune "supplying the army"—he's a war profiteer.) And in Act III during the final love duet between Sophie and Octavian the stage was flooded with green light, making the singers look like a particularly lurid expressionist painting—a mood that was jarringly at odds with the music.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street, Dresden (detail), 1907-1919. Photo: Museum of Modern Art

There were also the antics of Mohammed, the Marschallin's North African servant—a silent role played here by an adult (Adrian Richards), rather than by a young boy as called for in the libretto. Richards was directed by Jones to perform in ways that in my view verged on racist caricature. Mohammed is the last character on stage, and I have to say that I couldn't bear to watch: when the Octavian-Sophie love duet began in a sickly green haze I closed my eyes and just listened to the final five minutes or so of the opera.

That was actually a wonderful way to experience the final moments of this production. Lindsey and Alder's voices blended beautifully, and (as he had throughout the opera) conductor Robin Ticciati brought out details of this rich score that we'd never heard before. The London Philharmonic responded to Ticciati's direction with simply gorgeous playing—what a delight. I have reservations about many aspects of Jones' production, but with a strong (and in the cases of Lindsey, Sherratt and Kraus, superlative) cast and with Ticciati drawing glorious sounds from the London Philharmonic there was no question about the high level of the musical performances.

Giulio Cesare

Cesare (Sarah Connolly), Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey), and members of the Glyndebourne Chorus in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

The next night the playing of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was not quite so gorgeous. Of course, period instruments don't provide as lush or as big a sound as modern instruments, but beyond that there were occasionally some distinctly sour notes from the gut-string violins and the notoriously difficult valveless natural horns (the horns struggled particularly in Cesare's "hunting" aria "Va tacito.") Conductor William Christie masterfully held things together, though, even when two of the singers at different times seemed about to lose their way in the middle of an aria.

This was the fourth time David McVicar's production has been staged at Glyndebourne, and the first time Danielle de Niese was not featured as Cleopatra. (It was the performance that made her a star, and fortunately it has been preserved on video.) American soprano Joélle Harvey bravely took on this role that de Niese has defined so indelibly, and acquitted herself more than honorably. She does not have quite the commanding stage presence of de Niese, and she performed the elaborate choreography gamely, if not quite with de Niese's charm and grace. But Harvey has a beautiful voice, and convincingly traced Cleopatra's journey from kittenish seduction to genuine feeling.

Joélle Harvey as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

When Sarah Connolly stepped forward at the start of the opera to sing Cesare's entrance aria she sounded seriously underpowered. My partner and I wondered if she was suffering from an unannounced indisposition, a suspicion made even more likely later on when she momentarily lost the thread of "Aure, deh, per pietà," an aria she must have sung onstage dozens of times. (Christie recognized her difficulties immediately and raised his hand to guide her back into sync with the orchestra. It was done so seamlessly that my partner didn't even notice.) Connolly is an excellent actress, though, and whatever vocal difficulties she was experiencing did not make her portrayal less dramatically engaged.

The rest of the cast was excellent. Christophe Dumaux has portrayed Tolomeo, Cleopatra's devious and lustful brother who contends with her for the throne, in two of Glyndebourne's earlier productions of Giulio Cesare. As he has previously, he brought to the role a nice swaggering assurance, a surprising athleticism, and an incisive countertenor voice. Achilla, Tolomeo's menacing lieutenant, was sung powerfully by bass John Moore.

Achilla (John Moore) and Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaux) in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

Cornelia, the widow of the murdered Roman general Pompey and the object of the lust and ambitions of both Tolomeo and Achilla, was sung movingly by Patricia Bardon (also a veteran of two previous Cesare productions at Glyndebourne). Mezzo Anna Stéphany made palpable the anguish of Cornelia's son Sesto, who vows revenge on his father's murderers. Their sorrowful duet at the close of Act I, "Son nata a lagrimar," was deeply moving.

Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) and Sesto (Anna Stéphany) in Giulio Cesare. Photo: Glyndebourne.com

Like Jones' Der Rosenkavalier McVicar's Cesare also plays with stereotypes, but does so in a witty and knowing way (and in Dumaux and Kangmin Justin Kim, who sang Cleopatra's flighty but loyal servant Nireno, he has performers who clearly relish their roles). In the theater it was even more apparent than on video that the production comments on the lengthy history of British imperialism: the military conquests of India and Egypt are referenced as the naval ships in the background gradually change from sailing vessels to steam-powered dreadnoughts, and the bodies strewn about the stage in Act III seem to allude to the Indian Uprising. There's also a sly nod to the traditions of Glyndebourne, as in the final scene (apparently real) champagne is served all around—even to the deceased characters (neatly solving the problem of their participation in the final chorus). Despite Connolly's apparent vocal issues and a few wayward musical moments, this production once again proved a triumph. It was, in a word, sublime.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Rare Thing: Vicente Martin y Soler's Una Cosa Rara

Who was the most popular opera composer in Mozart's Vienna? It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that it wasn't Mozart (see "The Chastity Tree"). By the measure of the number of performances per opera the most popular composer by far in Vienna during Mozart's time there was Vicente Martín y Soler. Two of the three operas Martín wrote for the Burgtheater were smash hits, between them racking up 120 performances over six seasons (1786-1792). By contrast, Mozart's two most successful operas over those same six seasons, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) and Don Giovanni (Don Juan, 1787), were performed a total of 53 times. [1]

The opera that made Martín's reputation was Una cosa rara, ossia Bellezza ed onestà (A rare thing, or Beauty and faithfulness, 1786). The libretto was adapted by Lorenzo Da Ponte from Luis Vélez de Guevara's play La Luna de la Sierra. Da Ponte was a busy man: he also wrote the libretti for Figaro and Don Giovanni as well as for Martín's other hit, L'arbore di Diana (The Tree of Diana, 1787), among many others. In his memoirs Da Ponte describes the impact of the first performance of Cosa rara on 17 November 1786:
The evening of the première arrived. The theatre was full, most of the audience being composed of enemies ready to hiss. However, right from the beginning of the performance they found such grace, sweetness and melody in the music, and such novelty and interest in the words, that they seemed be overcome by an ecstasy of pleasure. A silence, a degree of attention never before accorded to an Italian opera, was followed by a storm of applause and exclamations of delight and pleasure. . .In particular one of the duets seemed to electrify the audience and fill them with a kind of heavenly fire. [2]
"One of the duets" probably refers to the Act II reconciliation duet between the faithful village girl Lilla (sung by Nancy Storace, who had sung Susanna in Mozart's Figaro a few months earlier) and her jealous beau, the shepherd Lubino (sung by Stefano Mandini, who had been Count Almaviva in Figaro). Da Ponte reports that the Emperor Joseph himself led the calls for the duet to be encored, despite his own decree forbidding encores of ensembles. [3]

Da Ponte's memoirs are not always testimony of the highest reliability, but in this case his account of how rapturously the duet was received is corroborated by the diary of Count Karl von Zinzendorf, a court official. After the second performance of Cosa rara on 20 November he wrote that "The duo between Mandini and Lilla in the second act is charming." On 1 December, possibly referring to the third performance on 24 November, he wrote, "The pretty duo between Mandini and Storace was repeated; it is very voluptuous. I left disturbed." In early January he wrote, "I find the duo between Mandini and Storace so tender and so expressive that it poses a danger to the young members of the audience. One needs to have had some experience in order to see it with a cool head." [4]

Here is the duet, sung by Montserrat Figueras (Lilla) and Iñaki Fresán (Lubino), from the live recording with Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall:

LILLA. Pace caro mio sposo.
LUBINO. Pace mio dolce amore.
LILLA. Non sarai più geloso?
LUBINO. No, non sarò, mio core.

LILLA. Mi vorrai sempre?
LILLA. Mi sarai sempre?
LUBINO. Amante.
LILLA. Son la tua sola?
LUBINO. Speme.
LILLA. Ti serberai?
LUBINO. Costante.

LILLA e LUBINO. Vieni, tra i bracci miei,
stringi, o mio caro ben,
l'anima mia tu sei,
ti vo' morir nel sen.

LUBINO. Dammi quella manina.
LILLA. Sì, sì, mio bel diletto.
LUBINO. Toccami il cor, carina.
LILLA. Come ti balza in petto.

LUBINO. Mi vorrai sempre?
LILLA. Bene.
LUBINO. Mi sarai sempre?
LILLA. Amante.
LUBINO. Son la tua sola?
LILLA. Speme.
LUBINO. Ti serberai?
LILLA. Costante.

LILLA e LUBINO. Vieni, tra i bracci miei,
stringi, o mio caro ben,
l'anima mia tu sei,
ti vo' morir nel sen.
LILLA. Peace, my beloved husband.
LUBINO. Peace, my sweet love.
LILLA. You won't be jealous anymore?
LUBINO. No, never, my love.

LILLA. You'll always love me...?
LUBINO. With all my heart.
LILLA. You'll always be my...?
LUBINO. Lover.
LILLA. Am I your only...?
LILLA. Will you remain...?
LUBINO. Faithful.

LILLA and LUBINO. Come to my arms,
Embrace me, my dear one,
You are my soul,
I want to die in your arms.

LUBINO. Give me your little hand.
LILLA. Yes, yes, my beautiful beloved.
LUBINO. Touch my heart, dearest.
LILLA. How it throbs in your chest.

LUBINO. You'll always love me...?
LILLA. With all my heart.
LUBINO. You'll always be my...?
LILLA. Lover.
LUBINO. Am I your only...?
LILLA. Hope.
LUBINO. Will you remain...?
LILLA. Faithful.

LILLA and LUBINO. Come to my arms,
Embrace me, my dear one,
You are my soul,
I want to die in your arms.

The setting is a small village, where as the opera begins Queen Isabella and her entourage have arrived after a day's perilous hunting. Suddenly Lilla runs in and throws herself at the Queen's feet, begging her protection: she and Lubino are in love, but her brother Tita is trying to force her to marry the village governor (Podestà). The Queen's son Prince Giovanni is immediately struck by Lilla's beauty and determines to seduce her. The Queen appoints the elderly courtier Corrado as Lilla's guardian, but Corrado is himself smitten with her. Beset by importunate suitors on all sides, Lilla thinks of her absent Lubino and the idyllic days of their love in "Dolce mi parve un di" (Love once seemed sweet to me):

Echoing Figaro, the Prince unsuccessfully attempts to bribe Lilla for her sexual favors. There are disguises and mistaken identities in the night, Lubino's unjust suspicions of Lilla's unfaithfulness, and a scene where Lilla hides in a closet and emerges to the surprise of the other characters. Cosa rara, though, lacks Figaro's subversive political bite. It is the Queen who sets everything to rights (though Corrado unfairly takes the fall for the Prince's behavior), and Lubino is generally subservient—at least to the Prince, if not to the Podestà. But perhaps it was that validation of beneficent nobility, along with Martín's gift for "grace, sweetness and melody in the music," that helped ensure the popularity of the opera. Da Ponte reported that ". . .The ladies in particular. . .wanted to see only Cosa rara and to dress only in the fashion of Cosa rara." [5]

Mozart himself acknowledged the opera's popularity. In the banquet scene in the last act of Don Giovanni, an onstage band plays excerpts from well-known operas of the day, starting with the first act finale of Cosa rara. In that finale Lilla's faithfulness is proved after her emergence from the closet, and the Queen (Maria Angeles Peters) unites the village couples—Lubino with Lilla, and Lilla's brother Tita (Fernando Belaza-Leoz) with his sweetheart Ghita (Gloria Fabuel)—to general rejoicing:

And here is Mozart's quotation of this music in Don Giovanni's banquet scene. Don Giovanni, who has spent much of the opera trying to seduce the village girl Zerlina, asks his servant Leporello, "What do you think of this fine concert?" Leporello replies, "It's worthy of you." Mozart and Da Ponte are here relying on their audience's recognition of the parallels between Don Giovanni and the character of Prince Giovanni in Cosa rara:

https://youtu.be/DZTYRBs1RII?t=2h40m46s (quotation ends at 2:42:15)

Don Giovanni is sung by Rodney Gilfry and Leporello by László Polgár, with the Orchestra of the Opernhaus Zurich conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Cosa rara held the stage for nearly four decades. But by the mid-1820s it had fallen out of the repertory and was no longer performed. Meanwhile, Mozart's operas (especially Don Giovanni) had been recognized as masterpieces and were becoming ever more firmly established. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries Cosa rara was known only by Mozart's musical quote, and Leporello's comment referring to the Prince must have been mystifying to most operagoers. Martín was considered a minor footnote to the story of Mozart.

But as the Savall recording shows, Cosa rara is full of excellent music. In fact Martín does some surprising things. After the overture the music flows directly into the first scene without pausing, driving the drama forward; Mozart would later adopt the same technique in Don Giovanni. Another surprise is how many ensembles Martín employs throughout the opera (not just in the act finales), a development Mozart would take even further in Cosi fan tutte (That's the way they all are, 1790). The conventional narrative of Don Giovanni's banquet scene was Mozart's genius condescending to Martín's mere talent; Savall's recording complicates that story by revealing that Mozart borrowed significant compositional ideas from Martín.

The live Savall recording of Cosa rara with the period-instrument Concert des Nations is highly enjoyable. There is occasionally some stage noise, audience applause marks the end of the acts (and occurs after at least one aria), and as the Queen, Maria Angeles Peters sings consistently flat. But these minor flaws don't detract significantly from the pleasure the performance affords. There is another live recording from 1999 featuring Giancarlo Andretta conducting the modern-instrument Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice (available for streaming for free through Opera Today), but the Queen on that recording is not much of an improvement over Peters, and overall I prefer Savall's singers and well-judged tempi. (Andretta's speeds seem alternately rushed and sluggish by comparison.) Good as Savall's version is, though, it was issued in 1991, more than 25 years ago; it's surprising that no other early-music specialist has recorded this opera since. Perhaps it's time for new recordings and new stagings of the all-too-rare Cosa rara.

  1. John Platoff, "Mozart and his Rivals: Opera in Vienna," Current Musicology, Vol. 51, No. 1, 1993, p. 105-111.
  2. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Memoirs, quoted in Sheila Hodges, Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart's Librettist, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002, pp. 76-77.
  3. The ban was instituted not "a few days earlier" as Da Ponte has it but on 9 May 1786, in response to the enthusiastic reception of Figaro, already a lengthy opera even without encores.
  4. John Platoff, "A New History for Martín's 'Una cosa rara,'" The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1994, pp. 85-115. Curiously, except for the first one Zinzendorf's comments do not correspond to the performance dates of Cosa rara as compiled by Otto Michtner in Das Alte Burgtheater als Opernbühne (Böhlhaus, 1970), pp. 488-489. Zinzendorf's remark of 7 January 1787 comes more than a month after the most recent performance of the opera on 4 December 1786. (It was performed again on 12 January.) The duet must have been "disturbing" indeed for him to remember it so vividly five weeks later. Zinzendorf was not so impressed by Figaro; after the first performance on 1 May 1786 he wrote "The opera bored me" (quoted in Michael Rose, The Birth of an Opera, Norton 2013, p. 100).
  5. Da Ponte, quoted in Hodges, p. 77.