New delights, sweet pain: a week with Così fan tutte

It was a blog post on Mozart’s Così fan tutte that finally inspired me to try seeing a production of it. (Yay for opera enablers!! Thank you Blake!!) But I didn’t stop at one. In about a week’s time, or just a little over, I’ve seen three different recordings of this extraordinarily beautiful opera–usually in time snatched far too late at night for me–and the glorious music has been in my head all week like a haunting, friendly spirit.

If you would like a Cliffs’ Notes version of what will probably shape up to be a wordy blog ***or if you aren’t familiar with the story of Così fan tutte yet (in which case, spoilers!)*** here are my highlights:

1. Please see this marvelous opera, in some version! I’d especially recommend the 2006 Glyndebourne production, which is free on Amazon if you’re in the U.S. and have Prime!

2. I highly recommend S. Blake Duncan’s blogs for deeper appreciation after you’ve seen it, particularly: In Defense of Così, and my personal favorite, More on Così fan Tutte. My discovery of all three of the productions that I’ll mention here is the direct result of his recommendations and these wonderful posts. (Again, many thanks…!) I was grateful not only for the sensitive insight of a musician—I so especially appreciated the discussion of the “sound” of winds, like the winds of change, in the orchestration, as well as the discussion of “il core vi dono” and the other pieces throughout—but one of historical perspective in the face of modern sensibilities which are, on the surface, somewhat at odds with the exquisite Mozart/Da Ponte work.

First productions…

The first recording that I watched of this opera, just over a week ago now, was the 2014 production from Met on Demand, with Isabel Leonard, Susanna Phillips, and Matthew Polenzani—and Danielle de Niece as a bright and spunky Despina. A charming, winning production, beautifully done by all.

Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) and Miah Persson (Fiordiligi)
Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo) and Miah Persson (Fiordiligi)

The second, and my favorite as a whole, was the one I chose for my birthday movie: the magical, bright 2006 Glyndebourne production with Luca Pisaroni (I was sold, right there!), Miah Persson, a very handsome Nicolas Rivenq, Topi Lehtipuu, and Anke Vondung. (As of this post, it’s available free if you have Amazon Prime, at least in the US!) It really captures the lighthearted as well as bittersweet/painful elements in the brilliant story, and the singers portray the characters with a winning tenderness, exquisitely sung. Luca’s portrayal of hurtful resentment I found especially compelling.

The third, although I regrettably had to break it up into a number of viewings, and not with the full concentration I would like to have given it, is another beauty from 1992, which as of this posting can still be found at this link, with English subtitles. I’d like to see it again, all in one sitting. But I thought the set, costumes, and ensemble were all a treat. I particularly enjoyed the voice and performance of Rodney Gilfry as Guglielmo here. (The scene where Ferrando woos Fiordiligi, with Guglielmo looking on…ouch…) And the ending…fitting and lovely.

A Così summary…

The setting is late-18th century Naples. The storyline, with libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and the most glorious music by Mozart, is not unlike a story told in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, wherein a certain man persuades his best friend to woo his wife, in order to test her fidelity. In the case of Così, it is two men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, who are challenged by their older, worldly friend Don Alfonso to put their own fiancées to the test by wooing them in disguise—Ferrando and Guglielmo ostensibly being called off to the battlefield—and the upshot will be, in Don Alfonso’s mind, to disabuse his friends of the notion that these two women are any more faithful or high-minded than any other human being. Così fan tutte! (They [women] all do it!) The men have help in this endeavor from the clever maid Despina, who encourages her mistresses’ infidelities by her woman-of-the-world “wisdom”; she also disguises herself at various times as a notary, or a doctor –the latter a hilarious spoof on Mesmer’s “magnetism” that was a current fad, who “saves” the would-be wooers from death by poison. Guglielmo woos his friend’s betrothed Dorabella, and Ferrando woos Fiordiligi—and it’s hard to resist the charms of either.

A few thoughts…

The very title, Così fan tutte, seems to present a challenge for us, as though suggesting that troubles with constancy is a “woman’s problem”; I won’t go into the reasons for thinking of this differently, as was so well done by the articles mentioned above. Nor do I think in this case, like Jane Austen’s Anne in Persuasion, that “men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story”–agreed, yes; but Mozart and Da Ponte were both ahead of their time here in the implications of this opera. I personally think that had the plot gone in the other direction, with the women testing the fidelity of the men, the results would likely enough have been the same in Mozart and Da Ponte’s story…in fact, as Despina’s many comments suggest, that idea is a given. No need to test it, in her mind.

In this character-sextet—the two couples, Don Alfonso, and Despina—Despina is clearly the mirror of Don Alfonso, even though his opposite in gender and station. They’re not romantics. Despina’s words to her mistresses are as cutting as any, as the ladies pine for the men who must leave them:

To hope for faithfulness
in men, in soldiers?
Don’t let people hear you, for heaven’s sake!
All men are made of the same stuff;
the swaying boughs, the fickle breezes
have greater stability than men have.

The “problem” here is not about womens’ constancy, nor their submission (a problem that haunts Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, for example). When I consider Così, the more intriguing “problem” for me is the human story itself. The trick Don Alfonso and the men play is warranted in the context of a farce–and to view it with excessive sobriety is surely not the intent. We can’t forget that it IS a farce. I mean, we very willingly suspend disbelief as the ladies are “tricked” by their own—or their sisters’–betrothed husbands. And simply because they’re disguised in exotic costumes and wearing outrageous mustacchi? They’re fooled by the idea of magnets extracting poison from the bodies of the ridiculously convulsing men who were driven to suicide out of love at first sight? It’s delightfully outrageous…and we’re having fun along the way.

But…there is a “but,” in my mind. Just as with Shakespeare, who always managed to make things more humanly complicated and interesting than any genre would ever require, so too Mozart and Da Ponte are just too darn interesting, brilliant, and poignant in their creation to make it only a send-up, or only a comedy. We may just as often want to weep as to laugh. How will the characters recover from this? Will they? And not only the romances, but–I always seem to worry about this especially–the friendships of the men, both of whom have succeeded in making the other’s betrothed unfaithful.

Yes, the music is so glorious and the libretto so captivating as to make us pause.

It does have the element of the Shakespearean problem play, in that there is an ostensibly “happy” ending, not without room for interpretation. “Interpretation” not as in conceptualizing, nor trying to appease a 21st century audience, but character interpretation. A pause, a doubt, a hesitation, an unexpected nuance. As I left each production, floating in the clouds at some of the most beautiful music ever written, and happy…I still had that lurking feeling afterwards: but will they really be okay?

I wouldn’t compare the two, as Così is a little more Twelfth Night than Measure for Measure, but in the latter (again, spoiler alert!) we are following a character who seems to possess a sort of omnicient, Godlike perspective on the play’s situation, Duke Vincentio. He is ever observing, testing…even manipulating events into submission. (It’s a good thing that he’s a decent character, or else everyone would be in trouble.) But after bringing justice to a messed-up situation, the play ends with him confidently declaring his love to a nun, Isabella—nevermind that, not long before, we were so disturbed by Angelo’s proposal to her. Sure, we might think: obviously, Angelo’s was a rotten deal—but the Duke, well, he’s a decent guy…he’s not blackmailing her, although she does, one might say, owe him…But he must really love her and want what’s best for her. And really, she’s only a novice at the convent, and maybe she doesn’t really want to be a nun in the first place. But still…still. It’s more than a little disconcerting. One can interpret it so that the ending is left open—and indeed, the best version I’ve seen of it literally has the lights fade on the sight of the handsome, commanding Duke standing with an outstretched hand towards an ambivalent Isabella. What will happen? Much of what we are left to imagine will depend on the trajectory of what has gone before, and the characterization of each.

So, back to Così. It is a lighthearted romp, and something in the category of magical realism. When I first heard the overture, there is a stong, confident buoyancy…suggestive of the later refrain of “Così fan tutte” and the sharpness of, say, “come scoglio immoto resta”, which then melts into moments of something…unexpected, bittersweet.

Such is the melting required of the men’s hearts at the end, if all is to be well. One hopes that all will be well…but something is off. But even if the couples are “really” okay–which is not absolutely certain–such wisdom, tenderness, and forgiveness as the ending requires is not likely to happen in a moment. I think the reverse kind of forgiveness needs to happen too: we have to remember that it is a send-up, because, really, the men have played a pretty unkind trick.

So, no, we don’t quite know how things would turn out, and it would have taken a Mozart and Da Ponte to write the kind of sequel poignant enough to do justice to a perfectly imperfect situation.

Some of the most beautiful moments in the opera are based on an imperfect situation, such as “il core vi dono,” surely one of the most beautiful and poignant love duets ever written. If it weren’t for that one major caveat—the trickery involved—it would surely be the consummate love duet. Here’s the same link shared in Blake’s blog posts above mentioned, which made me seek out this marvelous Glyndebourne production:

Other moments have been running incessantly through my head all week, such as Ferrando’s “un’aura amorosa” (beautifully done at this link by Lawrence Brownlee), or the, for me, literally show-stoppingly beautiful farewell trio between Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Don Alfonso, as the two men (so the ladies think) leave for the battlefield. When I first heard this trio, “soave sia il vento” (a link here to a version sung by Renee Fleming, Thomas Hampson, and Susan Graham), I could hardly go on…I had to listen again. It is transcendent…and the “wind” sound in the strings so perfect…one feels at sea:

Soave sia il vento

Nicolas Rivenq as Don Alfonso. (Seriously, were I a man, I’d wear a coat and scarf just like that…)

And Don Alfonso: are we supposed to necessarily “like”–or think that we should think like—Don Alfonso or Despina, simply because they’re proven right? I personally don’t think so. Hopefully most of us still believe that fidelity is not only possible, but necessary…but also that forgiveness in the midst of frailty is possible, and necessary. So, as long as we stay in the realm of farce, where the old jokes about infidelity and inconstancy are given free rein, sure, Don Alfonso and Despina are fun to watch and listen to, and most certainly not villains. But the fact that they are “experienced” doesn’t make them wiser or more compassionate. They give the two fellows the lesson needed, but not how to deal with it after. I thought of the line from the 1999 film The Winslow Boy, based on the Terence Rattigan play: it is “easy to do justice; very hard to do right.” What Don Alfonso did and the point he was trying to make might have been a just one…but was it right? Those who love each other build the other up ~ they don’t tear the other down. We’re all damaged goods. What if we strove to nurture and treasure the beloved into greater health and wholeness, rather than to question, doubt, or challenge it to an external ideal?

That, hopefully, is what they’re left with at the end to consider and to live out, but it’s not what they lived in the story. And it doesn’t necessarily justify Don Alfonso’s attitude, his cynicism and mocking of genuine emotion and ideals. (We really need ideals, at least for ourselves…the old adage about shooting for the moon and landing on the barn roof might be applicable here. One of our many tendencies as human beings is to fall short of our ideals anyway; if we only shoot for the barn roof we aren’t even going to get off the ground.) Did they really have to break the “other” first in order to realize that their beloved women were indeed women and not angelic beings? Perhaps. It doesn’t make it right.

But where would the story be otherwise?

Whatever the case, the very “problems” add to the captivating beauty of this opera for me. Part delightful farce, part something decidedly more. So much more. Like Shakespeare, Mozart and Da Ponte cannot help making it more. (Though Verdi’s Don Carlo has the edge for all-time favorite operas, with Don Giovanni being more or less tied with it, Mozart is certainly now my favorite composer.) The complications involved with this opera make it an even greater source of interest, beauty, humor, and pathos…like life itself. It is a delightful, bittersweet, gloriously beautiful work that has haunted me all week, and I am already looking forward to delving ever deeper, finding new productions, and revisiting these, particularly the Glyndebourne. The lines that consummate the heart-rending love duet sum up my feelings of this first Così week perfectly:

Che nuovi diletti! Che dolce penar!”(“What new delights! What sweet pain!”)

Advertisements

Thoughts on Cyrano de Bergerac, Opéra National de Montpellier, 2003

“I carry my adornments on my soul…
a soul clothed in shining armor, hung
With deeds for decorations, twirling – thus –
A bristling wit, and swinging at my side
Courage, and on the stones of this old town
Making the sharp truth ring, like golden spurs!”

~ Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac

For my first opera experience of Cyrano, thanks to my friend Judith’s recommendation, I started out with the lovely 2003 production from the Opéra National de Montpellier, with Roberto Alagna in the title role. And I’m so glad I did. (As of the time of this posting, it can still be viewed at this link, complete with English subtitles!)

Cyrano de Bergerac, based on the 1897 play by Edmond Rostand, was composed by Franco Alfano with a libretto by Henri Cain initially written in French, although it premiered in Italian in 1936. Several adaptations, it would seem, have been composed based on Rostand’s classic tale, and it’s understandable…Cyrano is, of course, one of the iconic, heartbreaking love stories.

A man who risks his life to write and deliver daily missives to his beloved, and getting no credit for it? ...sigh...
A man who risks his life to write and deliver daily missives to his beloved, and getting no credit for it? …sigh…

The title character is a great-souled, intelligent, and indomitably brave poet-fighter in 17th century France, whose only real “weakness” is what he considers to be a deformity—an extremely large nose—whose “ugliness” Cyrano feels will disqualify him in any contest at love. He jokes about this “deformity” better than anyone—but will just as soon challenge anyone to a duel on account of it. To paraphrase Charlie Chaplin who said that life is a comedy in long-shot and a tragedy up close, Cyrano is the ultimate tragi-comic hero.

In Act II, Cyrano comes to realize that the woman he harbored a secret love for, Roxane—who sees him only in the light of friendship—confesses that she loves a new member of Cyrano’s regiment, Christian—though she hardly knows him—and begs Cyrano that he protect him. True to an unexpected, yet perfect, recipe for heartbreak in the story (but eternal love from all who will encounter Cyrano on the page or stage forever after), he not only looks out for Christian, but helps his bluff and unimaginative rival-friend to woo Roxane, by writing letters to her in Christian’s name, even risking his life to make sure they are delivered across enemy lines on the battlefield. And all this, while letting another have the credit for his eloquence. (What’s not to love?) The irony is, the man Roxane ultimately really falls in love with is the man whose soul is so tender and whose words are so intoxicating.

Alfano’s opera does justice to to this great tale—part comedy, part adventure, part poetic tragedy—even if we can’t help but yearn for a Puccini interpretation in our heart of hearts. At least, I did. (And actually, Alfano is, I just learned—thank you, Blake!–perhaps best known for completing Puccini’s unfinished Turandot.)

This 2003 production from the Opéra National de Montpellier is a beautifully designed production, and the costumes are lush. The highlight for me was Roberto Alagna’s Cyrano, which is sensitive, heart-breaking, and full of Cyrano’s characteristically lovable bravado—and of course, his panache. My admiration for Alagna deepened with this performance…he really is exquisite in the French language roles! (And just like filmed or staged versions of A Tale of Two Cities, in which anyone who can play Sydney Carton well is pretty much “Beatified” in my book on the spot 😉 , the same might be said for any good Cyrano!)

Nathalie Manfrino is a lovely Roxane, and Richard Troxell is a very winning Christian—both vocally and in terms of acting: he compels the viewer to bestow at least a little bit of the sadness and empathy we feel for Cyrano’s situation, on him as well. Really, one cannot help but feel sorry for the slightly boorish fellow as he discovers, gradually and believably, to whom Roxane’s heart is really given—little does she herself imagine it. Nicolas Revenq is also very enjoyable as De Guiche. (Why is it that so many antagonists—in this case, he isn’t really an “antagonist”–or at least questionable gentlemen, have some variant of the name “Guy” or “Gui” or “Guillaume”? In this case, “De Guiche”! 😉 It has long been a joke in my family.)

Cyrano de BergeracThree specific scenes or moments I want to mention, besides of course the entrance of Cyrano, with his dashingly poetic swordplay: 1.) The wooing scene under the balcony, where Cyrano, under cover of darkness, tries to win back Roxane’s affection for Christian, which is poignant and heartbreaking on so many levels, and so well performed by all three. 2.) The beautiful Gascony song played by the shepherd to bring comfort to the soldiers at Cyrano’s encouragement. 3.) The finale.

All I can recommend is to have a box of tissues handy for the closing scene in the cloister garden.

Jonas’ Werther…for free? Ah, “pourquoi me réveiller”!?

By a happy accident, I’d forgotten to cancel my free trial of Amazon Prime last year—I have about 5 days left at the moment—and so the first opera I saw with our wonder-tenor Jonas Kaufmann is viewable for free, compliments of Prime and Medici (at least here in the US), and can be found here.

Werther is Jules Massenet’s four-act opera of 1887, based on a 1774 novel by Goethe. This is the 2010 production of the Opera National de Paris, starring our tenor in the title role, Sophie Koch as Charlotte, and Ludovic Tezier as Charlotte’s fiancé Albert. A good synopsis can be found at Naxos, here.

"O Nature!
“O Nature!”

As you might imagine, our tenor is sublime as the poetic, melancholy, Nature-worshipping Werther, whose doomed love of Charlotte—affianced to Albert before love awakens between herself and the young poet—leads to tragedy.

Please don’t miss this beautiful, moving performance and production. For a taste of it, click the link above—or here—to the heart-stopping aria, “Pourquoi me réveiller?” (“Why rouse me?”) You won’t want to be awakened from the dream, either…