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15 March 2018

30. Double-crossed?

I spoiled the mood.  I was at a dinner with musicological colleagues and students after a meeting of the Southeast chapter of the American Musicological Society last spring.  It was a lovely timegreat food and conversationbut then someone thought to ask a question to the whole table:  What is your favorite opera?

When the turn to answer came around to me, I knew that there would be a universal howl of disapproval for my choice:  Così fan tutte.  There was.  I suppose I could have picked several others as honest answers to the question.  Favorite isnt really a fair word for such a big repertory.  Still, I adore Così even while I dislike it.  And I certainly understand why others are repelled by it or think it unworthy of Mozarts genius.  It can certainly be played tastelessly (as this perceptive review of the current Seattle Opera production shows).  But I think it can be staged beautifully in a way that doesnt sugarcoat anything.  I have taught the piece many times, and in class I usually have turned to Nicholas Hytners superb (and superb-looking) Glyndebourne production from 2006.  As I regularly tell my students, each time I teach this piece I am seeing it again, where they are (almost always) seeing it for the first time.  Each time it affects me more deeply, and there will be tears streaming down my cheeks while they look on unfazed.  But that's how art works:  the more you invest, the more you reap.  This scenebeautiful as it isis harrowing for me to watch, as these guys put their girlfriends in an utterly false position just over a cocky bet.  I hate it.  And yet....

Certainly Così is an example of what I would describe as the Disney Happy Ending Problem.  All sorts of terrible, traumatic events happen in childrens movies; no matter how blissfully perfect the finale ultimo appears to be, it never seems to me to compensate for the kidnapping, the guardians death, the lonely wanderings (or whatever) of Scene 2.  Granted, by the time we reach the end of Così, Im not really enjoying it anymorebut Id say that of just about every opera I know (Idomeneo being an exception in that regard).  Hytners production does a good job of leaving the audienceor me, at any ratewith a lingering bad taste.  As Mozarts C major fanfares bellow in the pit, the four protagonists eye each other nervously.  Happily ever after, perhaps, but it is no longer clear who belongs with whom.
SOURCE:  The original couples restored but confused:  cropped screenshot from DVD of 2006 Glyndebourne production (at 2:56:58, during the orchestral conclusion to the Act II finale).  
One of the things that makes the ending so unsatisfactory is that weve hardly seen the right pairings of these couples, andmore than thisthose right pairings are so musically wrong:  the opera seria soprano Fiordiligi is not the fiancée of the romantic tenor Ferrando, but rather of the baritone Guglielmo; it is the buffa mezzo Dorabella who is engaged to the tenor.  Our earsor at least my earsknow that something is wrong with this.

SOURCE:  Boydell & Brewer website
It was thus refreshing to read Ian Woodfields fascinating monograph Mozart’s Così fan tutte A Compositional History.  I read it when it came out in 2008, but have been eagerly awaiting a chance to re-read it, and teaching the work again this spring while also writing the blog prompted me to find the time to do itand to have the (relatively inexpensive) facsimile of Mozart's autograph at my elbow.  This is a great convenience, as the autograph itself is split between two libraries (Kraków and Berlin), and the facsimile includes also a scan of the original printed libretto and portions of a Viennese copyist manuscript.  That is only a start, though, as Woodfield scrutinized twenty further copyists scores of the work.  Scrutinized is a mild word to capture the intensity of Woodfields examinations, but the only way to appreciate that is to read the book.  This sort of forensic study is not for everyone, but I would expect anyone who follows this blog would find it at least worth a try.  That said, the conclusions Woodfield draws from this are earth-shattering.  Of these, the most astonishing is that, at some point during their work on the opera, Mozart and da Ponte planned that the couples would not be switchedthat the conditions of the bet would be that the guys would be compelled to seduce their own (rather than each others) fiancees.

This is, of course, not the work as we know it.  I suspect that it was an attempt to make the far-fetched plot seem a little more reasonable (not that that is a precondition for opera libretti...).  We might be more willing to accept the womens yielding so quickly to suitors physically like their boyfriendsbut that would result in a dramatically much weaker second act.  In the opera as finished Ferrando has to learn from Guglielmo that his side of the bet is lost, and we get two powerful reactions:  Guglielmos misogynist rage (Donne mie, la fate a tanti) and Ferrandos conflicted recognition that he loves her still, sadder but wiser (Tradito, schernito).  If the pairs were not crossed, Ferrando would not need to be told anything (nor Guglielmo later), nor would the audience.  It would be a recipe for tedium.

I should add that Woodfield does not argue that the un-switched pairs was da Pontes original plan, but that instead it was an innovation during the gestation of the work with Mozart.  Intriguingly, the opera was first intended for Antonio Salieri, whose incomplete draft of the first few numbers survives.  (On this issue, see the compelling 1996 Cambridge Opera Journal article by Bruce Alan Brown and John A. Rice.)  The libretto Salieri was working on begins in exactly the same way, commencing with Ferrando praising his Dorabella as incapable of infidelity:
SOURCE:  cropped screenshot of a page from Antonio Salieris attempt [La scola degli amanti], Austrian National Library, shelfmark Mus.Hs.4531, fol. 5.
With Mozarts(?) idea to revise the plot, these name-pairings remained the samethat is, Dorabella and Ferrando were paired (throughout, even with Ferrando in disguise)and similarly Fiordiligi and Guglielmo.  Leaving these couples together, though, made it necessary to switch the vocal types, with Dorabella as the high soprano and Fiordiligi as the mezzo.  Evidence supporting this can be seen where these vocal parts have been reversed in the autograph (as in the example below in their first number (4), but nos. 6, 10, and 13 have the same situation); also suggestive are places where lines given in the first edition of the libretto to one sister are set by Mozart for the other.

SOURCE:  detail of scan of Bärenreiter facsimile (Vol. I, p. 55), reproducing Act I, fol. 28the beginning of the duet No. 4, “Ah guarda, sorella” 
Woodfields scrutiny of the autograph score reveals Mozarts considerable indecision at crucial moments.  In the recitative below, there is a false start for Ferrando, then (after the new accolade with clefs) the same text allocated but given to Guglielmo, followed by Ferrandos response, but which Mozart then struck through, reversing the order of the characters back to the original plan, and adapting the vocal parts accordingly.
SOURCE:  detail of scan of Bärenreiter facsimile (Vol. I, p. 207), reproducing Act I, fol. 104the beginning of the recitative “Ah non partite.”
If Woodfield had to rely on a single page for strong evidence of his theory, it would certainly be the first page of an aria intended for Guglielmo, but replaced long before the premiere.  There are good dramatic reasons for replacing it, but Mozart clearly valued it enough that even after removing it from the opera he entered it in his own catalogue of works, where it appears thus:
SOURCE:  detail of scan of Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue:  A Facsimile (BL Stefan Zweig MS 63, ff. 22v-23)
In December [1789]
An aria intended for the opera Così fan tutte, for BenuccìRivolgete à me lo sguardo etc: 2 violini, viola, 2 oboe, 2 fagotti, 2 clarini e Timpany e Baßi:
The cut aria remains in situ in the score.  Heres the first page:
SOURCE:  detail of scan of Bärenreiter facsimile (Vol. I, p. 209), reproducing Act I, fol. 105the beginning of the Guglielmo's cut aria “Rivolgete”
SOURCE:  the same, even more detailed
Looking more closely [detail at right], we can see that the aria was originally addressed to Dorabella, but her name has been scratched out and Fiordiligis superimposed.  Beyond this, though, Woodfield notes the ink color of the word lui is different than the surrounding text.  Mozart left the space for the pronoun blank for a while as he decided what Guglielmo was to say (and to whom).  In the catalog listing, he says Turn and look at me (Rivolgete à me lo sguardo); but in the score he says instead Turn and look at him.  Mozarts omission of the pronoun allowed him time to figure out what would work best for the opera.  Ultimately that was a restoration (apparently) to the criss-cross couplings, but it is fascinating to consider how different the work might have been.

These are a few of the dozens of examples Woodfield musters to support his conclusions, and I cannot do justice to them in the small scale of a blog poststill less to his examinations of performing traditions in sources dating from the first few decades after the premiere.  The work that resulted is not perfect.  It bears the traces of Mozart trying to make changes as he went along, and then incompletely fixing them.  (Fiordiligis first line of recitative, for exampleIm ready for some mischief this morningseems more in character with her sister.)  This is a problematic work, and Mozart struggled to bring it off.  Given that Mozart fell in love with one woman and ultimately married her sister (to whom he was later to write about the necessity of her fidelity in preserving his honor), it wouldnt be surprising if this plot hit particularly close to home.  One reason I like teaching this piece is that I think it comes close to my students, too.  Generally speaking, my students are still idealists, like the couples in this opera.  

The moral of the talethat one will be better off accepting how people are than pretending they are who we want them to be (and consequently being perpetually hurt or disappointed)is, I think, one well worth learning.  Maybe it is my Calvinist upbringing, but I have found the #metoo revelations simultaneously appalling and unsurprising.  What conceivable grounds do we have to expect people in power to behave better?  (Granted, Le nozze di Figaro deals more overtly with #metoo; and the moment at the end of Act III where Barbarina turns it to her advantage is particularly satisfying.)

I dont like the plot of Così; I dont like the situations the characters are put in.  I understand why people dont want to see it (and thus the howls of disapproval at an otherwise pleasant dinner last spring).  It is an ugly story beautifullythough problematicallytold.  I cant stand its title, which singles out women specifically and unfairly.  It should be called Men behaving badly:  their arrogance is the cause of all the heartache.  I would settle for This is how people are.  Any work with a title like that is bound to be a tragedy:  da Ponte in bed with Voltaire. 

The textual situation of Così is a healthy reminder that (of course) all life is compromise:  not just politics, but relationships tooand even art from as sure a hand as Mozart.  The music is so beautiful, but it appears he didnt get it to work out quite the way he wanted.  Still, its so much better than nothing at all.  That, too, is the lesson his couples have to learn if the ending is going to mean anything to us.