SFOpera - A Humane School for Lovers

A Humane School for Lovers

“It is as perfect a libretto as any composer could desire, though no composer but Mozart could ever do it justice.”—Musicologist Edward Dent on Così fan tutte

Experience, so the truism goes, is a hard school but fools will learn no other. The school in the case of Wolfgang amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s 1790 comedy Così fan tutte is a metaphorical one, created by Don alfonso and his friends. Nevertheless, relationships are tested, what seemed fun teeters on the distressing and, at the end of the opera, the audience is left decidedly uncertain as to whether the characters’ lives will ever be the same again. Viewing Così fan tutte through its seemingly specious plot has led many to dismiss the opera out of hand and it was only during the twentieth century that it finally found its feet, as sexual mores relaxed and people began to listen properly to Mozart’s humanising music. So, rather than being their most artificial conceit, Così fan tutte may just be Mozart and Da Ponte’s profoundest, most accurate depiction of the human condition.

Having finally broken his ties with the archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart remained in Vienna in 1781 with the intent of writing operas for the great musical city. He had arrived (summoned by his former boss) with Idomeneo under his arm. The opera seria had just had its premiere in Munich, and Mozart brought the score to Vienna as a prospectus for his talents. Life in Salzburg up to that point had provided very few opportunities for theatrical music, dominated as it was by liturgical commissions with the occasional sonata, serenade, or concerto thrown in for variety. Vienna was, however, quite a different place. It was the heart of the habsburg empire, the seat of the holy roman emperor, and was described by Mozart as “the best place in the world for his profession” (in a letter home to his father Leopold).

Mozart immediately began to pitch ideas for the Imperial theatres. Rather than the world of classical tragedy shown in Idomeneo, however, Mozart dedicated what became the final decade of his life to a series of highly involved comedies. He returned to the world of Idomeneo in his last months when he composed La Clemenza di Tito for the coronation of emperor Leopold II in Prague, but it is an anomaly in a brilliant stream of comic stage works from the 1780s. Having arrived in Vienna in March 1781, Mozart had his first libretto in hand by July of that year. Die Entführung aus dem Serail—a farcical Singspiel set in a Turkish harem—was not quite the unadulterated success for which Mozart had hoped, but, highly theatrical, often deeply camp, it was a fizzing showcase of his talents. If occasionally Mozart pushed the virtuosic elements of the score too far—triggering the emperor Joseph II’s apocryphal remark of “too many notes, my dear Mozart”—there could be no doubt that Vienna had a considerable new musical force to be reckoned with and he was soon to be joined by an equally brilliant collaborator.

Lorenzo Da Ponte came from Venice. his taste for high living, liberal politics, and the ladies had caused untold scandal at home, and he was forced to find an alternative base. He eventually found an “in” with antonio Salieri, the court composer in Vienna, and arrived late in 1781. Da Ponte proved a felicitous collaborator, versifying old texts and adapting foreign plays with unprecedented ease. He translated Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride into Italian and wrote a new libretto for Salieri. But it was Mozart who ultimately proved to be Da Ponte’s most kindred spirit.

Mozart was a far more daring figure than Salieri, who was forced to tow the line due to his position at court; Mozart was also more talented. Shortly after Da Ponte began work with Salieri, he was adapting Beaumarchais’s La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro for Mozart. In the year he wrote Le Nozze di Figaro, Da Ponte created six librettos. Despite his brilliance and speed, the director of the court theatre, the famously snooty Count Rosenberg, disliked him. In his eyes, Da Ponte was an arrogant Italian who thought he could play the Viennese at their own game. Yet he continued to work prolifically, writing librettos for Salieri and Martín y Soler at the same time as Mozart’s Don Giovanni (with or without the help of Casanova). The pair’s second opera had its first performance in Prague in 1787, shortly after the acclaimed local premiere of Figaro. Don Giovanni was equally lauded in Vienna six months later, as was a revival of Figaro in 1789. Mozart and Da Ponte were keen to repeat the success. 

Da Ponte struck on another idea for a comedy with Mozart shortly after embarking on a relationship with the operatic soprano Adriana Ferrarese—she was to sing in the 1789 revival of Figaro. The piece was originally called La Scola degli Amanti (The School for Lovers), in which a cynical view of human relationships mixes with Da Ponte’s biographical reflections on his liaison with Ferrarese. The confluence of the two inspired his most daring text to date, which he constructed with brilliant formal symmetry: there are three men and three women, each has a set-piece aria in each act, and as Mozart and Da Ponte play with various combinations of characters and situations the joke turns to action.

Da Ponte’s drama is a highly knowing self-referencing farce. Don Alfonso, a sort of in loco librettist-cum-games master, controls the action. He sets up the challenge and manipulates Guglielmo, Ferrando, Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and the girls’ maid Despina to his own ends (and for our entertainment). The characters are brilliantly delineated: Guglielmo is a determined opera buffa baritone; his friend Ferrando has a contrastingly poetic streak (despite masculine assurances and boasts to the contrary). Fiordiligi and Dorabella live up to Don Alfonso’s presumptuous claims about women, though Fiordiligi at first does a better job of withstanding temptation. As if to indicate the range of characters offered, Da Ponte makes the hard-done-by Despina into a superb play-actor, who skilfully apes the character of Dr. Mesmer at the end of the first act and as the notary at the wedding feast. All human life is here, in just six characters. 

For contemporary audiences, however, the results of this farce were decidedly mixed. Female fickleness and sexual games were controversial subjects in late-eighteenth-century Vienna and, as with Figaro and Don Giovanni, Da Ponte allows the cynics rather than the moral do-gooders to control the action. Così fan tutte was therefore considered something of a frippery—a poetic musical game, which had no place alongside the profounder works of the time. The next generation was equally unkind to Così fan tutte and, during the nineteenth century, dominated by a strict bourgeois morality opposed to its “free loving” message, the opera fell out of the repertoire.

There were still some early supporters who saw beyond appearances and understood Mozart’s music, which consistently humanizes Don Alfonso’s frivolous and often hurtful games. Goethe was one such admirer:

This opera seems to be considered as the least important of Mozart’s theatrical works, and this pains me. To be sure the over simplicity of its subject, the weak delineation of the characters on the part of the poet, the situations’ lack of truth, the feebleness of the denouement, and above all the pitiful translations have contributed much to this judgement. All the greater then were the difficulties with which the composer had to battle. We wish to investigate now how he overcame these. First one is struck by how delicately this opera is scored; how Mozart refrained from the sort of overburdening for which he has otherwise been criticized; how appropriately he has used the wind instruments. Add to that the harmony of the whole […] the grace in the individual paintings, with what tenderness every emotion is handled; the truth of expression! The plot does not suffer any strong coloration, and yet such refined nuancing of the characters. 

Even though Goethe is wise about the music, he damns the libretto. Standing back from such straitlaced objections, we can see that what Da Ponte proffers, even more deftly than in Figaro, is a lightness of touch and a fluidity of design and pace. The spirit of its ensuing cat-and-mouse games is that we are neither sure where it will end nor are we certain where artifice stops and emotional reality begins. Furhermore, the symmetry of the work allowed Mozart to explore that duality in his incredible sequence of set-piece arias. Here the tension proffered by Da Ponte, answered and sometimes contradicted by Mozart’s incredible music, lends these moments an insight and depth that, even at its height, Le Nozze di Figaro cannot quite match. 

An ostensibly boastful aria like Ferrando’s “Un’aura amorosa” in Act One, for instance, allows Mozart to communicate deeper truths. Having witnessed Dorabella’s resistance to Guglielmo, Ferrando thinks there is little point in continuing the game. “Why worry?” he says. “When the battle is over, our supper will taste all the better.” The supper cited in the recitative will be the “sweet refreshment of a breath of love from our darlings.” Ferrando is certain that Dorabella will remain constant to him. Yet Mozart, knowing what lies ahead and markedly less innocent of human nature, provides something of a harmonic question mark. The aria is in ternary form, with the initial section repeated at the end. But rather than a strict repeat, Mozart provides a variation on the original. Woodwinds have replaced the initial string accompaniment and there is a passing chromaticism in the bassoon that provides a deeply surprising (if brief) note of melancholy. Things are not what they seem.

Such minute details herald major emotional shifts. The adamant Fiordiligi is sent up in her first aria “Come scoglio,” appearing like a rather stroppy teenager. What emerges over the course of its form and in later episodes is a very intricate portrait of a complex character, made absolutely manifest in her “Per pieta” in Act Two. Even the scheming Don Alfonso is not entirely immune to such humane thoughts in the drama and he joins the girls’ serene “Soave sia il vento” as their men “disappear” off to war. Even if primarily parodic on his part, Mozart nonetheless gives very little indication of the charade while Don Alfonso sup-ports their sublime picture of nature at work. Likewise Despina is often rather defensive of the men as, slowly but surely, the farce is humanized and real emotions emerge from an initially artificial comedy of manners. 

As audiences became more honest about their own behavior around the turn of the twentieth century, responses to Mozart and Da Ponte’s last collaboration similarly became more balanced. Refuting Goethe’s prudish criticisms, the musicologist Edward Dent wrote that:

Così fan tutte is the best of all Da Ponte’s librettos and the most exquisite work of art among Mozart’s operas. It is as perfect a libretto as any composer could desire, though no composer but Mozart could ever do it justice. […] To appreciate the delicate filigree of Da Ponte’s comedy, one must read every word of the Italian original and sing it through, recitatives and all, to Mozart’s music. 

Dent captures the subtlety of Da Ponte and Mozart’s interreliant work within Così fan tutte. Da Ponte may have provided a series of stock characters and situations, but what unfolds is far from conventional. Not only does the libretto subvert our expectations but, most importantly, Mozart shifts our perspective through tiny musical details which imbue the characters and the music they sing with a richer, deeper compassion. So even if Don Alfonso’s pat conclusion “così fan tutte” (so all women do) dominates our perception at first—heard as a cadential figure in the overture and repeated in Act Two—both Da Ponte and Mozart show that human nature is rarely so predictable. The original couplings might be restored in the final scene, but a vestige of the ostensibly fictional partnerships remains. This nagging feeling—constantly working its way through the music, the text, and our reading of both—is the essence human nature, which Da Ponte and Mozart dared to show in its true colors. 

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