Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Cosí fan tutte [Finely Tuned #5]
Cosí fan tutte is remarkable for its age. Musically, it offers the best of a mature Mozart. Dramatically, it offers a complexity of plot that was, and possibly is, unseen in the operatic ouevre. So skillfully did Lorenzo Da Ponte weave the story, that it is open to the interpretation of each director who undertakes to stage a version, and in the case of a director fond of the opaque, of anybody engaged in listening. The premise of the opera is risqué and open-minded. It is bathed in affectionate cynicism. The title, loosely translated, means ‘all women do the same’. The opera is sub-titled ‘The School Of Lovers’. The entire opera is based on a bet between a man who says that women display infidelity, granted the opportunity, and the incredulous lovers of a pair of young sisters. Mozart and Da Ponte do what they did best in Le nozze di Figaro and in Cosí. They lift opera out of the realm of classical myth and ludicrous drama and drop it straight down into the drawing rooms (and bedrooms) of ordinary people. Aside from these charming pairs of melodramatic lovers (but it is a farce, as we shall see), there is the ribald, jaded and utterly charming maid-servant, and Don Alfonso, the instigator of the bet, who seems to view the world with a seemingly unshakable amusement for the follies of humanity. Amongst the lovers, certain character subtleties are implied, as much through the music itself as through the movement of plot. To commence, the men are your atypical soldiers of fiction past and present, braggadocious, lustful and incapable of perceiving their own shortcomings. By the end of the opera they realise they are fallible, and perhaps even learn to temper their judgement of the imperfect, and their belief in stark absolutes of right and wrong. The women are infatuated, incapable of contemplating a life not revolving around their paramours. And yet, as the plot progresses, they discover some sense of identity, of their own sexualities liberated from fidelity and a fear of the consequences of this liberation. And because it is an opera centuries ahead of its time, there is chastisement but no punishment. This opera is entirely devoid of self-righteous moralisation and infused with an acknowledgement of human weakness. And yet this is no hedonistic orgy of music and ideals. There is pain and contrition, self-awareness and self denial, lust and loneliness; music and story telling of great depth.
This piece is not being written with the intention of laying bare the story, or even my own interpretation of it. It exists to engender interest in this delectable offering to music and human nature. And never have both been entwined so finely. This entire opera traditionally is (and in my opinion, always should be) in Italian. Admittedly, this poses a minor obstacle to the non-Italian speaking listener. Ideally, this opera may be watched with subtitles. But several people, myself included, fall in love with an opera on a purely musical level as well, preferring to listen to audio-only recordings, and visualise plot and emotion in their own mind. They may also find the applause and affectations of live performance distracting, and prefer the studio experience. For this I recommend you follow the libretto (the text of the opera) as you listen. The pieces are beautiful in themselves but context lends colour. The libretto is available with most CDs you will buy, and for most operas are usually accessible online for free. You may follow the libretto at the link given below.
Cosí is divided into two acts. In keeping with the other Da Ponte operas, each act is composed of musical pieces (arias, duets, trios and so on) interspersed with recitativ (sparsely accompanied dialogue, often spoken with tonal inflections) and two long finales in which all action is propogated musically, with no dialogue, and all text is sung. As with most operas of the classical era, Cosí opens with an abstract musical composition to set the tone of the opera, called the overture. The overture of Cosí is a work of raw, exquisite beauty. It opens with slow waves of sound, that are emphasised with the six chord Cosí fan tutte theme, and then proceeds to a section edged with nervous excitement and sparklingly turbulent sound. The overture ends with the six chord theme later sung at the end of Don Alfonso’s andate ‘Tutti accusan le donne’, where he exhorts the young soldiers, and all scorned lovers in general to be more understanding of infidelity as it is a ‘necessity of the heart’. We then proceed into the first scene of three terzettos (or trios, with three people singing) for bass, baritone and tenor. These display long lines of grace and strength. There is a passionate earnestness, blended with levity. And that really could be said to sum up the entire work. It is a work of superlatives much like most of Mozart’s mature music. It has a terzetto with elegant musical phrasing set on a bed of the gently pulsating orchestra (Soave sia il vento). It has what may be the first cynically feminist aria ever written, in that it condemns the practice of allowing men their indiscretions while expecting complete fidelity from women (In uomini, in soldati). There is the slightly more obligatory raging of offended virtue (Come scoglio), but Mozart in his genius, makes it perfectly clear through the musical progression of the aria, that the rage is a farce, far too intense to be real or to be taken seriously. The same could be said for the painful and stormy diatribe against separation from a beloved (Smanie, implacabili). Then there is the duet between Fiordiligi and Fernando, Fra gli amplessi where the music makes you suspect that Fernando may be a little more in earnest about his love for Firodiligi than the plot leads us to believe. The wonder in the rising music as they sing abbraciamci to each other almost seems to evoke a sense of first love. This is a complete departure from the erotic stirrings of Il core vi dono, that so perfectly suggest mating of a more primal nature, in this case between Dorabella and Guglielmo. Fiordiligi’s tormented outpourings on Per pietà, bell’idol mio, take us through the remorse of an errant lover who cannot help her transgressions. A sestetto (piece for six singers) propogates the action in act I and is a study in how to usefully employ six singers simultaneously (Alla bella Despinetta). Guglielmo’s aria Non siate ritrosi is genuinely funny and segues into a brief, rapid trio of suppressed laughter (E voi ridete?). E amore un ladroncello expresses a young woman’s delight in her own sexuality and a confident justification of her right to indulge her baser instincts (bear in mind the sisters are round about sixteen). These are no highlights. Every bit of music in this opera, from Don Alfonso’s agitated thirty second aria ‘Vorrei dir’, to the twenty something minute finales of each act, is perfectly crafted, emotional without being excessive, and full of lively humour. The work is billed a comedy, and yet is underlined with severe thoughtfulness for the alert listener.
I know the difficulties in accessing a good, live performance of an opera for the Indian youth, however several recordings are available, on DVD as well as CD. For the purposes of this column I’m restricting myself to a recommendation of CDs. In particular there are two useful recordings that will serve to illustrate the musical potential of this work, although these are by no means definitive, or perhaps even the best, and you most certainly should not restrict your listening to them. One is an old fashioned recording done in the best traditions of the classical style, and the other is a fresh, exciting interpretation done on period instruments with idiosyncratic soloists. Both have been presided over by conductors of formidable reputations, orchestras that consistently play at a high level and soloists of great reknown if not stardom. Both of these recordings have provided me with many truly pleasurable hours. Both of these recordings are available on either Spotify and YouTube in their entirety.
Cosí fan tutte (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)- Lisa Della Casa, Christa Ludwig, Emmy Loose, Anton Dermota, Erich Kunz, Paul Schöffler, Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Karl Böhm, 1955, Decca
Also available on Spotify
This, the first stereo recording, has been selected as a stellar example of how Mozart is done in the most distinguished Germanic traditions. One of the most peerless conductors of the recorded era is at the helm of a redoubtable orchestra and a set of accomplished soloists. The orchestra has a creamy sound, with emphasis on the woodwinds, and a firm grip on the reigns of the brass section. The tempi chosen by Böhm are faultless and draw out the music in a heart achingly beautiful way. As for the singing, Della Casa is one of the Spanish voices of the sun, with an effortless charm. She sings Come scoglio with fire, Per pietà with pathos, and everything else without a trace of irony. Christa Ludwig, one of the most expressive mezzos of her day, sings with vivacity, humour and mischief, like a little child; petulant when she is caught in her misdemeanours. Emmy Loose is a solid Despina, although lacking in the charm of a young Ileana Cotrubas, or the cynicism of Teresa Stratas. There is some muscular singing from Erich Kunz and Paul Schöffler, the deeper male voices, passionate and acerbic. Their voices may sound a little grating to modern ears so accustomed to the cultivation of vocal beauty even at the sacrifice of dramatic expression. Anton Dermata is a tenor with a hefty voice and great vocal ease. The only glaring flaw in his singing, may perhaps be the German intonations in his Italian. This is a recording worth listening to, it would be foolish to scorn the old fashioned methods of music making, when they are so startlingly beautiful.
Cosí fan tutte (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)- Véronique Gens, Bernarda Fink, Graciela Oddone, Werner Güra, Marcel Boone, Pietro Spagnoli, Concerto Köln, Kölner Kammerchor conducted by René Jacobs, 1999, Harmonia Mundi
Available on Spotify
This is a more fast paced, energetically conducted record. The orchestral sound is stringent as is the case with most period ensembles (orchestras that use the instruments tuned as they would have been in the age in which the music was composed, which is usually to a lower scale), but as is often not the case, it does not lack in brightness. Jacobs reiterates the belief that he is one of the scholar-musicians of the day, believing in historically informed performances. The vocal cast is young and exciting and excited. The singing is highly strung, expressive and for the most part, aurally very pleasing. Véronique Gens delivers one of her strongest performances and has a voice with a placid lower register, a middle register comfortable enough to sound almost mezzo-ish in depth, and a clear and rounded top. Bernarda Fink reiterates her reputation as one of the most dependable mezzo-sopranos of her age, with a performance that is consistently good and occasionally excellent. Graciela Oddone delivers a performance that in no way detracts from the performance, even if it fails to be electrifying. What is electrifying is Pietro Spagnoli’s Don Alfonso, where he solidifies his reputation as one of the more sardonic singers of the age. His performance lacks some of the warm humour that goes so well with the role, he is perhaps a slightly less affectionate cynic than he could be, but his slightly darker reading of the character is effective. Werner Güra and Marcel Boone are strong singers who carry the recording with unassuming but excellent singing.
What carries both these recordings is excellent conducting, good orchestras and well chosen ensemble casts. While the singers may not always be standing performances, they function as integral parts of the whole performance. And in neither of these recordings are there any moments to make anybody cringe. Böhm and Jacobs both avoid affected mannerisms and manage to give genuinely exciting readings of the score. What I haven’t stressed on, because there is little to fault, is the music composed by Mozart. It is atmospheric and illustrative. The music often says more about plot and characters than the text manages to do. The music is what adds the humour to this comedy (Despina as both doctor and notary will make you laugh unless it is sung terribly, as it often is). And there will be moments when your heart rate will possibly increase because you will be astounded by the sheer perfection of what you just heard. I am no blind worshipper, I advise you to listen to Cosí fan tutte, and arrive at your own inevitable conclusions.