Così – the perfect ensemble opera?

George Fleeton

This is the text of my introductory Talks given in Lismore Castle Co Waterford before performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the 7th Lismore Opera Festival on  June 03 and 04.

The purpose of the Talks was to explore the music and the popularity of this 225 year old opera which was completed less than two years before the composer’s death.

In my Programme article for the production (also published here at www.georgefleeton.com as 'Always trust a woman') there is additional reading about the opera's genesis and subsequent history and that left me free to address the music, plot and characters which we were bringing to life in the stable yard at Lismore Castle.

IT will come as no surprise to any of you if I say that Mozart’s approach to Così is nearer to Gilbert & Sullivan than it is to Dante or Shakespeare.

The important thing for the composer at that time was to make each scene work and to merge it seamlessly with the next in what was for Mozart just another fairly routine, late-baroque, musical extravaganza for upmarket Viennese society.

That situation there was about to change radically after the French Revolution; indeed the opening night of Così happened a little over six months after Bastille Day in Paris but the impact had not yet reached Vienna.

ON stage we met two rather naïve and sheltered young women, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella (they were northerners from Ferrara but were residing down south in Napoli); and while they are clearly being made fun of, the elder sister is given two superb arias, one in each act, taxing tests for any dramatic soprano, and two of the finest arias written by Mozart in any of his operas, each of them a show stopper.

At this point we watched a clip from the 1989 La Scala production of Cosi in which Daniela Dessì (Fiordiligi) sang of ‘heartless men who should honour her example of fidelity’ (Come scoglio).

The opera has two acts, and each act has four scenes, strung together by the music and various plot points written by da Ponte to advance the narrative, all of which give the piece a comfortable and coherent symmetry.

Mozart certainly had plenty of experience of such constructions or theatrical conceits: born 260 years ago, by age 33 he had already completed 14 operas, and 573 other pieces of music of all descriptions and genres; at the end of his life there would be 626 items in his back catalogue.

At that point, early 1790, he and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte were building on the unprecedented successes of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni at Vienna in the preceding three years.

THE credibility and morality at play in this opera were not the issues then; they became the post-hoc musings of scholars and musicologists in the 19th and 20th centuries and all their analyses and investigations did no damage whatsoever to Mozart’s bullet-proof music.

In my work with music students I often compared and contrasted Così to an earlier French novel Les liaisons dangereuses in that both works either dramatise (the novel) or send up (the opera) the erosion of codes of correct social and sexual behaviour; both works are replete with recognisable and enlightened self-awareness, and both texts had to endure scandalous reputations; for example, this from one Victorian commentator:

‘I find it incomprehensible that Mozart should have accepted such a poorly judged, sniggering little play … adulterous machinations between four so-called lovers have no place on the operatic stage’.

A hundred years ago Thomas Beecham defended it:

‘In Così the dying 18th century casts a backward glance at a period outstanding in Europe for grace and charm’.

Its grace and charm makes it the perfect ensemble opera; restrained in language while symmetrical in construction – for instance all six characters each has an aria in each act.

And the music - Mozart in poor health, with huge financial worries, but writing at his peak - achieves a sublime fusion of poised eloquence and credible emotion: a young composer making something enlightened and extraordinary out of something quite superficial, and defining for posterity what we mean by drama in music, musical drama, Italian melodramma or French mélodrame.

After 46 symphonies and 26 piano concertos, his final seven operas, from Idomeneo in 1781 onwards, are monuments in the history of music in Europe and, of those, his final three are undisputed masterpieces in each of the three operatic genres in which he chose to work: Così as ‘opera buffa’, Tito as ‘opera seria’ and Magic Flute as ‘singspiel’.

In a second example from the La Scala video, we watched the sisters’ fiancés, Guglielmo and Ferrando, each setting out to seduce the other sister and doing so convincingly; their love music then had to be really persuasive, as in Un’aura amorosa/ A breath of love, sung by Ferrando (Jozef Kundlak) to an absent Dorabella.

And there was a third video example of Mozart’s sublime writing for the voice in that short trio, one of the most beautiful pieces Mozart ever composed: Soave sia il vento.

OVER the years many have tried to give the story of this opera some respectability, with reference to its subtitle ‘The School for Lovers’, making it clear that it was a moral tale teaching lessons about fidelity and trust; in 18th century terms this was perfectly shipshape and in line with views and tastes among the gentry of Vienna; today many still believe it all smacks of discrimination and misogyny, and hence you can see something of the controversy which has pursued the opera for well over 200 years.

Mozart chose to ignore this, concentrating, in his music, not on content but on theatrical effect and character motivation, and made it a comedy of manners, a court extravaganza, as he continued to flatter the Emperor, and his hosts of obsequious sycophants, who paid the bills.

This opera has some of Mozart’s most passionate music, heart music not head music, and after 25 years of association with it I believe it is unlike any music in any other opera you’ll ever hear.

The fourth and final La Scala scene that I used was the seduction of Fiordiligi in the duet with Ferrando, her sister’s lover: In a short time,’ she intones, ‘I shall be in Guglielmo’s arms…’

The two female principals, luminous characters, are defined by their music: Fiordiligi is strong, serious, a leader; Dorabella is less mature, less sure of her feelings, a bit flighty, and Mozart was clearly in love with them, if only because the two men are less clearly sculpted, less interesting: Ferrando is quick and responsive, Guglielmo is steadier but their music is under-written and is much less haunting on the ear afterwards.

There is too a second kind of music – buffa, or comic, written for Despina and Alfonso: it is vintage stuff, witty, bright and subtle; and throughout the opera the scoring for the woodwind is stunning as Mozart effortlessly devises the right accompaniment at the right time for the right words.

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I am always asked at these events to recommend a CD recording to remind us of our night at the opera.

There’s one which is without equal and which I have used for many years: an EMI recording from 1962 with the incomparable Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Fiordiligi.

NEXT year at the 8th Lismore Opera Festival (in the first week of June) the production will be Donizetti’s bel canto opera L’Elisir d’Amore, which was first performed in Milan in 1832.

Details later at  www.lismoreoperafestival.com

Finally we noted that Ireland has the lowest level of public funding and support for arts and culture, especially opera, of any country in the EU - e.g. here arts & culture are now buried somewhere in the foundations of the Regional Development/Rural Affairs/Gaeltacht portfolio; while in the north they are interred in the so-called Department of Communities.

Audience support for what we do in such difficult economic times for opera in performance in Ireland is phenomenal; it is something which we are unashamedly passionate about, the more so as neither Arts Council’s policies on opera, north or south, seem to make any sense whatsoever.

These Talks then ended with a soave sia il vento - to our particularly supportive audiences who continue to make Lismore Opera Festival such a success - a safe journey home with a favourable tailwind and imaginations filled with the quicksilver sounds and echoes of Mozart’s mellifluous and well-behaved music.

©mmxvi