Article by James Naughtie
Of all the operas in which nothing is what it seems, Così stands alone. We’re used to plots that have to be swallowed like medicine before the enjoyment can come, or characters whose texture only seems to emerge when they are singing, and sometimes it is all worthwhile. But Così is different.
Here the artifice is itself an elaborate joke, taken by Mozart and turned into something serious. We’re expected to believe that this is a witty commentary on fickleness and the conventions of love, but it is also a piece of defiance about opera itself. Audiences in the 1790s could not have missed the point. In the last of the three operas with his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart was making fun of his predecessors and the hack composers who had become slave to the pattern of mistaken identities and crossed love which were the staple fare of an earlier age.
From the beginning, the opera feels different. In the overture itself, after the robust chords which establish the rhythm of the score, the oboe manages to sound mischievous and melancholy at the same time, winding its way through the music and somehow suggesting the sinuous pattern of the story that’s about to unfold. But from the very first bars this is obviously no romp. This is the oboe that comes into its own later in the opera at one of the most important turning points, when Fiordiligi succumbs to Ferrando. There are hints of darkness everywhere, a sense of longing instead of farce.
Musicologists can try to capture the magic of Mozart in meticulous deconstructions of the score, discovering the patterns that give the music its shape, but that old description of his achievement as “divine simplicity” is still the best one. Take the first act of this opera. Like the first hour of The Marriage of Figaro (in which he seems to achieve almost everything…and then follows it with one of the most beautiful arias for the female voice ever written), it feels almost perfect. The characters are delineated clearly, their relationships are established with bold strokes and vivid colours, and the whole progress of the story takes on a kind of symmetry that gives it perfect balance. This is partly a matter of plot – there are three pairs of characters who operate in tandem – and partly a crystal-clear musical personality in the opera that is so distinctive that by the time the curtain falls for the first time – or, in Holland Park, you reach for a glass in the dusk – you’re not so much feeling that this is a story that is gradually picking up pace but that you have lived with these people for a long time and have a feeling for their dilemmas as if they’re your own.
This, of course, is absurd. Men are going off to foreign wars in causes of which we know nothing; they’re planning disguises that wouldn’t fool a child at a pantomime; their cynical manipulator Don Alfonso is arranging a game so ridiculous that its outcome seems laughably implausible.
But remember that he is billed as a “philosopher”. Never mind that in the course of his opera his interest is simply in who’s getting off with whom, and how people react to the deceptions of love, he represents something that’s deeper than a cardboard character who’s engaged in producing fake doctors with magnetising machines and fake notaries to simulate wedding ceremonies. All this stuff is acceptable because underneath there are real feelings which are touched by a plangent understanding of the world’s woes.
When the precious and glorious trio begins in Act I, in which Dorabella, Fiordiligi and Don Alfonso appear to pray for the safety of the men off to war (“Soave sia il vento”) – the manipulator being well aware of the nonsense he’s creating – the music becomes so beguiling that everything else passes away. I can think of few opening acts that have a greater capacity to transcend the awkward stage business that always threatens to undermine proceedings.
There is no point in pretending that Così, for all its genius, is easy to stage. It isn’t. I’ve seen the men’s disguises sent up, overdone, underdone – even imagined, like a non-appearing ghost in Hamlet – and watched productions on rock strewn landscapes, in draped rooms that seem like Turkish bordellos (or so I’m informed), on board ship, on darkened stages where nothing seems to move for three hours, as well as in the set-piece 18th century drawing rooms that are so often used as backdrops for every opera written between about 1650 and 1800. They have this in common, however – that they work only when the emphasis falls on the shaft of sadness that flows just under the surface. When the froth overwhelms everything, everyone on the stage is likely to die. Audiences soon follow suit.
Don Alfonso’s philosophising may seem to amount only to the ruminations of a roguish roué, but it touches on the most sensitive feelings: the precarious business of young love, the fragility of courtship rituals, the ease with which a passion can turn into rage.
Each of the four lovers has a character that’s distinct from the others, though those of the men don’t properly become clear until they are in disguise. When Fiordiligi sings of her rock-like determination in Act I, for example, she’s not only showing that she’s the one who will argue that they should support their men, but demonstrating that she has a weakness for self-aggrandisement or at least a histrionic streak. It’s therefore more poignant later in the opera when her defences melt away.
The power of Così isn’t just in its hijacking of the conventions of opera seria for high purposes, but in the way that it allows the characters to be transformed in the course of the story into more complicated figures that the plot would seem to allow.
In the second act, they have all become much older, though no time has passed. Indeed, through all the machinations of the deceptions and the bogus weddings the music speaks of the feelings that swim around underneath. At the end, the women who have been led such a merry dance by the two men, and Don Alfonso, are driven to apologise for their own behaviour. Everyone’s defences, like their disguises, have been stripped away.
This year of Mozart is no doubt going to send some people under the bedclothes when they hear the beginning of another Eine Kleine Nachtmusik or 40th Symphony, but the three da Ponte operas are surely among the most robust pieces of music theatre that we know. I’ve found myself closing my eyes at some grim productions over the years – usually when Così or Figaro is staged with no melancholy or no menace, or when Don Giovanni is done in the dark (why does that happen so often?) – but never driven away from these monumental achievements. Mozart was approaching the end of his life when this opera was written, and for many years it was neglected (even suffering the indignity of performances through the 19th century with new libretti to restore some “dignity” to the women). Its rediscovery was in itself an escape from the misunderstanding that had dogged its early years and a recognition of the subtlety and, above all, the truth of its observations.
What is opera if it has no truth? These aren’t constructions wheeled onto a stage for a couple of hours of diversion (though no doubt we can all think of some that nearly stumble into that category) but revelations. Without casting light in dark places, they can’t work.
The second act of Così succeeds in revealing the characters of these four lovers against the formidable odds of action that should seem implausible. The other obstacle – it was especially difficult in the 19th century – is the assumption that all women, given half a chance, will behave like this. That is one of the reasons for the delicate translations – like The School for Lovers – attached to the opera down the years, in an effort to appear less crude, though They’re All Like That might be a little more accurate. In German alone, you can find at least 20 different titles. There have been some corkers, among which this one is surely the finest – Weibertreue, oder Die Madchen sind von Flandern, “Women’s Fidelity, or The Women are from Flanders”. Say no more.
The first time it was performed in this country, in 1828, the playbill described it as “Tit for Tat, or The Tables Turned” which is nicely neutral, and it’s interesting that in an age when we are probably more concerned than ever to avoid falling into stereotypical habits in thinking about men and women no-one seems to bother very much. It is what it is, something crude that’s turned into something fine.
When the disguises are stripped away, the characters who are left aren’t diminished by the games they’ve played. They’re bigger than they were. This doesn’t mean that when all is revealed and the opera ends they drift into some kind of sentimental afterlife in which all will be well in perpetuity. Not at all. They’re not deceived about the nature of the world, but more aware of its character. They’ve also discovered a great deal about themselves. Fiordiligi has found, for example, that even rocks can crumble. Her self-centred defiance of Act I is shot through with a degree of humility, at last.
What happens to them we don’t know, and shouldn’t. But I think we’re invited to think a little about what Don Alfonso represents – not the pure cynicism or misogyny that may seem the core of his one great aria at the start of the opera, but a rather more reasonable understanding of how the world works that is human and not without warmth.
In an age in which the foaming tide of celebrity sometimes seems to be overwhelming, drowning everything in its path, the opera may have more contemporary relevance than the crude assumptions of the plot might suggest. Far from being an exposé of the fickleness of all women, it’s more an argument for the stripping away of artifice and false emotion. Their journey doesn’t involve the fire and water of the The Magic Flute, but they end up in the same place.
Will they do it again? Probably not, but others will – not with disguises and fake calls to war, maids who play doctors and lawyers with funny voices, but with some other kind of delusion. And if they’re lucky, the deceit will evaporate.
This is an opera about fun, confusion and vanity; and it is also the story of how we can survive all that.