On that warm London evening with Jacko just dead and vigil-makers clogging Trafalgar Square and with Bruce Springsteen appearing in Hyde Park before his own adoring multitudes, I did the wisest thing I could to avoid all the madness. I went to the opera.
Only a couple blocks from the sorrowful rituals for Jacko, in the shadow of the lamented hero of Trafalgar, Lord Nelson, atop his column turning his back resolutely to the mourners, the English National Opera’s spacious and lovely production of Così fan tutte was on offer at the Coliseum a couple of blocks up St. Martin’s Lane. Built in 1904 as the “People’s Palace of a entertainment,” the Coliseum has since been outgrown by the economies of scale that industrial giants like Springsteen and Jacko commanded.
Equally as close to the other theatres of Leiceister Square serving up standard fare for the throngs of tourists, the Coliseum’s neo-Baroque tower topped by a globe rises above the adjacent Georgian terraced buildings and recalls the most grandiose of Edwardian ambitions in the realm of entertainment. The lavishly decorated interior crosses the line from exuberance into pure folly.
The Sadler’s Wells Opera Company moved into the building in 1968 and changed its names to the English National Opera a few years later. True to its name, all productions are sung in English.
Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, characterized Cosí fan tutte as “the third of the sisters borne of that most celebrated father harmony.” The pair had collaborated on Marriage of Figaro in 1786, Don Giovanni in 1789, and concluded their trilogy with Così fan tutte, which premiered in Vienna in January of 1790.
The sticky, overheated rituals of mass mourning for Jacko and the illusion that these outbreaks of sentiment mark the end of an era seemed appropriate to a piece whose opening run was itself cut short by the death of the reformist Hapsburg Emperor, Joseph II— he who chided Mozart for writing “too many notes.” The required period of mourning dictated a ban on opera and this more than halved the fee the cash-strapped composer was promised. Like Jacko, Mozart died in debt.
More than two centuries later, the most compelling characters in this opera seemed to me the cynical old man, Don Alfonso, amused to teach the young some bitter lessons about life, and the female servant, Despina, who likewise knows far more about the world than her supposed betters. Da Ponte fitted the opera with the subtitle The School for Lovers, and the tuition offered there is a long way from the lessons in abstinence preached by High School Musical, installments one to infinity. Don Alfonso bets the besotted gentlemanly officers Guglielmo and Ferrando that their prospective brides, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, can be led astray from their commitments within the space of a single day.
The young men accept the wager sure that the steadfastness of their betrothed is a good bet. They give their word as soldiers that they will follow Don Alfonso’s directions of deception and pretend to be called off to battle, but soon return disguised as “Albanian” noblemen intent on wooing the ladies. Against the faltering defenses of the women, whose weakening is abetted by their maidservant Despina (who has been paid off by Don Alfonso), each officer attempts to seduce the other man’s betrothed.
“Women are like that” is the usual translation of the more economical Italian; the title carries with it more than a touch of misogyny. Whether the men are similarly eager to swap partners for real at the end of this morally ambiguous opera remains unclear. The requisite lieto fine—the happy ending demanded by 18th-century taste and decorum—restores the initial pairings, but with the purity of love wonderfully tarnished by Don Alfonso’s cynicism and also by the roles the various members of the quartet of lovers has wittingly and unwittingly played in the drama he has directed.
The plot affords the seductive powers of Mozart’s music full sway, as if nothing could more natural and pleasing than moral corruption. Precisely because of its supposed immoral content conveyed through music of ravishing beauty, the opera was treated with great suspicion, little respect, and limited admiration in the 19th-century. While the various attempts at massive rewrites and bowdlerizations now appear ridiculous, they serve as reminders that the 19th century preferred to ignore the sometimes darker implications of Mozart’s music—especially so in the case of Cosí fan tutte. Richard Strauss’s more faithful textual treatment of the piece in the late 19th-century restored the work to its now-celebrated status.
I suppose I was in the mood to concentrate my attentions on the roles of old man and servant, because the evening had begun in my father-in-law’s club — the Garrick — also just around the corner from the Coliseum.Founded in the 19th century as an actor’s club and for the intention of promoting the theatre and literature, the Garrick’s membership nowadays seems mostly to be comprised of lawyers and doctors and accountants, though actors are still represented and apparently have an easier time of getting admitted.
Some years back the Garrick Club finally sold to Disney the lucrative rights to Winnie the Pooh they’d inherited from another old member, A. A. Milne. With the money the fixed up the building, restored many of the paintings of actors from their wonderful collection, established a retirement fund for the old porters, and threw themselves a big party with a vintage carousel in which the tuxedoed pillars of English society mounted painted wooden ponies with glasses of French champagne in hand.
For the Cosí pre-show drink I showed up to the stern building in Garrick Lane without jacket coat or tie. Before I could mount the stairs, however, the Porter barred my entrance pulled out a pin-striped about ten sizes to big and a orange tie—garish not Garrick. I emitted a thrilled gee-whiz at how great it was to know that British formality was in such robust, starchy health. Like Despina mocking her silly employers, the Porter looked me over in my ridiculous outfit, gave a slight grin and half of a nod, then sent me on my way up to the bar.
Mozart’s three operas done with da Ponte are usually read as documenting the spectacular demise of the ancien regime on the eve of the French revolution and, in the case of Cosí, just after it. The Garrick proves just how resourceful new versions of the old order are at renewing and defending themselves.
Garrick himself was interested in musical theater; he trained one of the great opera singers of the 18th-century, the castrato Gaetano Gaudagni, in his naturalistic, simple and affecting mode of acting. During his own visit to Naples and the famous theater of San Carlo, Garrick voiced a general distrust of Italian opera: “To speak of music here,” he wrote in 1764,” I think the taste is very bad.”
But what Garrick would have heard in this 2009 production of Mozart’s opera would have been a return to the natural style, for Mozart shared with Garrick a distrust of the artificially impressive.
The singing of the ENO production was of mixed quality. The finest performance was given by the young soprano Sophie Bevan, who I’d also had the pleasure of hearing as Xenia in Boris Godunov at the ENO last December. She has a crystalline and accurate voice, one she wields as deftly as Despina’s sharp wit. But it is also yielding, with hidden depths that draw us into the role’s endearing moments of self-pitying. On the other side of things, the Canadian tenor Thomas Glenn had both a bad night in the realm of on-stage love and singing. He struggled his way through the part of Ferrando and even extracted a few boos from the generally staid English public. It was probably some visiting Italians not averse to twisting the blade after what had already been a tough evening.
As for the old man, Steven Page’s Don Alfonso captured the unsettling combination of sage reassurance and disabusing meddling that makes this character so wonderfully creepy. Page’s is rendering of the recitatives in which Don Alfonso’s machinations are planned and his amoral philosophy espoused were delivered in a compelling parlando style that suggested age, cunning, and the idea that the whole game was partly a remedy for his own boredom. Only a hint of comforting song was evident in Page’s speech-like delivery, except when his rich baritone voice warmed into resonant tone at moments where the delicious potential of his scheming seemed to please him most. In the celebrated E-major trio with Fiordiligi and Dorabella in Act I where the gentle breezes carry (or seem to carry) Guglielmo and Ferrando across the Bay of Naples to the military campaign, Page was all cantabile grace, as if he for a moment could almost believe in lasting love, and might suddenly lay off his bet against fidelity.
From the ample terrace of the villa the trio waved to their betrotheds, who could be seen in the sumptuous video backdrop, sailing on across the Bay of Naples with rocky cliffs in the distance. This lovely scene was conceived by the l Iranian film director, Abbas Kiarostami, director of the production, which was premiered last summer in Aix-en-Provence. In a ridiculous insult to Kiarostami, the British authorities did not secure him a visa in time to join the production again when it came to London. His gorgeous use of the shimmering bay as backdrop is the most lasting image of the production. In the last scene of the opera, Kiarostmia used a video of the orchestra to give the impression of an on-stage band; the pit orchestra was magically transplanted to the stage, and was deceptively seen to play in real time in their modern orchestral uniforms in an 18th-century ball room with the conductor gesticulating in front of them. These static video backdrops within which human figures played music, arrived and departed on barques, demonstrated masterfully how modern means can be deployed in the service of 18th-century grace and naturalness. Often video in opera becomes a gimmicky distraction. Here it had the occasional effect of reminding us that in the theatre the most natural tableaux are made possible only through artifice: the point of the technology was not to show off its own capabilities but rather to embrace beauty with a deceptive simplicity. In this way Kiarostami’s production conveyed a powerful message with the lightest of touches: the wayward heart can be mocked by the cold scientific experiments of a Don Alfonso, but it can never be truly understood. And even while Alfonso’s artifice has its own beautiful music, it can never attain the power of the lover’s song.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org