The recent run of performances of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera caused my mind to race in a number of directions, some more productive than others. “Così” is the third of the Mozart/Da Ponte (his librettist) collaborations, composed in 1789, premiered in Vienna in January 1790, thus during the celebrated “late” period of Mozart’s life and output. By late, I mean: age 34.
This series of performances was conducted by the American-born French-baroque-music specialist William Christie, whose idiosyncratic conducting style seemed to baffle even the experienced players of the wonderful Met orchestra, who have not been raised, spoon-fed as it were, on his gestural vocabulary. The house is really too large for 18th century opera, despite its being done there with increasing frequency and popularity. An essential conversational intimacy isn’t possible when projection to an audience of 3800 is the primary concern.
So, the first place my mind went was to the whole issue of so-called “authenticity,” preferably called “historically-informed performance” (the delightful acronym “HIP”) by many. So I must quote the finest statement on the subject, made by an esteemed colleague fifteen years ago:
“The privilege of enjoying stage works long after the eras that produced them comes at a considerable cost. As historical artifacts, they can never be as fresh to a modern public as they were to one contemporary with their creation. An audience’s comprehension—and consequently enjoyment—suffer not only when vocabulary or concepts treated in an old play or opera are lost to history, but also when they survive with definitions or connotations that have evolved through time. The gradual winnowing of the theatrical repertory also distorts the picture; we attribute unique value to surviving pieces, or features of them, which may or may not be representative of their times.”
Bruce Alan Brown in Così fan tutte, Cambridge Opera Handbooks, © 1995 Cambridge University Press
That goes in the “wish I’d said that” file. May I add, that I truly think there is no such thing as “authentic listening,” since we are not 18th century Viennese, with all their attendant cultural values. Nor is the average opera fanatic hearing anything for the “first” time, and the whole area of “pre”hearing, or “expectation” adds an element that can never be reproduced after the first hearing. The museum culture (including recording) of opera has its pitfalls, while no one would wish to be denied access to these sublime works. But they were all “new music” once upon their time.
This opera, in particular because of its focus on the infidelity of women, has been analyzed, stigmatized, deconstructed, reconstructed, and teased to death. Yet, the worldly character of the maid, Despina, also has many choice things to say about men’s constancy. So, there goes the misogynist angle. For me, application of analytical techniques (such as Freudian psychology) is a mistake when applied to works that predate the science.
Tests of fidelity were found in ancient Greek dramas and the Italian renaissance too. Mozart/Da Ponte’s six character structure allows for plenty of focus in the individual arias, and those great ensembles that reveal so much conflicting character information simultaneously. Mozart’s handling of emotion and character through purely musical devices is unparalleled here. The original singers who played Don Alfonso and Despina were married in real life. That must have added a frisson of “authority” to their plotting and ensnaring of the naïve lovers.
“Così” was already the subject of moral censure, as early as 1791, peaking in the 19th century. Even Beethoven found the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas immoral despite their musical sublimity. Today, we see (or “hear”) nothing particularly objectionable in its subject matter. It’s got disguise, mistaken identity, come-uppance, and a happy ending. You can see how changing societal customs shape reception. Did you know it wasn’t done at the Met until 1922? Hmm, Prohibition, and women had only just earned the right to vote two years earlier.
© 2010 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs
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