Concerned at news of half-full houses for Così, I gratefully accepted an offer from someone involved in the production of a company rush ticket to see it again.
At company rush prices, and given my accidental enforced holiday at home as a result of abandoning other plans in order to make my trip West, I could easily go to every remaining performance, subject to clashes.
Perhaps I will. The main thing which may deter me is the length of the piece. That seems ridiculous – surely in opera as in life, if two hours are good, then four hours (OK: 3) are better. And I have no problem or even fears of length with, say, Der Rosenkavalier, Marriage of Figaro (give me even those “extra” arias!) or Wagner. I don’t even have a memory of the same feeling about Cosi when I last saw it.
My copy of the 1969 edition of Kobbe’s Opera Guide was a present to my grandmother from a man whose late in life proposal of marriage she rejected, adhering instead to widowhood, and itself presented to him “with respect and affection from his many friends in St Albans Military Band, Cardiff” probably shortly before his embarcation to return to Australia, judging from the further inscription “Cabin 87, Promenade Deck.” There are numerous enthusiastic annotations, favouring composers who favour the brass section, and therefore Wagner most of all. The entry for Così fan Tutte is unannotated. In it, “H” [Lord Harewood] writes:
The opera ‘plays’ slower than either Figaro or Don Giovanni, and it is by no means short, but the stage action is as full of life as the music, and the opera is the ideal piece for a musically sophisticated audience.
Earlier in the same (lengthy) paragraph he writes of the opera as:
The truth is inescapable: in Così fan Tutte Mozart surpassed even himself in the richness and variety of his invention, in the impeccable skill with which the slenderest drama is adorned with music, in the creation of beauty. The idea is as light as a feather, and yet the music which clothes it suggests not only the comedy which is on the surface and which remains the most important part of the opera, but also the heartbreak which is behind the joke hat goes too far and occasionally takes a serious turn.
The paragraph as a whole extols the virtues of da Ponte’s book, particularly as effecting a symmetrical construction which “provide[s] Mozart with oppportunities for some incomparable music.” Harewood considers nineteenth century criticisms of the libretto as odd, and endorses Professor Dent’s view that the libretto “cannot be judged in a summary [in particular, I take it, a plot summary] but must be seen in all its details.”
This is probably the conventional judgment, and it has at least something behind it: that is the sense in which, as I started quoting Harewood, it is an opera for a “musically sophisticated” audience. A feature of the work is the way in which a very wide range of moods and situations (comedy, of course also the mock drama of the announcement by don Alfonso that the men are to go to war – over in a flash, jealous masculine rage; wronged womanly rage, absolute despair, military music, folksy-dancy music, evening-outdoors wind band music, schmoozy seduction and betrayal (by a man) of a woman in love) flash before you kaleidoscopically.
Well, sometimes they don’t flash but linger rather a long time at a certain poignant point. The moments where the opera seemed long were those points which felt to be lingering a bit too long – that’s circular, of course, but for me those points were most of all in Fiodiligi’s big arias. I’m not sure that RD is the ideal vocal type for this part, but then again I’m not sure that anyone is. The problem is the extremes of low and high registers – it’s hard to find anyone who can deliver both – as well as the length of arias which don’t really materially advance the in any event conspicuously contrived plot.
In this production, the singers also have to meet some quite demanding physical requirements, including topless (for the men) and in bathing costumes and later quasi-negligees (for the women). As Andrew Byrne points out (he is not keen on this) this necessarily restricts the field from which revivals can be cast.
That’s a tricky issue (let’s be honest: we are talking about fat and old singers who will be disadvantaged by this: even the tall/short pairing could be rejigged to work the other way) especially because it brings us right to the perennial issue of opera, as expressed in Capriccio, a work which I think has the same intention towards sophisticated listeners that Così has.
After all, Così was brought to the public by the same team who had already brought them Figaro and Don G. Both of those operas concentrated on men behaving badly, with exhibitions along the way of most of the range of moods I have mentioned above as being on display in Così.
Così is a sequel and a comic but in the end wry answer: You think men are like that? [And this premise is uncontested.] Women [contrary to the almost all wronged women of the previous two operas] are no better or different.
The plot is a confection of opportunities for Mozart to dip in and out of the styles by way of reprise with which his audience was already familiar.
Thinking through all of this has actually made me feel a little more forgiving of OA’s publicity department. Visually, it is clear that they have chosen to emphasise the youth and hence (to non-regular opera goers) dramatic credibility of the cast. Jim Sharman is involved: they want to reach people who might otherwise be going to the theatre.
By now, one sure fire way to bridge the divide would be to offer tickets at reduced prices which are more commensurate with theatre tickets.
Leaving that aside, I think an approach to a younger, “theatrical” audience may be too broad to be effective. But what, more specific than that, should be said?
My own attempt is clearly too lawyerly but just meant to show how hard a more specific pitch might be to formulate.
Hey! [I cringe but I'm leaving that there as the obviously fake mock-[over]familiarity of the middle aged addressing the youth.] You saw or have heard of Figaro and Don Giovanni? [Pitched too high?] They were Mozart and da Ponte’s late eighteenth century dramas about men and their sexual restlessness and aggression. Figaro is a comedy where the lustful siegneur is outwitted by his wife and his servants; Don Giovanni is a tragedy but in musically in the style of a comedy, which ends with Don Giovanni going to hell, but not before wreaking a fair bit of havoc. In Così fan tutte the same pair teamed up to write a show about the faithlessness of women. It’s kind of Sondheim territory for its time. The plot is contrived but contrived in the end to tell a wry moral. In it, Mozart packs a sample book of practically every trick he had in his book as a composer of dramatic music. This production by veteran director Jim Sharman, takes a fresh look at how the opera is, as its secondary title declares ” A school for lovers.” It’s in English. It’s technologically inventive. A young energetic and physically credible cast throw themselves into it and the audience has responded with laughter and applause.
Mind you, that’s not so different from what their own more detailed PR blurb says already.