< Paul F. Zweifel

Pre-Opera "Illumination" for Così fanTutte

Opera Roanoke Production. June 2000
 

Mozart and his most famous librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte wrote three operas together of which Così is the third. The first, The Marriage of Figaro, had its premiere in 1786; Don Giovanni first appeared only a year later, in 1787 while Così appeared for the first time in 1789. (We are speaking here of an interval of only three years and nine months separating these three great works of art, something perhaps unique in the history of music). These three operas have been studied, discussed, written about and analyzed ever since, in excruciating detail. Perhaps the best treatment of the three as a group has been given by Andrew Steptoe in his book The Mozart da Ponte Operas. Steptoe points out the essential difference among these three great works of art by stressing their social content. Figaro, he writes, "was written for the sophisticated [Viennese] audience of a society in flux, one in which the conventions of the ancien regime coexisted with a new interest in egalitarianism." Don Giovanni, on the other hand, was written for a provincial and unsophisticated audience in Prague. A more refined audience would not have responded to the working over of an old legend. (In fact, Don Giovanni was not successful when it was presented, later on, in Vienna).

By 1790 when Così arrived on the stage society in Vienna "had retreated from its flirtation with egalitarianism, and fear of revolution [sparked by the happenings in France] had led to the ascendancy of conservative elements."

So Mozart and da Ponte produced an opera designed specifically for this aristocratic audience. It is neither a story of social upheaval like Figaro nor a story about the dissolute nobility like Don Giovanni but rather a simple charming exposition of personal human foibles. This is a tale about fiancée swapping, and for many years it was believed that the story was based on an actual incident involving wife swapping which had all Vienna titillated. More recent research has shown that this is about as true as the legend, promulgated in the movie Amadeus, that Salieri murdered Mozart. Steptoe goes on to characterize the three operas: Figaro, he says, portrays the humanity and joy of human relationships; Don Giovanni elaborates the profundities of human nature and existence; and Così distills the essence of human emotion. Other writers, for example Lord Harewood, have waxed eloquent about the partnership between Mozart and da Ponte, comparing it with that between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl or Gilbert and Sullivan but other writers such as Grout have emphasized that the emotional insight into the characters' psyches comes not from da Ponte's words but rather from Mozart's music

Before talking about the story of the opera, I want to say more about da Ponte. This interesting character, who had actually became a (non-practicing) Catholic priest. He was also  a roué and man-about town of no little virtuosity. In fact,  rumor has it that he put some of his personal experiences into the libretto of Don Giovanni. In any case, we note that all three of his operas with Mozart center on the theme of adultery, the crime which made it necessary for Da Ponte to leave Venice and emigrate to Vienna. Not too long after Mozart's death, da Ponte gave up writing libretti and emigrated to the United States where he eventually became Columbia University's first professor of Italian. He survived Mozart by 46 years, dying only in 1838.

The story is quite simple. (I've discussed its roots in ancient literary works by Ovid, Boccaccio and Shakespeare in the program notes, so I'll let you read those on your own.) Two young men, originally named Guglielmo (a baritone) and Ferrando (a tenor) are in love with two sisters from Ferrara who happen to be living in Naples. These sisters, Fiordiligi (a soprano) and Dorabella (a mezzo) are attended by a servant, the soprano Despina. The evil genius who sets the whole plot in motion is the baritone Don Alfonso. Alfonso is a cynical, older man of the world who has a dim view of women and their fidelity. He is, in a word, an out and out sexist.

When the opera opens, the three men, Alfonso and the two young lovers, are in a café where the older man has been telling the others his views on women, that they "are all like that." (Così fan tutte.) While the two lovers don't disagree, they do stoutly maintain that their fiancees are different. It is exactly at this point that the opera opens, with Gulielmo and Ferrrando proclaiming the virtues of Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively. At this point Don Alfonso persuades the two young men to "test" their fiancées by pretending to leave for the war and then to return, disguised, for some bizarre reason, as Albanians. When the men return, Ferrando is to woo Fiordiligi who is Guglielmo's fiancée while Guglielmo courts Dorabella who is engaged to Ferrando. The two young lovers place a pretty substantial bet ($100 in our production) with Don Alfonso that in fact their fiancées will remain faithful and not switch to the Albanians (whom they are not supposed to recognize. A little bit of operatic license is required here on the part of the audience.)

Well it takes two acts, but eventually the girls do switch (with a little encouragement from Despina who has been bribed by Don Alfonso to assist him in his plotting). Just as Despina (disguised as a notary) is preparing to marry the odd couples, the real lovers return and confront their sweethearts. Well, you can just imagine the confusion which arises, caused in part by the fact that the score doesn't tell us what happens at the end. Some directors have the original couples getting back together; some have them keeping the new pairing. And some, such as our director Mark Clark, have the two girls rejecting both "lovers" and going off together. Mark believes, with good reason, that the opera as originally written is sexist and insulting to women, and so he's tried to do a little to turn the tables.

Furthermore, Mark has "revised" the staging of the opera. In case you don't already know, a "revisionist production" in operatic lingo refers to a staging which changes the time or the place or both from what was originally intended by the composer and librettist. There are a couple of reasons for revisionism. One is to demonstrate that the artistic and human truths which opera reveals to us are timeless and encompass all humanity; they are not restricted to the particular place and time originally chosen by the authors. A revisionist production serves to broaden our horizons. Another reason is perhaps that opera audiences are sick of seeing the same stagings of the same operas over and over again. They want a new challenge. These days if you see a non-revisionist production in Europe, it's so unusual that it can actually make the newspapers! (Of course opera companies could address this problem by broadening their repertoires, but this is unlikely to happen as long as audiences insist on seeing the same old war-horses, such as Così fan tutte.)

So for whatever reason, Mark has set Così in Philadelphia, and has chosen historical characters to replace the ones I mentioned above. Ferrando and Guglielmo become, respectively, Phillipe and David, while Fiordiligi and Dorabella are renamed Abigail and Susanna. Despina is converted into the indentured servant Eliza and Don Alfonso into the Dr. Benjamin Franklin. All of these characters are based on actual people who lived in or near Philadelphia in those days--the 1790's--but aside from Dr. Franklin, only Abigail is comparatively well known. She was the first child of the more famous Abigail Adams and President John Adams. Since Susanna is supposed to be the historical figure Susanna Hawsell Rowson, she and Abigail cannot be sisters as da Ponte intended. Mark has told me that he thinks of them as "soul sisters." The two young lovers are still disguised as Albanians, but they're from Albany, New York (which in those days was pretty much a frontier village.)

Dr. Franklin is a rather appropriate choice to represent the cynical older Don Alfonso. Franklin never married, but he did live with a woman sufficiently long for her to be declared his common-law wife. (And he fathered children.) Also he had a demeaning and sexist view of he female sex as can be gathered from his writings in Poor Richard's Almanack.

I should have mentioned before now that the show is being done in Mark Clark's original English translation. By producing a new translation Mark has been able to delineate the characters of the actual people appearing in the opera and to make them coincide, as much as possible, with historical fact. As an example, a number of Franklin's aphorisms (from Poor Richard's Almanck) have been introduced into the recitativi. Here are three of them: "One rotten apple spoils the barrel;" "The flatterer is never absurd:" "Adversity discovers virtue." Listen for these, and other aphorisms, during the performance. Also, when the two men carry out a mock suicide near the end of Act I, Despina, disguised as a doctor spouting fake Latin, comes to draw the poison out of their bodies with a key attached to the end of a kite (rather than a huge magnet as in the original version). The kite is actually flown out in the auditorium, over the audience, so don't be "shocked." The suicide of course is staged in order to arouse the girls' sympathies. The fake Latin, by the way, was in the original da Ponte libretto.

The first scene of the opera, when the wager is laid, takes place in a Philadelphia coffee house (another historical touch as coffee houses were very popular in colonial times). Except for this scene the entire action occurs in Abigail's house or in her garden, the scenes switching back and forth. The sets are designed to allow rapid changing, so the audience will not be in the dark for a very long period of time.

There is a great deal of very beautiful music in Così. In particular, the original Fiordilgi-Abigail was one of da Ponte's many mistresses named Adriana Ferrarese. For some reason Mozart hated her, and gave her an aria, "Come scoglio," which he made so difficult as to be almost impossible to sing, with its enormous intervals and a range of over two octaves. The idea was make the audience laugh at the singer. I don't know what happened in Mozart's day, but I'm sure you will agree that Karen Bogan in our production handles this aria beautifully and I guarantee you that nobody will laugh at her. The aria occurs about halfway through Act I, in scene iii, and has been translated for our production into "Like the mountains, unmoving forever." ("Come scoglio" means "Like a rock," the same idea.) The aria is actually a show stopper, so Mozart seems to have been hoist by his own petard by making the music too beautiful. What a gift from God--he couldn't write bad music even when he tried!

Another thing to listen for, just a little before "Like the mountains" is Despina-Eliza's aria in which she tries to persuade the ladies that they should do exactly what the men do. (This is also Act I, scene iii). She doesn't really get explicit (one couldn't in the 1790's) but the aria is basically an ode in praise of free love. In the original Italian version Despina sings "Amiam per commodo, per vanità" which I've translated as "Love is for pleasure, and bragging about." (After all, that's what the men do.) The version you'll hear tonight, sung by Susanna Uher, begins with the words "In common men, in two soldiers, you look for loyalty." She then goes on to tell the ladies that they'll never find it. This aria is certainly the most popular number in the show, so popular in fact that it's usually just called "Despina's aria."

Many of you will remember Keith Spencer who has sung Orfeo and Papageno with us recently. He will be singing David tonight. His big aria also comes in Act I, scene iii just after Abigail's. In the original version it's called "Non siate ritrosi." ("Don't be reluctant"). In our version it's "Do not turn your eyes from me." (da Ponte--grammar?? ritrose?)

Phillipe's first-act aria comes shortly after Guglielmo's, in the same scene. In the Italian it's "Un aura amorosa" which Mark has translated literally into "A breath of love." You will hear Paul Saik sing this one.

And let's not forget Susanna (sung by Charlotte Paulsen). Her big aria, "Smanie implacabile" ("Feelings inside of me torment and torture") comes in Act I and is the first aria in scene iii. And Don Alfonso also has an aria early in the first act, in Scene ii, "Vorrei dir." ("I would speak but courage fails.")

In the old days opera goers used to play cards, go out for drinks, visit their friends, etc, returning to their seats only for the big arias. If you feel like doing the same, you only need to be on hand for Scene iii in Act I when the four big arias are sung. I'm sorry, but we don't give a reduced price on tickets if you decide to do this.

There are also arias in Act II for Eliza, Abigail and David. Arias for Phillipe and Susanna have been cut in the interests of making this very long opera end at a reasonable hour. And I've said nothing about the large number of ensembles, duets, trios, quartets, and even sextets since I don't have the time to describe them. I hope, though, that I've given you some idea of what to expect.

A few final comments. First, we are using supertitles for the musical numbers (not the recitativi, however). This is now standard practice in almost all American opera companies, and is done to avoid having the audience strain to make out the words, especially during the ensembles, when as many as six people may be singing at once, all with different words!

Second, listen for the Così fan tutte motif which is heard twice during the overture and then again near the end of Act II when the three men, Phillipe, David and Dr. Franklin are bemoaning the fact that "All women are like that." (They mean faithless.) This is what it sounds like:

The words Così fan tutte will appear on the supertitle screens at the appropriate time to help you recognize the motif.

Finally, the reason I am giving these talks instead of Craig Fields is that he is singing in the performance (the part of Dr. Franklin) He did indicate that he might drop in, in costume, at the end of this talk.