February 09, 2005

Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte means, roughly, "That's what women do." But we should not let period sexism get in our way. The opera attached to this title demonstrates how men and women alike behave when their romantic lives begin, as often happens, in a love affair with love itself. Legions of spectators have denounced the fickleness of the two sisters, Fiordiligi ("Fleur-de-lys") and Dorabella, who, in the space of an afternoon, shift their affections from departing soldiers to visiting Albanians. But the girls are faithful almost to the end to their true love, which is romantic passion. The opera is an exposition, veritable catalogue, of romantic passion's many faces, from suicidal despair to tender embrace. And each face (with one exception) is presented in a witty orchestral setting, as if decked out in one of a series of funny hats.

The first thing to be said about Così fan tutte is that its two pairs of lovers are very young. They may even be teenagers. Their unmarried status fairly proclaims this fact, but so does their silliness - each man's conviction that his girlfriend is utterly unlike other women, the sisters' credulous palm-reading. There is a phase of adolescence that few young people get through without making fools of themselves: the age of beginning to take things seriously. The first thing that gets taken seriously, of course, is oneself. With breathtaking agility, Mozart presents the lovers at their own estimation, but sends them up with nonstop mockery from the pit.

The second thing to be said is that nobody gets married in this opera. At any time. How the lovers distribute themselves is not difficult to imagine: with adieux all round. (Mozart had already composed such an ending, for Don Giovanni.) I for one don't see the sisters keeping house together much longer; whatever lessons either has learned about love, each has discovered that the other is not altogether simpatico. The plot that has entertained us has humiliated them, and like most human beings they will prefer to distance themselves from reminders. The opera ends with brave faces, but I should think that Don Alfonso has lost four friends. Then, too, he may have taken on the probably-unemployed Despina.

Don Alfonso and Despina belong together in more ways than one. They represent, with a comprehensiveness not seen in Le Nozze di Figaro, the range of forces that was bringing down the ancien régime as the opera was being written. Don Alfonso is a rationalist, impatient with pretensions, while Despina is too clever and versatile to be cleaning up after spoiled brats. That the lovers represent the aristocratic world couldn't be clearer: the men are military officers and the ladies are rich enough to have acquired titles (and one of them is named after the symbol of Royal France). The lovers are idle, and have nothing to do but conduct their amours; Despina and Don Alfonso are busy bees.

The third thing to be said about Così fan tutte is that it will repay all the attention that you can give it. First you must get yourself a recording; if you can read music, you will derive great pleasure from the score, which is (as of this writing) widely available. I won't recommend recordings, because availability is more unreliable than anybody in this opera. But I will say that I'm not, at the moment, as crazy about the Schwarzkopf-Böhm recording as I used to be. Although I'm not a fan of the late Sir Georg Solti, the recording of a 1994 concert performance under his baton captures the excitement of singing before a large audience, and its cast is at least as good as any other's.

Resist the oft-made observation that Così fan tutte is an "artificial" opera. The plot is beautifully symmetrical, all manner of outrageously unrealistic commedia dell'arte conventions are on offer, and the lovers can be seen as shallow. But they're not shallow characters. They're kids.

Posted by pourover at 04:53 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack