Sunday, June 30, 2013

Was Mozart a misogynist?: Così fan tutte

Miah Persson as Fiordiligi and Anke Vondung as Dorabella
in the 2006 Glyndebourne production of Così fan tutte
Two soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, make a bet on the fidelity of their girlfriends, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. The men pretend to get called up to war, and then disguise themselves as copiously-mustached Albanians (!?) to try to woo each other’s sweethearts: Ferrando tries to seduce Fiordiligi, while Guglielmo makes a play for Dorabella. At first (to the men's secret delight) the women rebuff these strange and ardent new suitors. But over the course of a single day both sisters, to the men's dismay, unexpectedly yield. When the men reveal their disguises, the original couples are abruptly restored, and the chagrined and contrite women promise to remain true from now on. "I believe you," both men tell their lovers, "but I won't put it to the test."

Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (All women do the same, or the School for Lovers, 1791) was the third and final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. The first two, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) and Don Giovanni (Don Juan, 1787), regularly vie for the title of the greatest opera ever written (my vote goes firmly to Figaro in that contest). But Così—at least for the first 150 years or so after its premiere—had a very different reception.

In 1791 Friedrich Schröder called Da Ponte's libretto "a miserable thing, that debases all women." An anonymous reviewer that same year called it "a miserable Italian piece of work" [1]. Nearly a century later, the critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that "the boundless triviality of the libretto everywhere deals a death blow to Mozart’s lovely music." Richard Wagner thought that the libretto would have "desecrated" Mozart's music if the music had been any good, which (according to Wagner) it wasn't [2].

It's hard not to agree with Schröder's judgment about the libretto's misogyny. Ferrando and Guglielmo may be foolish and manipulative, but Dorabella and Fiordiligi are unfaithful (and a bit dim-witted)—as all women are, according to the title. Peter Sellars' modern-dress production attempted to redeem the story by indicating that the sisters see through the men's half-hearted disguises immediately, and decide to teach them a lesson (or, perhaps, explore their mutual curiosity). But unexpectedly, each of them really begins to fall for her "Albanian." Sellars' version ends without the couples reuniting; instead, the characters reel about the stage as the curtain falls, their former bonds of friendship and love forever shattered. But Sellars' version goes against the grain of the libretto (he's even been accused of mistranslating it to make his points [3]). There's nothing in Da Ponte's words to suggest that the women aren't really taken in by Ferrando and Guglielmo's absurd disguises.

Another intriguing possibility that some directors have explored is that the original couples—Ferrando and Dorabella, Guglielmo and Fiordiligi—are mismatched, which in terms of sensibilities (and operatic conventions) they are. Ferrando and Fiordiligi have both comic and serious elements in their characters, while Guglielmo and Dorabella are more straightforwardly comic. In other Mozart operas, the "mixed" characters (the Count and Countess in Figaro, Belmonte and Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Harem, 1781)) are coupled, as are the buffa characters (Figaro and Susanna, Pedrillo and Blonde). Also, in terms of the emerging conventions of voice type (though they were conventions that were not yet fully established, and which Mozart did not generally follow), the leading tenor (Ferrando) was usually matched with the leading soprano (Fiordiligi). But if the original couples are mismatched, a new arrangement would be better for everyone, no?

The problems presented by Così are only deepened by Mozart's music, because it is among the most sublime he ever wrote, especially in the numerous ensembles. In "Soave sia il vento," Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and the cynical Don Alfonso (who has goaded the men into their bet, and is working to make them lose it) bid farewell to the men as they head to war—or so the sisters think:

The words in Italian and English are: "Soave sia il vento, / Tranquilla sia l'onda / Ed ogni elemento / Benigno risponda / Ai nostri desir" (May the breezes be gentle, and the waves be calm, and all the elements smile on them in response to our wishes). This video is from the 1996 production at the Palais Garnier, Paris, with Susan Graham as Dorabella, Susan Chilcott as Fiordiligi, and William Shimell as Don Alfonso.

As Bernard Williams has pointed out about this trio in his brilliant essay "Passion and Cynicism: Remarks on 'Così fan tutte'" (included in the collection On Opera, Yale University Press, 2006), "already at that early moment—the earliest possible moment—we can hear something of the reserves of desire which are going to engulf these ladies' conventional commitments" [4].

The depth of feeling expressed by Mozart's music complicates the cynical farce of Da Ponte's plot, and in Williams' view, contradicts its misogyny. Through Mozart's music, "if Così...says anything special about women's feelings, it is that they are more serious than men's" [5]. This is especially apparent in the character of Fiordiligi, who resists seduction longer, and who is more anguished about her newfound desire, than the light-hearted Dorabella. In "Per pietà," Fiordiligi begs for pity from her absent lover for the new feelings that have overwhelmed her, and which she is trying, unsuccessfully, to resist:

Susan Chilcott in the 1996 Paris production

In Williams' view, the attachments of the original couples, based on social expectations and convention, are overthrown when both women (but especially Fiordiligi) discover their true desires. But this means that there is a bitter, even tragic, dimension to the restoration of the social order at the end, where the women "are briskly, indeed brutally, returned to a conventional arrangement which was grounded, as we were shown, in shallower sentiments." As Williams concludes,
"If one feels that Mozart in this work agreed that it was better so, then one may be able to hear the ambivalent end of the second act as a convinced, if rather wry, celebration of a return from danger. If on the other hand one finds, as I do, that the end makes a rather stunned and hollow sound, one may feel that this work is more concerned to display the demands of the world against feeling than it is to justify them." [6]
There are several excellent recordings of Così. For more than a generation the standard was set by the 1962 version featuring Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as Fiordiligi, Christa Ludwig as Dorabella, Alfredo Kraus as Ferrando, Giuseppi Taddei as Guglielmo, and Walter Berry as Don Alfonso, conducted by Karl Böhm. More recently a superb period-instrument version was issued on Harmonia Mundi, with Veronique Gens, Bernarda Fink, Werner Güra, Marcel Boone, and Pietro Spagnoli accompanied by Concerto Köln conducted by René Jacobs. On DVD the Glyndebourne production from which the still above was taken features a cast of youthful, good-looking lovers (Miah Persson, Anke Vondung, Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni) in handsome costumes and settings.

Live, the recent San Francisco Opera production (seen June 12) was a disappointment. It featured an excellent Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn) and Guglielmo (Philippe Sly). But Christel Lötzsch as Dorabella, in the difficult position of stepping in for the previously announced Heidi Stober, had such a disconcertingly wide vibrato that her voice did not blend well in the ensembles; nor did the slightly nasal tenor of the Ferrando, Francesco Demuro. The greatest problem, though, was the slack-paced conducting by SFO music director Nicola Luisotti, who wallowed in Mozart's lovely melodies as though he were instead conducting a Puccinian tragedy. It completely drained the production of comic energy, did the singers no favors, and made for a long and oddly dispiriting evening in the theater.

By far the best live performance I've seen was by the young singers of the Merola Opera program in a 2001 production directed by John Copley, with musical direction by Scott Bergeson; it was so good that it transformed my view of the opera. At the beginning it was clear that the sisters (Elizabeth Caballero and Sarah Kleeman) were enjoying the theatricality of their own emotions; later, those emotions deepened, and real feelings came powerfully into play for all of the lovers. By the way, the cast we saw included Bryan Hymel as Ferrando, who triumphed last year in Les Troyens.

Copley also staged the comic bits with Despina (Saundra DeAthos), the women's maid, with such cleverness that they were actually funny—a rarity, in my experience. The direction was highly detailed, but never fussy, and made the piece work onstage in a way that it generally hasn't for me before or since. But given the work's complexities and contradictions, perhaps the scarcity of productions so carefully thought through, well performed, and emotionally satisfying shouldn't be a surprise.

Update 7 June 2020: Glyndebourne is streaming its 2006 Così beginning today at 5 pm London time (in the U.S.: noon Eastern / 9 am Pacific time); the stream will be available for viewing until the same time on 14 June. This excellent production gets even better each time we view it: Nicholas Hytner's direction is detailed and observant, and the young, fresh-voiced cast is superb. A special mention should be made of Anke Vondung, whose wide-eyed Dorabella reveals her to be a brilliant comedienne. Mozart's music is ravishing, of course, and is ravishingly performed. Highly recommended.

1. Otto Eric Deutsch, Mozart: A Documentary Biography, Stanford University Press, 1965, pp. 394-395.

2. Bruce Alan Brown, W. A. Mozart: Cosi fan tutte (Cambridge Opera Handbooks), Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 172.

3. Brown, p. 181.

4. Bernard Williams, "Passion and Cynicism: Remarks on 'Cosi fan tutte'," On Opera, Yale University Press, 2006, p. 46.

5. Williams, p. 45.

6. Williams, p. 47-48.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Teesri Kasam

Indian cinema is often divided into commercial movies (Bollywood, Kollywood, et al.) and art films (parallel cinema). However, there are films that bridge the two categories: they have the look, subject matter, and ambiguity of parallel cinema, while using the stars (and often the song sequences) of mainstream Bollywood. Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow, 1966), directed by Basu Bhattacharya, features major stars in Raj Kapoor and Waheeda Rehman; and in its wistful, melancholy scenario (based on Phanishwarnath Renu's short story "Maare Gaye Gulfam") it employs parallel cinema's narrative compression and simplicity of means.

Hiraman (Raj Kapoor) is a bullock-cart driver who is hired one night to transport the nautanki dancer Hirabai (Waheeda Rehman) to a village fair for her next engagement.

The sleeping Hirabai
The gorgeous cinematography of Teesri Kasam is by Subrata Mitra, Satyajit Ray's cinematographer for the Apu Trilogy, among other films. Bhattacharya himself had been an assistant to another towering figure of Bengali film, Bimal Roy. As a result, Teesri Kasam looks as though it could have been filmed in the 1950s, and that's intended as a high compliment.

The trip takes 30 hours, and over the course of the journey the naïve Hiraman and the worldly Hirabai form a friendship that for him, at least, borders on love. She insists that they call each other "Meeta"—close friend—because of the name they share ("Hira," meaning "jewel").

When they reach the banks of a river and she decides to bathe, he tells her to use the area reserved for unmarried girls. Since most men she encounters assume that she's not only sexually experienced but available, she's surprised and touched by Hiraman's insistence.

Hiraman and Hirabai at the river
Hiraman helps the long hours pass by singing songs from "older times,"  such as the lovely, sad "Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamar" (My beloved has become my enemy):

The song tells of a woman who is forever estranged from a distant lover, and who feels alone and bereft; Hirabai's tears suggest that this is a story with personal resonance, although we are never given her backstory. Teesri Kasam is filled with superb music, composed by Shankar-Jaikishen with lyrics by Shailendra. "Sajanwa Bairi" is sung by Mukesh; the film's other playback singers include Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, and Manna Dey, among others.

As they travel, Hirabai insists that they share the hardships and pleasures of the road as equals. When Hiraman serves a lunch of rice and yogurt bought from a nearby village, Hirabai refuses to eat unless he eats with her rather than waiting for her (as his paying guest) to finish. And when they finally arrive at the fair, Hiraman buys Hirabai some tea, but won't drink any himself. When Hirabai asks him why not, he says that unmarried men shouldn't drink tea:

It generates too much heat

Hirabai's amused response:

It doesn't generate heat for me?

This sly suggestion of mutual attraction is surprising in both its subtlety and its acknowledgement of female desire and sexual agency.

Hirabai joins her dance company and invites Hiraman to come see her perform the next night. The film's wonderful dance sequences were choreographed by Lachchu Maharaj, and Rehman is a skilled and expressive dancer. In "Paan Khaye Saiya" she complains about a lover who is too caught up in his betel-leaf habit to pay her any attention; her mock-pouting expressions are delightful:

When a drunken customer starts making crude remarks about Hirabai, Hiraman becomes outraged and starts a fight. Hirabai later quarrels with him over this incident. "Are you going to fight with the whole world?" she asks him; rude and suggestive comments are clearly something she has to deal with constantly.

As are outright propositions. After her first show the local thakur (landlord) comes backstage and makes her a blunt money-for-sex offer. In the past, clearly, Hirabai has accepted similar deals, which her manager treats as a matter of course. But Hiraman's respectful treatment of her has given Hirabai a new sense of self-worth, and she refuses the thakur. He assumes that she's sleeping with Hiraman, and sneers at her choice of lover; she realizes that neither man sees her for who she really is:

In your eyes I'm a whore and in his eyes a goddess

She also realizes the impossibility of living up to Hiraman's idealization of her. One of the dances in the company's repertory is the legend of the pure and steadfast love of Laila and Majnu. "We can play Laila every night," Hirabai tells one of the other dancers, but

We will never be able to become Laila

Hirabai's illusions were thoroughly smashed long ago, and as a result she can't bear the thought of shattering Hiraman's. And although she allows herself a brief moment in which to imagine herself in the role of a rural wife and mother,

Hirabai gazing into the mirror as a demure wife

she also realizes that she is utterly unsuited to such a life. Even though she cares deeply about Hiraman, Hirabai recognizes that they inhabit different worlds. Sometimes, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, love can't conquer all, and Hirabai finds herself faced with making a Laila-like self-sacrifice...

Hirabai on the train

Teesri Kasam is a minor-key masterpiece that rewards multiple viewings. For an insightful essay about the film, please see Philip Lutgendorf's Notes on Indian popular cinema.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann

Léon Spilliaert, Self-Portrait in Mirror, 1908
On the face of it, Jacques Offenbach was the least likely composer to create the opera Les Contes d'Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann, 1881). Offenbach wrote dozens of lightly comic operettas that satirized contemporary French political and social life, including Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld, 1858), La belle Hélène (The beautiful Helen, 1864) and La Vie Parisienne (Parisian life, 1866). E.T.A. Hoffmann was the author of dark Gothic stories featuring possession, automata, vampires, doubles, and other elements of the uncanny. Most famously, Hoffmann wrote "Nußknacker und Mausekönig" (Nutcracker and Mouse King), later the basis of Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker; the story is much darker and eerier than the ballet.

Despite the apparent clash of sensibilities, Offenbach had apparently nurtured an interest in Hoffmann's tales ever since seeing the play Les Contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann (1851) by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. More than two decades later, Offenbach began composing a serious opera based on the play.

Léon Spilliaert, Night, 1908
But the 1870s were difficult years for Offenbach: he was dogged by financial troubles and failing health. By the end of the decade he had completed most of the vocal score for Hoffmann, but changes required for the staging of the work at the Opéra-Comique—primarily tailoring the vocal parts to its resident company of singers—caused further delay. Offenbach died several months before the opera's premiere and while the score was still unfinished. Offenbach's family hired Ernest Guiraud to complete the orchestration and recitatives (at the Opéra-Comique spoken dialogue was employed). At the behest of Léon Carvalho, the impresario of the Opéra-Comique, Guiraud also made extensive cuts to the score (including an entire act).

As a result, the opera has never had a fixed form, but rather multiple versions. Producers and directors assembled the available materials (some by Offenbach and some by Guiraud and other composers) as they chose. Recently Jean-Christophe Keck and Michael Kaye have produced what they term an "integral edition" that attempts to restore as much of Offenbach's original vision (and music) for the work as possible. Crucially, it includes the Muse's appearance at the beginning of the Prologue and her transformation into Hoffmann's companion Nicklausse, which was omitted from Guiraud's version of the opera. It is Keck and Kaye's edition that was the basis for the striking production by director Laurent Pelly which we saw last week at the San Francisco Opera.

Léon Spilliaert, Vertigo, Magic Staircase (1908)
The opera includes Hoffmann himself as a character and incorporates elements from four of his tales: "Don Juan," "The Sandman," "Councillor Krespel," and "The Lost Reflection." The framing prologue and epilogue take place at a tavern adjacent to the theater where Stella, the object of Hoffmann's unrequited love, is performing the role of Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni. While waiting for the performance to be over, a drunken and despairing Hoffmann regales the bar with the stories of three of his loves. First there is Olympia, who seems like a vision of beauty to Hoffmann, but who turns out to be a mechanical singing doll, and who is ultimately destroyed by the mad scientist Coppélius. Then there is Antonia, a tragically ill woman for whom singing may prove fatal, and who falls under the spell of the sinister Dr. Miracle. Finally, there is the temptress Giulietta, a Venetian courtesan who conspires with Hoffmann's enemy, the evil sorcerer Dapertutto, to steal Hoffmann's soul. As Hoffmann finishes his stories, Stella enters the tavern, sees the miserable and abject Hoffmann, and leaves with his nemesis, the villainous Councillor Lindorf. The anguished Hoffmann is left alone with his Muse as the curtain falls.

Pelly's production is inspired by the art of Léon Spilliaert, a Belgian artist who was born the year of Hoffmann's premiere. Spilliaert's paintings feature eerie landscapes and interiors, sometimes empty and sometimes containing solitary, isolated figures. The connection to the Gothic world of E.T.A. Hoffmann is generally one of mood, rather than specific imagery. Pelly, set designer Chantal Thomas, and lighting designer Joël Adam created some striking stage images involving skewed perspective. But if the virtually monochromatic dark blue sets and stark, angled lighting effectively created an oppressive atmosphere, they became visually monotonous after a time; the billowing green curtains that appear in the Giulietta act were a relief. And there was at least one miscalculation: when the spirit of Antonia's dead mother appears, it is as a skull-like projection that visually echoes some of Spilliaert's self-portraits. But Antonia is supposed to be inexorably drawn to her mother's memory; it's hard to imagine anyone being drawn to this nightmarish image.

The music of Hoffmann covers an extremely wide range of moods, from comic songs and drinking choruses to dark, brooding music reminiscent of Wagner. And it contains one of the most beautiful duets in opera, the famous Barcarolle that opens the Giulietta act (the video below was taken from Pelly's staging of this production at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, six months ago):

San Francisco's cast was exceptional. Matthew Polenzani brought a lyrical tenor and an ardent characterization to his portrayal of Hoffmann. As the four villains, Christian Van Horn's dark voice and tall, slender figure (he towered over Polenzani's Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay's Antonia) made him especially sinister. Angela Brower sang appealingly in the double role of the Muse and Nicklausse. And two of Hoffman's four love objects deserve special mention. As the dying Antonia, Natalie Dessay gave an affecting and movingly sung performance. And Hye Jung Lee deftly handled both Olympia's stratospheric coloratura and strenuous comedy (at one point Pelly has her sailing high in the air on a crane, and at another roller-skating in and around crowds of people onstage, all the while tossing off high notes left and right).

Hoffmann has been recorded many times, but perhaps the first choice remains the 1948 recording featuring the stars, chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique conducted by André Cluytens. It's in mono sound, and uses a "bad" performing edition that includes Guiraud's recitatives, the interpolated "Diamond Aria" and Barcarolle septet, and mis-ordered acts (the Giulietta act comes second, rather than third as Offenbach intended and narrative logic demands). But with performances this good, it doesn't matter. On video, the version staged by film director John Schlesinger at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the early 1980s featuring Plácido Domingo as Hoffmann, Luciana Serra as Olympia, Ileana Cotrubas as a powerfully affecting Antonia, and Agnes Baltsa as Giulietta, remains a favorite.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann will be performed at the San Francisco Opera through July 6.

Friday, June 7, 2013



Khubsoorat (Beautiful, 1980), centers on the friction between generations and sensibilities within a family.

Directed by Hrishiskesh Mukherjee

As the hearts dotting the i's and j in his name suggest, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's films don't feature reincarnated sons seeking bloody revenge, villains with secret lairs, or heroes who single-handedly beat up armed gangs. Instead, they feature middle-class families struggling with modest dilemmas that reflect broader social issues, often presented in a gently comic way.

Nirmala Gupta (Dina Pathak) and Dwarka Prasad Gupta (Ashok Kumar) have raised a family of four sons. As is often the case, one of the parents (him) is the indulgent one, and the other (her) is the disciplinarian.

Nirmala enforces household rules of decorum, which include speaking softly, cleaning up after yourself, being on time, eating meals together, and offering food to others before taking it for yourself. She also limits her youngest son's pop music enthusiasms and her middle sons' obsessive bridge-playing. Nirmala's final, impossible task is to keep her husband on the straight and narrow; he has diabetes and a heart condition, but still tries to sneak cigarettes, tea and sweets when she's not looking.

Into this reserved, rule-bound family bursts Manju (Rekha). Manju is the irrepressible sister of the demure Anju (Aradhana), whose marriage with second son Chander has just been arranged. Manju immediately earns Nirmala's disapproval for being loud and boisterous, speaking her mind without hesitation, and generally lacking manners. It's pretty shocking to see a film heroine behave this way, and Nirmala is not amused:

Nirmala is not amused

Not everyone in the family has the same reaction, though:

Laughing father

But it's Nirmala's household, and Manju chafes under the rules she imposes:

It's like the Martial Law! How do you live here?

The youngest son, pop music-obsessed Joginder (Ranjit Chowdhry, later of FIre (1996) and Today's Special (2009), among others), tells Manju how the family manages under Nirmala's benevolent dictatorship:

The problem is, you have to fulfill your desires secretly in this house
Can anyone identify the album visible over Joginder's left shoulder?

So Manju decides to organize this hidden resistance to Nirmala's prohibitions. She encourages card- and game-playing, Joginder's music, Dwarka Prasad's gardening and tabla-playing, and the dancing of Sunder's wife (Shashikala)—which she gave up, of course, when she came into her husband's household:

The music was composed by R.D. Burman, with lyrics by Gulzar. The playback singers on "Piya Baawri" are Asha Bhosle and Ashok Kumar himself, with choreography by Gopi Krishna.

Manju and the third son, Inder (Rakesh Roshan), engage in the sort of teasing practical jokes and insult exchanges that immediately signal that they like each other. And, late '70s hair and fashion aside, you can definitely see in Rakesh where his son Hrithik got some of his good looks:

Rakesh Roshan

It doesn't take long for the observant Nirmala to realize what's going on between Manju and Inder, and she's not happy about it:

She is hardly suitable for our family

Inder urges Manju to charm his mother, rather than deliberately antagonize her:

You are a magician. Cast your spell on her as you have on the others

But when Manju stages a parodistic play for the other members of the family about the overthrow of a dictator, Nirmala walks in and is offended, hurt, and upset. Her rules, she tells them, arose out of love and concern for her family: she has been trying to maintain Dwarka Prasad's health, Chander and Inder's focus on family and work responsibilities, and Joginder's success in his studies. Manju realizes that she has to leave—but then a crisis occurs that requires all of her boldness, plain-speaking, and lack of deference to authority.

As Manju's reference to martial law suggests, Khubsoorat can be seen as a parable of the Emergency, with the overly strict Nirmala representing Indira Gandhi's government by decree, and the freedom-loving Manju representing the forces of opposition. (The dialogues of the film were written by Gulzar, whose own films often focussed on social issues, and whose Aandhi (1975) was banned during the Emergency.)

At the 28th Filmfare Awards Khubsoorat won Best Film, and Rekha won Best Actress. (Little did the voters know that her greatest role would come the following year in Muzaffar Ali's Umrao Jaan (1981), for which she was nominated but did not win.)

You can watch Khubsoorat on YouTube, with English closed captions, for free.