Così fan tutte (Covent Garden)
New Statesman, Nov. 1976
There are nights, according to Rilke, in which fire descends on the opera. But the safety curtain was not needed on that account at the first night of Così fan tutte, despite occasional sparks warmly encouraged by the fans. One reason is that Così is really rather cold comfort. If two suitors love two sisters, what's the betting that each, suitably disguised, can woo and win the other's fiancée? Easy, easy, as the chorus goes in more popular theatres: that’s what all women are; and at the denouement the new nuptial knots are hastily untied and reunited as before, not without some loose ends of jealousy and recrimination. Under the artificial comedy of fickleness lies an allegory of true sensuality, even promiscuity. What we see is Wilde and the light farce; what, we hear should be Shaw and the Life Force.
John Copley's production, though reasonably restrained, excelled on the Wilde side. The entrance of the ladies in deep mourning for their dear departed lovers was an amusing memento of Jack Worthing's tragic loss of his brother Ernest. The later exchanges, first of glances and then of flowers, foretold a coming exchange of lovers. The stage groupings divertingly symbolised all possible permutations, at home or away. What looked foursquare at the moment later resolved into two separate triangles. This insistence on abstraction meaningfully matched the stuff of the drama by presenting human love as exercises in spatial geometry, or algebraic equations full of unknown quantities. But by the same token it may have weakened the opera’s real roots and powers, which surely derive essentially from Mozart’s music and not da Pontes book. The predictably excellent Covent Garden programme speaks with authority about the high quality of the libretto; but against this has to be set the Shavian viewpoint that “quite as good plays have often been improvised in ten minutes in a drawing room at charades or dumb crambo”.
The consensus is that Mozart has taken da Ponte’s confection and turned it into substantial food for thought. That process suggests that as cooks are to cookery, so adults are to adultery; namely, naturally prone. It’s not exactly our fault that Life Force can be so lively and forceful as to get quite out of hand; nor that we are programmed, again for good evolutionary reasons, to be compatible with B if not with A. Mozart was deeply involved in such affairs; and he takes a tolerant though not indulgent view. He had been in love with two sisters, and prudently married the one named Constance. But while composing Così he was uneasy about whether the name was also her nature. Further, even the libretto has emancipatory overtones. By 1790 there where stirrings of sexual as well as social revolution. Before long, women writers would start proclaiming a new regime of Libido and Equality, with Maternity as an optional extra. Mozart’s music too is conceived and couched in allegorical terms, hence no doubt its generalised musical style.
Its overture opens with an obvious example. The motto-theme, to which the words of the title are later sung, offers the most mundane of melodies; the most homespun of harmonies; in the commonest of keys, because it is designed to symbolise the most normal and natural response in the world. Yet for the same reason, and with the same meaning, the commonplaces are always touched with some special delight. And Mozart goes deeper still, by reserving his most meltingly ecstatic strains for the wrong moments; the second-act music has the sharpness and the sweetness of stolen fruit. This also serves as sauce for the gander; the message applies to men as well as women.
In the present production that moral is pointed, literally, from the stage at the audience, as if the customary baggage-check will be supplemented, on Così nights, by the searching of hearts, and the examination of consciences. But there were few purely musical moments when Mozart's meaning emerged as clearly. These occurred, not by coincidence, when the orchestra sounded particularly practised an convincing, for example in the delectably insouciant birdsong fluting of the garden. scene. Again, when the two heroes had their vital batteries recharged by the latest device, Dr Mesmer’s magnet, the performance itself was restored to life.
So why could not the whole have been as great as some of its parts? The fault was not in the stars. Perhaps Richard van Allan was unusually lithe and sprightly for the George Sanders role of the Cynical Don Alfonso. But a man that is young in years may be old in hours, and this Don has certainly lost no time. He might have been more solid and mature vocally, though, as befits the foundation of the whole imbroglio and much of the ensemble. Norma Burrowes as Despina was vivacious and knowing yet admirably restrained and secure. Thomas Allen as Gugliemo and Ryland Davies as Ferrando were also excellent; but their twin costumes looked too monozygotic, as if (like the Gondoliers) they were one individual. Similarly Kiri te Kanawa as Fiordiligi and Josephine Veasey as Dorabella both looked and sounded beautiful; but (apart from the nice nuance that Dorabella's dress was rather warmer in tone, to match her temperament) they too seemed insufficiently distinguishable, whether visually or dramatically. As a matter of logic, Così fan tutte is a universal proposition. Yet the characters must surely come to life as real individuals before they can symbolise humanity at large. In this aim the orchestra, though sensitively and fluently conducted by Steuart Bedford, was not always helpful enough. The overdrive and tension of the overture took rather too long to relax. Still, it's not surprising if an erotic tragic-comedy should somewhat misfire on the first night. With so many talents and assets it must surely find metaphysical fulfilment soon.