Così 2

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.

5 Responses to “Così 2”

  1. Victor Says:

    Just tell them its about sex. That should boost numbers.

  2. marcellous Says:

    Opera doesn’t usually do sex at a very high voltage point, Victor.

    Actually, on reflection this thing about “the youth” could well be a mistake. Yes, there is an audience to be attracted from those in their 20s and 30s, but in terms of life cycle these are the “pre-kids” young. The youth audience for the opera is really people who are emerging into the “post-kids” category. These people are ready to get back to the theatre and to try some high culture such as the opera and at some point as they move out of the kids phase they usually have finances to support that. I have noticed some of my contemporaries emerge on the concert scene in this way.

    I’m being realistic here because apart from fanatics and enthusiasts who will come anyway even if they can only afford one D reserve seat a year, the target audience must necessarily remain the relatively comfortably off. What made me think of that was running into two colleagues last night, including one who was parked right next to me in the carpark (is that weird? His office is next but one to mine!) Compared to other workplaces I have been in, I see quite a few of my colleagues at either concerts or the opera, but I don’t think that’s really because we are an extraordinarily cultured bunch though obviously we’re reasonably well educated: we are also people who can afford to go, or at least, as in my case, think we can.

  3. wanderer Says:

    I think Victor is right.

    The original (2009) poster was of sexy ‘puberty blues’ girls in a convertible. The current poster is enough to make me want to change my mind about going (I’m really only going as a Sharman groupie). It couldn’t be more sexless and less informative especially those on the back of Sydney cabs with the visuals stamped over with COSI FAN TUTTE which means nothing to anyone who doesn’t already know what it means (and the production is in English). At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious – boring and unattractive ads do not a new audience make.

    The cost problem is again solved by selling tickets to under-somethings at a flat $50 (or less) to any seat on day of performance.

  4. marcellous Says:


    [I thought of you as I drove past the turnoff to Wandering in my recent travels]

    I don’t think $50 to the under-anythings on the day of performance will fill a half-sold run – if only because people generally need to plan a little more than that to come into the city to see a live performance – there’s arrangements to leave work in time (from more than one workplace), possibly children to be looked after and almost certainly picked up or delivered somewhere in the mix.

    The present situation calls for far more (in airline terms) flexible ticketing offers: why not (say) $80 to any reserve for the week-nights of the rest of the run? You could try to protect the full-price ticket base by imposing time limits, but by this stage I don’t think they have so much to lose by offering up to half of all the presently empty capacity, without worrying about fancy stuff about how far ahead or which nights of the week. Offers are best if they are not too complicated – you still have to work out how you will get the offer out there.

  5. wanderer Says:

    Your mention of Wandering sent me googling whence I discovered a Shire which “insists on a friendly focus and nurturing a community where diversity, difference and a sense of identity is respected and valued.”

    Quite an admirable mission statement, if that is what it is, but the word which jumps out at me is ‘insists’, which somehow highlights the conundrum of the political incorrectness of enforcing political correctness.

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