Così fan tutte, ossia La Scuola degli amanti (1790), Opera Holland Park, Holland Park, London, with the City of London Sinfonia and Opera Holland Park Chorus. Conducted by Thomas Kemp. Nine performances, 8 June–7 July 2012

The innermost dramatic circle of Mozart’s Così fan tutte is the seaside garden in Naples where two pairs of impassioned, idealistic lovers (Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Ferrando) end up confirming the truth of the aphorism that gives the opera its nearly untranslatable title – ‘This is how all women behave’. As E. H. Gombrich noted, the basic story was adapted by Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, from the fable of Cephalus and Procris (retold by Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 7), where Cephalus, having rejected the advances of the goddess Aurora, is goaded by the spurned deity into jealous suspicion of his wife, Procris. In order to test Procris’s faithfulness, Cephalus presents himself to her in the guise of a handsome stranger and persists in wooing his unsuspecting wife until she finally sets aside her scruples and sleeps with him. The tale is revisited in Canto 43 of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a great favourite with Da Ponte, from which he derived several details for the libretto.

In Così fan tutte, Da Ponte complicates the test and the outcome by doubling the couples (two sisters and two soldiers) and then having Guglielmo and Ferrando (the two soldiers disguised as good-looking Albanians) each court and win the other’s mistress. Applying the opera’s putative general rule of female susceptibility to particular individuals makes for an uncomfortable ending in which fabular psychology sits uneasily beside the realities of personal emotion. Finally, it is often argued, the future of thecouples is left in doubt – will they revert to their original pairings or stick with the swap that the girls have unwittingly brought about?

Reduced to its bare outlines, the plot of Così fan tutte reveals affinities with a kind of eighteenth-century drama that Charles Rosen calls the ‘demonstration’ play or ‘comedy of experimental psychology’, popularised by Pierre Marivaux (1688–1763), the aim of which was convincingly to enact the soundness of accepted truths of human nature. Da Ponte makes the verification of women’s frailty into a play within a play by setting it in a framing narrative. The old cynic Don Alfonso (filling the role played by Aurora in Ovid’s version of the fable and Melissa in Ariosto’s) casts doubt on the honour of the two women, provoking the young men to challenge him to defend the truth of his assertion that, being mere flesh and blood, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are as incapable of everlasting fidelity as the rest of their sex. A wager is laid, the young men swear to obey Don Alfonso’s instructions, the women are told that their fiancés have been ordered to report to their regiments, and Guglielmo and Ferrando are reintroduced in the guise of alluring Orientals. The latter step is achieved with the help of the maid Despina, charmingly portrayed for Opera Holland Park (OHP) by the soprano Joana Seara. A conniving and amusing arch-realist, Despina is not told the true identity of the new would-be lovers, but is motivated to further the plot by her love of money and her belief (a neat counterpart to the opera’s title) that one worthless, cheating man is as good as the next.

In OHP’s elegant production (directed by Harry Fehr, designed by Alex Eales) the frame narrative is presented as an eighteenth-century science show or public lecture in natural philosophy. Gaunt and bewigged, the philosophe Don Alfonso (excellently played by the bass-baritone Nicholas Garrett) is the very image of Voltaire, with perhaps a hint of Robespierre thrown in for malign good measure. Watched by an eighteenth-century audience represented by the chorus (on stage throughout), Don Alfonso controls events and thereby works the mechanisms that ultimately prove his hypothesis. To reinforce his natural-philosophical credentials Don Alfonso is here equipped with gentlemanly scientific apparatus including books, a magnifying glass and bell jars. The idea behind the setting is familiar from Joseph Wright of Derby’s marvellous painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), where a polite group of variously interested, contemplative, appalled and distracted spectators looks on as a grim-faced lecturer pumps the air out of a glass receiver in which a gorgeous white cockatoo is slowly suffocating. As OHP’s production gently acknowledges, the awfulness of Wright of Derby’s scene is not alien to Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera where Alfonso gradually destroys the innocent, life-enhancing illusions cherished by the beautiful couples.

A complaint repeatedly made against Così fan tutte has been that, compared with Mozart’s sublime music, Da Ponte’s libretto is contemptible – silly at best, at worst amoral. Despite the fact that he was actually talking about Le nozze di Figaro, Beethoven’s misquoted opinion that he had an ‘aversion’ to such frivolities has been influential. The nineteenth-century critic Eduard Hanslick put the matter succinctly: ‘the boundless triviality of the libretto everywhere deals a deathblow to Mozart’s lovely music.’ One way to understand what Mozart and Da Ponte achieved in Così fan tutte is intimated by Beethoven’s brilliant champion and interpreter, E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822), who suggests in his dialogue on the principles of opera, The Composer and the Poet (1813), that Così fan tutte is distinguished for its ‘most delicious irony’, a view that means ‘the despised libretto of that opera is in fact truly operatic’.

The piece is permeated with ironies contingent upon the embedding of dramatic spaces one within another. ‘Sia il vento’, for example, the stunning trio sung in Act One by the deceived Fiordiligi and Dorabella together with the scheming Don Alfonso, works on one level as a moving lament for the departure of the soldiers (who haven’t in fact gone anywhere); with more comprehensive irony, it also acts as a response to the loss of the delightful illusion which that feigned absence will inevitably bring about. The pathetic fallacy has perhaps never been so poignantly undermined as when natural forces are here invoked (with much delightful word painting) to ensure the young men’s speedy return (‘let every benign element respond to our desire’). The destructive consequences of nature’s intervention in Così fan tutte are quite the reverse of what the women wish for.

Similarly, in Act Two when Fiordiligi makes up her mind to resist the advances of her glamorous new lover, deciding instead to dress as a soldier and follow Guglielmo to war, the outcome of that little pantomime is a

The cast of Così fan tutte at Opera Holland Park

Photo: Fritz Curzon

foregone conclusion because, whether she knows it or not, Fiordiligi has already given in to the irresistible dictates of passion. The dynamics of her submission to that force, presented in the opera as a law of nature, are as determinable as the parabolic descent of a Galilean cannonball, or – to focus on the really relevant comparison – as the harmonic resolution of the duet, delayed by a succession of interrupted cadences, that Fiordiligi sings with the disguised Ferrando at the end of the scene when she finally admits the stranger has won her heart.

Four years after collaborating on Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte were supremely well-placed to exploit the ironic capabilities of the time-honoured comic ending, the wedding. The marriage that comes towards the end of Così fan tutte is, accordingly, no conclusion at all. It is a sham wedding paradoxically inspired by real emotions – not a comic dénouement, but a potentially catastrophic recognition that problems remain to be solved. Again, the proper metaphor for the function fulfilled by this fake wedding is a musical one. The event acts as another interrupted cadence, signalling a comic ending in order to emphasise that closure is postponed. The opera actually concludes with a coda during which Don Alfonso restates the materialist principles that he believes are now incontrovertibly proved. ‘Nature makes no exceptions’ (as he puts it earlier) ‘therefore you need philosophy’. The sentiment is developed in the final sestet: ‘Happy the man … who lets reason be his guide.’

This is a text that never loses its sense of purpose, however. In its very last lines Da Ponte’s ‘thoroughly allusive libretto’ (as Bruce Allan Brown describes it) makes teasing reference to the happy man or ‘Beatus ille’ of Horace’s second Epode, on the surface a wonderfully evocative poem in praise of a retired country life. The biting irony in Horace (often overlooked) is that, as its conclusion reveals, the second Epode is a dramatic monologue, spoken by Alfius the usurer, who, ‘on the very point of beginning the farmer’s life’, calls in all his funds in order to relend them.

In Così fan tutte the joke is on Don Alfonso. In the seeming absence of higher values and utterly subject to mechanistic laws of nature that confound ideals and wreck happy endings, Alfonso extols the joys of philosophy. And yet the very medium in which Alfonso’s demonstration has taken place has all along confirmed the existence of an overarching order (to which the philosopher himself ineluctably subscribes) in which higher values movingly do prevail and harmonious resolutions are not only possible but essential. That is the immanent yet elusive extra dimension that encloses the world of the opera (the most intricately encoded of all art forms), the encompassing dimension of music. The final, all-pervading irony in Così fan tutte is that the consolations of Don Alfonso’s philosophy are trumped by the consolations of music.

These underlying concerns are not laboured in OHP’s lucid rendition in which the music is allowed to make its own point. Vivaciously and incisively conducted by Thomas Kemp, the City of London Orchestra played with energy and apparent enjoyment. The soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn touchingly caught the greater intensity of Fiordiligi, while Julia Riley (mezzo-soprano) was perfect as the flightier Dorabella. Guglielmo and Ferrando, played by Dawid Kimberg (tenor) and Andrew Staples

(baritone), did a brilliant job of differentiating the two young men who at first seem indistinguishably alike, while all four singers interacted impressively to bring real emotional force to the contours of the journey that their characters undertake. Constantly on view, OHP Chorus (prepared by Kelvin Lim) remained disciplined and focussed. Played under the graceful canopy in front of the remains of Holland Park House, this was a performance that gave great pleasure to an audience who left Holland Park very well-satisfied with the evening’s entertainment.

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