W.A. Mozart: Cosi fan tutte.
In chapter 1 ("Introduction") we learn that in his memoirs Lorenzo Da Ponte dubbed his libretto La scuola degli amanti and described it as holding "third place among the sisters born of that most celebrated father of harmony" (p. 3). Some authors, including Brown and Daniel Heartz, have assumed from this quotation that Da Ponte saw the opera as inferior to Le nozze di Figaro or Don Giovanni, or have concluded that the three operas are in some way related. One is certainly tempted, along with Brown, to accept Alan Tyson's thesis "that the title Cosi fan tutte was Mozart's inspiration . . . perhaps being adopted only after No. 30 . . . had been set to music" (p. 21). (Incidentally, I have always associated the orchestral trills, bars 381ff. of Finale I, with vibrations emanating from the Mesmerian magnet, not with Brown's idea that they "poke fun at Mesmer's adopted home of France" [p. 16]. Every staging I have seen has the "Albanians" flopping about as if receiving electrical jolts at this point.)
Chapter 2 ("Genesis") begins by correcting an almost universally held belief that the opera was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II; in short, there is no proof of any commission whatsoever. Fascinating documentation is presented (p. 10) that Antonio Salieri had begun to compose the same libretto: the first two terzetti in his hand were found by John Rice in the Austrian National Library in 1994. Vincent Novello's statement that Salieri's enmity arose from Mozart's great success with a libretto he had himself cast aside is rejected, while Salieri's abandonment of the libretto is blamed on his souring relationship with Da Ponte. Under "Topicality" Brown recounts how the Mesmerian charade was a reflection of current trends and also of the Mozart family's friendship with Franz Anton Mesmer.
There are some problems with the generally excellent chapter 3 ("Synopsis"). Brown describes Fiordiligi's famous "Come scoglio," as having the "first two clauses set in fairly ridiculous musical syntax" (p. 35). Later he mentions a "ludicrous" cadence and describes the melody as "a glaring contradiction of the immobility of which she sings" (p. 129). Presumably the "ridiculous leaps . . . illustrate the change of heart Fiordiligi swears will never occur." For me, on the contrary, the melody and its leaps, expressly composed for soprano Adriana Ferrarese, are a perfect opera seria expression of the text, rendered parodistic only by the dramatic situation.
A certain prudishness enters into the discussion of text at times. In discussing Guglielmo's original aria 15a, Brown writes of "Guglielmo's risque boast of one further asset" (p. 36) without quoting the text, which is given only later as "qualche altro capitale," where it is described out of context as "mildly obscene" (p. 84). Likewise, why mention Guglielmo's "obscene rhyme" (p. 46) without an adequate explanation? Da Ponte's original, "Sei tu pazzo? Vuoi tu precipitarti | Per una donna che non vale un cazzo" had the last two words replaced by "due soldi" (the note on p. 186 has "un caz**."). Why demure, when a recent Indiana University Press publication (reviewed in Notes 53 [December 1996] - Ed.) can present an essay entitled "Michael Jackson's Penis"?
Chapter 5 examines how "society of 1790s Vienna . . . might have fitted Cosi fan tutte into its moral and philosophical universe" (p. 82). Here it is quite refreshing not to be served "revisionist" history, as in a previous Cambridge Opera Handbook. Alfonso is revealed as a philosopher, and we learn that "livres philosophiques" referred equally to "works deemed politically subversive, blasphemous or pornographic in varying degrees. (Sade made the erotic connection explicit, in his La Philosophie dans le boudoir of 1795)" (p. 84). Certainly the relevant discussion (pp. 91-94) of "les parties carrees" (a foursome of two couples) sounds suspiciously like "wife swapping!"
In chapter 6, Brown takes on musico-dramatic relationships. On key relationships, he points out (p. 101) that the first four (actually five) keys after the overture descend by thirds (G, E, C, A, F minor), but he seems to have missed the pattern in the first nine numbers of Act II, which present the 3rd, 5th, and root of three triads: G, B[flat], E[flat]; D, F, B[flat]; E, G, C minor. (The first three keys of Finale II also descend by thirds: C, E[flat], A[flat].) Whether or not one hears these relationships is irrelevant; Mozart put them there.
I think that Brown (and Heartz, from whence much of this derives) make too much of small motives, both musical and topical, and their relationship to other places in this work and in Mozart's other operas, attempting to construct a trilogy of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte. After all, there have always been complaining servants in comic opera; it is a cliche. For another instance, Brown points out (pp. 120-23) that the "poignant" progression from G minor in root position to E[flat] in first inversion is heard not only three times in Cosi, but also from Ilia in Idomeneo and Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Before drawing any conclusion from this, I would like to see data from a search for this progression throughout eighteenth-century recitative.
Brown also claims that No. 10 ("Soave sia il vento") recalls "two breeze-related numbers from Idomeneo (the chorus 'Placido e il mar, andiamo', and Ilia's aria 'Zeffiretti lusinghieri')" (p. 32). I find only the key of E major a commonality. Mozart's No. 10 bears a much closer musical relationship to "Sussurando il venticello" in Alessandro Scarlatti's Tigrane of 1715, suggesting yet another operatic cliche at work in Mozart.
In general, I have difficulty with eighteenth-century studies in which scholars seek psychological depth and universal truths in fables that were just intended for fun. Comedies on human foibles from Boccaccio to the present are not necessarily intended to be representative of either "tutte" or "tutti." Is it Mozart's title that causes the problem? Or is it the Teutonic/Anglo-Saxon mentality? Lighten up fellows!
There is a problem with Don Alfonso's quotation from Sannazaro's L'Arcadia. After a reference to "familiar passages from Sannazaro and Metastasio" (p. 14), we get a translation of the passage from scene 7 identified only by author (p. 32). Then we have the passage in Italian with translation identified by author and work (pp. 69-70), followed by a reference only to an endecasillabo text by Sannazaro (p. 111), reference to the quotations of Sannazaro as being several centuries old (p. 125), and a reference simply to the "quotation from Sannazaro" (p. 137). Finally, without index or textual reference to Sannazaro, we learn about "passages in antique metres such as terza and ottava rima" (p. 98). Nowhere are the term terza rima, the name Sannazaro, and this particular quotation brought together for our edification, nor is the term defined for uninformed readers.
The concluding chapter 7 ("Performance and Criticism") deals with the first interpreters, the myth of the failed premiere of Cosi, and the fortunes of the opera to 1848 (particularly in German translations), in the later nineteenth century (when hostility toward Cosi made strange bedfellows of Richard Wagner and Eduard Hanslick!), and finally its rehabilitation in the twentieth century. This is potentially a very interesting chapter, but it is ill served either by editorial limitations or because there is little information available in handy secondary sources.
The most interesting era "to 1848" is the least well served, especially with respect to performances of Cosi outside Germany. "Cosi was slow to arrive in Italy" (p. 166): Trieste 1797, Varese 1805, and Milan 1807. But this was not a slow arrival, compared to Paris 1809 and London 1811 (p. 171). Consider the following first arrivals of a Mozart opera: La clemenza di Tito in London (1806); Cosi fan tutte in Paris (1809); La clemenza di Tito in Naples (1809). In Milan, Paris, and London performances of Mozart's operas flourished until the 1820s, when they were eclipsed by the arrival of Gioacchino Rossini's works.
The chapter concludes with description of recent (often inappropriate but original) stagings, which illustrate that in these days when Mozart's musical text has become "sacrosanct," only stage directors dare to do what singers once did with impunity: mess with Mozart.
Despite the reservations stated here, I conclude by complimenting Brown on his fine coverage of just about every aspect of Mozart's delightful masterpiece.
MICHAEL COLLINS University of North Texas
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1997|
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