Losing their religion

Article by Hugo Shirley

For most of the 19th century, Così fan tutte was the ugly duckling in Mozart’s brood. At the end of the century it began to reassert itself in the repertoire, shaking off the downy accretions of a century of misunderstanding to reveal its swanlike beauty. Many factors played their part in this transformation, but two famous Munich productions in 1897 and 1910, masterminded by Richard Strauss, were instrumental. A few years either side of those two dates saw the composition of Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, completed, respectively, in 1893 and 1918. Is there more than a tenuous link here? What has Strauss – whose early fame was built on decadence, cacophony and Teutonic heaviness – to do with these three operas in Italian, whose music apparently skips along with only the most fleeting engagement with anything so dull as gravity?

The fact is that Strauss, in reality a great musical humorist, pragmatist and modernist, had a finger firmly on the cultural pulse; and he was one of the first to see past the supposed incompatibility of Così’s music and words – the central tenet of anti-Così prejudice up to that point.

Much musicological ink has been spilt on the subject of Così’s neglect, pointing to the apparently cruel detachment of the opera’s central experiment: this is less a ‘school for lovers’ than a laboratory for them. Don Alfonso’s cynical wager seems to toy with heartfelt, pure emotion that – like the love Pamina and Papageno extol in their duet in The Magic Flute – “reaches towards the godhead”. And as this idealised love is gradually exposed as a fallacy in Così, Mozart’s music seems to strive ever further heavenward – almost literally if one buys the image of Divine Mozart propagated from shortly after his death, which also dictated that true inspiration could only be allied to perfect morality.

But Così, Nicholas Till has suggested, “forces us to ask the question, ‘What if there is no absolute moral truth or beauty?’ Could we really live in a world stripped of … transcendent aspiration, sustained by no more than the humorous irony enjoined at the end of the opera?” By the time of Falstaff and, even more, Gianni Schicchi, the answer appeared to be yes, and both operas revel in this new freedom. The lessons of Così had taken a century to become obvious accepted truth.

At the end of the 18th century, the Marquis de Sade had pierced the Enlightenment project by promoting rationality not as a means to suppress and control desires, but as a route towards satisfying them. By the end of the 19th, Friedrich Nietzsche had declared God dead; similar artistic certainties began also to decay. Wagner was dead, too. Parsifal, his last opera, was safely confined to the hallowed stage of his festival in Bayreuth, each year reasserting its power over the Wagnerian pilgrims. Its religious aura was what gave it the distinctive tang of decadence: it enabled and encouraged escape into the intellectual equivalent of the rose perfume, silk and satin Wagner so loved.

Strauss was an important player in the subsequent move away from the quasi-religious in music, his revival of Così a happy by-product. And if one subscribes to the Grand Narrative of history as reflecting a cycle of growth and decay, one might see the three operas under discussion as products of late stages not only in their composers’ lives, but as reflecting late stages in their historical cycles: the end of Enlightenment for Così, the collapse of 19th century values in Falstaff, the destruction of old Europe in Gianni Schicchi; yet they are not maudlin laments but comedies.

It is perhaps telling that while Strauss expressed dismay at the tendency for Verdi’s operas to loot the store of literary classics, he made an exception for Falstaff. “I find no words to describe the great impression that the extraordinary beauty of your Falstaff had on me,” he wrote to the Italian operatic legend in 1895, describing it as “balm for the spirit”.

The fact that an operatic comedy – and a genuinely, consistently funny one at that – could be described in such terms reflects the sheer compositional virtuosity of a score that reacts with the keenest wit, mercurial lightness and ease to its libretto. It also reflects an acknowledgement of human fallibility, an admission that being human is not just about striving for impossible perfection (as espoused, say, by Goethe’s Faust). Falstaff reflects an easy-going acceptance of the futility of it all that one is tempted to put down to a special sort of old-age mellowness.

Edward Said attempted in On Late Style (his own final book, posthumously assembled by an assistant) to formalise the idea of lateness, building on the fiercely intellectual musings on Beethoven’s ‘late style’ by the notoriously difficult German theorist Theodor Adorno. Said describes “the accepted notion of age and wisdom in some last works that reflect a special maturity, a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of a miraculous transfiguration of common reality”. Verdi’s final two operas, for Said, are “works that exude not so much a spirit of wise resignation as a renewed, almost youthful energy that attests to an apotheosis of artistic creative power”. But Falstaff is clearly a great deal more than this, finally finding energy in precisely its spirit of wise resignation; it is the glorious freedom found in the realisation that “Tutto nel mondo è burla”, which provides the spark for one of the most expertly crafted ensembles in all opera.

Not incidentally, perhaps, Gianni Schicchi was Puccini’s last completed work for the stage (and Così, too, was completed little more than a year before Mozart’s death). To talk of self-conscious ‘lateness’ in Puccini’s work, however, might be pushing it; the composer was not yet 60 when he completed Gianni Schicchi, though he would die six years later of throat cancer. But as the title character faces the audience to plead extenuating circumstances at the end, it seems to be as much an expression of fallibility as anything else, an acknowledgement that art cannot, in the modern age, be expected to capture the totality of life. It might also represent a rebellion against verismo, of which Puccini had demonstrated such supreme mastery in Il tabarro, the first panel of his triptych. It’s a moment that breaks the fourth wall, that imaginary structure – always flimsier in comedy – propped up by an audience’s suspended disbelief. This is always a natural step in comedy, which relies on an audience’s awareness of things the characters on the stage are ignorant of. We feel this most perhaps in Così fan tutte, where the effect is exacerbated by Don Alfonso’s asides, making us party to the sort of insider knowledge that can be just as germane in high tragedy: in Otello, we want to shout out Iago’s betrayal to avert murder.

Such toying with theatrical illusion is nothing new. But it lets us into another secret, and Woody Allen, that famous breaker of the cinematic fourth wall, hints what it is at the close of his 1979 film Annie Hall. Allen’s character is attending a rehearsal of his first play, in which he stages the happy ending the film has just denied us. “You know how you’re always trying to get things to turn out perfect in art,” he says, turning to the camera, “because it’s real difficult in life?” An acknowledgment of the gap between life and art is in part what allows great comedies to be so moving.

Falstaff retains the traditional framing devices of theatrical convention, even while it delights the audience by making us complicit in its plot. But Falstaff, more than any opera by Verdi, is tied in with the composer’s biography. It is the final glorious product of a rather grumpy genius with nothing to lose, its autumnal tinta deriving from Verdi’s initial reluctance to be dragged into the project, his apparent lack of urgency in seeing it through, his repeated insistence that “I have written for myself and for my own pleasure”. All this, as Roger Parker notes, “leave[s] us with a musical image that exactly reflects those famous photographs of Verdi in his last years: an old man, in black hat, with eyes that have lived through a lifetime of struggle, smiling out wisely at the world.”

Such an image is in part a result of the composer’s own attempts to steer posterity’s view of him and his final opera. We are supposed to feel the elderly Verdi guiding us through the action, providing, through his score, a wry, wise commentary. His career-long drive to maximise dramatic power mellows into something a great deal more personal: a letter from the end of 1890, during the early stages of a lengthy composition process, seems even to conclude with a sort of credo: “The opera is entirely comic! Amen.”

Such strategies aim to gloss over the astonishing compositional skill of the score, usually seen as starting a new genre of comic opera, which is perhaps closer to Wagner’s Meistersinger than it is to any of the comic operas produced by the post-Rossini and Donizetti generation, among which must be included Verdi’s own unsuccessful – but often delightful – first opera, Un giorno di regno. Falstaff recaptured some of the freedom the composer of opera buffa had in Mozart’s time – compared to the strict formality demanded in opera seria – that allowed for the extended forms of the magnificent through-composed finales of Mozart’s da Ponte operas, where the natural dramatic accelerando still familiar in modern farces demanded a musical equivalent.

Mozart’s gift for extracting the essence of da Ponte’s characters and presenting it through music of the greatest psychological directness had elevated their triptych to a special position; each in its own way mixed comedy with very serious drama. Strauss wrote in a 1910 essay that in Così “Mozart’s art of characterization reached its zenith… Not only is Così fan tutte unique among Mozart’s dramatic masterpieces, it is also one of the gems of the whole of operatic comedy prior to Richard Wagner’s Meistersinger”. Opera buffa reached a high-water mark with Rossini, before the genre ossified into something altogether more conventional as the 19th century progressed, but Verdi’s great achievement in Falstaff was to recapture some of the moving beauty of those works of Mozart, and create a new sort of comic fluidity, in which aria, arioso, ensemble and recitative were able seamlessly to run into one another. Its influence on Gianni Schicchi and comic episodes in Puccini’s other operas is clear; so is its influence on Strauss’s comic, parlando mode, first fully exploited in Der Rosenkavalier. Indeed, when working out initial plans for La rondine, Puccini had declared: “I shall never compose operetta: comic opera, yes: like Rosenkavalier, but more entertaining, and funnier.”

But what of the characters of Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi? Is one just a clown, the other just a wiseguy – a go-to factotum along the lines of Rossini’s Figaro? As with all great comedy, the characters remain difficult to pin down, as does Don Alfonso – the elusive ‘philosophe’ who was routinely taken to task by early commentators for the relish with which he steers Così’s plot away from wholesome certainties. But is Alfonso not just as right to question the myth of absolute constancy as Falstaff is to question the practical uses of honour? Are they not both just as concerned with ridiculing the empty precepts of their society in the same way that Gianni Schicchi is concerned with punishing the venality and hypocrisy of supposedly civilised Florentines – with favourable results for his daughter’s happiness and his own wallet?

Falstaff is certainly no clown, and the cultural historian Sander L. Gilman – in Fat Boys, a recent history of the portly gent in art – underlines the importance of the fact that Boito’s Falstaff amalgamates Shakespeare’s two very different characters, the earlier, less overtly comic and decrepit knight of Henry IV and the buffoon of the Merry Wives of Windsor. Verdi’s Falstaff, as a baritone, is a relative of both the comic bass and the heroic baritone that Verdi almost single-handedly created as an operatic type. Much, of course, depends on the nature of any production of the opera, but there’s a residual potency in Verdi’s old knight – outlined in the deliberate chest-puffing of ‘Va, vecchio John!’ in the opera’s second act – that adds a further frisson to the drama. Actually the straight-man Ford can often seem hardly less impotent.

The baritones Don Alfonso and Schicchi are ambiguous as types, too, and both exist in a sort of limbo, outsiders in deliberately conventional worlds. A comic maid and two rather too-perfectly balanced pairs of lovers provide Alfonso’s context; Schicchi, meanwhile, stands apart, with the conventional pair of Lauretta and Rinuccio, from a cast of standard buffo types. Alfonso and Schicchi are much more than the half-comic, half-serious mezzi caratteri that Carlo Goldoni identified as necessary in his mid-18th century formalization of comic-opera types. Schicchi is perfectly suited to enact Puccini’s idea of comedy, which one biographer has described as “wicked, often bordering on the grotesque, and tinged by the macabre”; Alfonso serves the purpose of da Ponte’s enlightenment experiment wonderfully, too. They risk no entanglement in romantic concerns, and part of the reason Alfonso is counted as so worryingly cynical lies in the fact that, despite being nominally a friend of Ferrando and Guglielmo, his links to the rest of the action seem bafflingly remote.

But Don Alfonso is supremely charming, and, ultimately, right. He draws the audience in to witness his experiment, and we willingly follow. It’s an experiment that proves the errant nature of human beings – and there’s relief all round when, a century or so later, his results are gloriously, joyously ratified by Falstaff and Schicchi.

Hugo Shirley is Assistant Editor of Opera magazine and a classical music critic on the Daily Telegraph