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.

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.

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