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I have nothing new to add to the discussion about the Met’s new Ring, but in any case I would like to join the general opinion about it, based on what I could see on the movie theatre. Has the Met spent its millions wisely? I would say no – Robert Lepage’s machine cannot help being interesting, but it’s hardly a deus ex machina in a production that has nothing to say and no stage direction other than rescuing singers from being smashed by the revolving structure. And there are the costumes – if a breastplate is everything Lepage and his creative team had to say, the Met should have spared the money and kept Otto Schenck’s old production. If I am allowed a question – I would be curious to hear why, amidst all those technological niceties, a decent transformation scene for Alberich and an impressive entrance for Erda could not be provided. Tell me about anti-climatic. I know: the Rhinemaidens scene is indeed visually striking and the God’s entrance in Walhalla is clever, but I certainly don’t understand why suspending singers from wires was thought to be a good replacement for true theatrical direction:  the puppeteered Loge making his cautious steps upwards on the ramp looked particularly uninspiring.

What is beyond doubt are James Levine’s Wagnerian credentials – I dare to say that his bold, clear, forward-moving and dramatic account of the score is more exciting than the one available on DVD from a couple of decades ago. The house orchestra also seemed to be in great shape. When it comes to singers, it is difficult to say the last word judging from the broadcast, for the Met’s mikes can make a Natalie Dessay sound like a Birgit Nilsson, but judging from my experience with those singers live in that venue, I guess I can have an idea. The female side of the cast was indeed uniformly strong: Stephanie Blythe’s grandly powerful Fricka is a Wagnerian classic of our days, Wendy Bryn Harmer’s golden-toned Freia was extremely satisfying (also in the acting department) and the three Rheinmaidens (especially Lisette Oropesa) were all spirited and pleasant on the ear. If Patricia Bardon was a bit small-scaled as Erda, her voice is still aptly dark and she is always a classy singer. Among the men, the evening’s Alberich deserves special mention. The reason why the whole episode involving Wotan, Alberich and Loge in Scene 4 was not a complete fiasco in terms of theatrical action was Eric Owens’s ample, dark-toned bass-baritone, intense delivery of the text and forceful stage presence. And I saw this as someone who had close-ups on the screen. I can only guess that someone in Family Circle was asking him or herself why nothing was happening on stage at that point. Both giants have been cast from strength with Hans-Peter König and Franz-Josef Selig, who relished the competition, offering both vehement, passionate performances. Gerhard Siegel’s powerful and characterful Mime is also worthy of mention. Musicianly and elegant as Richard Croft’s Loge was, he does sound out of his element here. He delivers his lines somewhat cautiously, is often underpowered by the orchestra and has too noble a voice for the role, not to mention that he lacks the necessary ebullience. As for Bryn Terfel’s Wotan, I must confess I have found him far more comfortable than I expected. My experience with the Welsh bass-baritone live has invariably shown him grey-toned, fatigued and lacking volume, but I must have had bad luck. In any case, here I have to mistrust the microphones, i.e. I wonder how voluminous he really sounded live. As heard here, although the voice is not rich nor particularly noble, it seemed quite vivid in the whole range. His acting was quite inexpressive, but he found space to color his text quite successfully. Let us see how he is going to deal with the far more testing part in Die Walküre.

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In “Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet?”, Prof. John Sutherland (no relation to La Stupenda) dedicates himself to explain loose ends in the plot of famous books in English literature not by considering them small blunders in otherwise “perfect” works, but rather as puzzles to be solved and thus enriching the understanding of the story. Although Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is hardly considered a literary work of some depth, Così fan tutte is arguably his best collaboration with Mozart.

Many of those who dislike Mozart believe that his music is just cold divertissement, an illustration of vacuous grace and elegance. I don’t want to accuse these people of trying to find on stage the excitement lacking elsewhere in their lives, but a short glance in Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s biographies show that their own lives were far from angelic and often full with violent feelings and emotions. Mozart’s letters to his mother particularly emotionally mature for a boy of his age, rich with touching and sensitive remarks. Classical art intended to provide mankind with a balsam for the tempest of emotions and violence that plagues ordinary life by means of images of perfection provided by the balance of reason. And no other composer offered better than Mozart such idealized visions of perfect proportion, of l’art qui cache l’art so accurately conceived that one cannot see the hand of the artist in it. Some end on attributing its inscrutable beauty to divine inspiration or – worse – to mere chance. But don’t mistake my words – this is only a first impression. Actually, although Mozart was no revolutionary, the reason why we still listen to his music instead of that of Salieri or Paisiello is that he actually spent his whole creative life bending, distorting, adapting these conventions. I would dare to say that Mozart gradually ceased to believe in the artistic credo of Classical art, as his final works increasingly show – and Così fan tutte is the work in which he put his own convictions to test.

The whole concept of Così fan tutte turns around the Classical idea of “right proportion”. An old philosopher who sings no aria leads two couple of twittering, trilling love birds with unrealistic notions about love and shows them that reality is far more exciting if far less comfortable than their world of sentimentality. It is important to note that Don Alfonso does not promise Gugielmo and Ferrando happiness, only discernment. In order to illustrate this evolution, Mozart composed a score that parodies, that exaggerates, that overstates and gradually acquires a matter-of-fact quality that speaks in more truly emotional colours. You just have to compare Come Scoglio and Per pietà, Smanie implacabili and È amore un ladroncello and Un’aura amorosa and Tradito, schernito to see the remarkable maturing in every character (but for Guglielmo, who remains more or less immune to the lesson) – the early affectation is finally replaced by real contradictory feelings. In the end, devastated by these revelations, the four of them do not seem convinced that the trade-off was positive. Despina has never lived the sweet fantasy her mistresses used to live – she gets her commission in the end.

Back to puzzles, I have observed that a most important detail is overlooked by almost every commenter. Although Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not aristocrats (as Don Alfonso is), they seem to be eligible young unmarried women of some wealth. The strange thing about the situation is that the plot does not explain who is in charge of them. Two young ladies of some position would hardly travel alone as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, especially if two young suitors are involved. My first conclusion is that they probably lost their mother when they were very young. This would account for her absence and for their naiveté (Despina is actually quite puzzled about their ignorance of worldly matters). If there were a father, he would have probably entrusted them to a chaperon or some sort of relation to accompany them in their trip (as the libretto explains, the ladies come from Ferrara and are visiting Naples). I would understand such a situation as an emergency, they are probably on their way to encounter their guardian (in the case they have also lost their father, which could be the case since they do not feel they need his consent to marry the “Albanians”) or hosting relatives. Also, if Ferrando and Guglielmo are wooing these respectable ladies, they should have understood themselves that their irregular situation in Ferrara is ill-advised. Unless the person in charge of them is indeed there in Ferrara. And the only character on stage respectable enough for this position is no other than… Don Alfonso. This explains his freedom to appear in the girls’ apartments without any formality, his previous knowledge of Despina’s character and his right to speak of the girls’ behavior with their fiancés.

The hypothesis of seeing in Don Alfonso Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s guardian at first does not go with one line in the libretto: “Non son essi: è Don Alfonso, l’amico lor”. The girls are expecting their fiancés, but it is Don Alfonso who shows up. Dorabella says “Not them, but their friend Don Alfonso”. This does not mean that they know Don Alfonso via their fiancés, but only that instead of them, they are seeing their friend. My last assumption: the friend who probably introduced the young men to the two girls just a few days ago in Ferrara. That is why they have their miniatures in their first scene – they had probably first seen Guglielmo and Ferrando in these miniatures and now they have finaly seen them in person. This thesis accounts for their lack of familiarity with them and their difficulty to recognize them in disguise (I know, it is still hard to believe…) and for the fact that the young men cannot quite explain why they trust the girls in their opening scene.

The subtitle of Così Fan Tutte is “The School for Lovers” and it would be interesting that a cynic like Don Alfonso is charged to marry his two mystified wards to two impressionable young men. Foreseeing catastrophe in these young people’s high-flown sentimentality, he prefers to teach them a bit about life before they become husbands and wives. Is this too benign an explanation? Maybe, I am not entirely convinced myself, but the question remains – what were these girls doing alone in Naples? If you have ever been in Naples, you know that this is no rhetorical question!

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Some say Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the most fascinating of operas. I feel guilty to disagree: I simply cannot resist buying an extra Don Giovanni. But that is probably because I still believe one day the perfect conductor will find the perfect Donna Anna, the perfect Donna Elvira, the perfect Zerlina, the perfect Don Ottavio, the perfect Don Giovanni, the perfect Leporello and the perfect Commendatore and someone will realize that they ought to be recorded and in the day of that recording everybody is going to be in good voice, inspiring the orchestra to impassionate playing. But the truth is that I find that Così fan tutte is Mozart and Da Ponte’s absolute masterpiece and, in its apparently lightness, a neverending source of insights about theatre, music and the human nature.

Most people consider the closing scene of Così fan tutte extremely disturbing – there is no redemption for characters whose mistakes we perfectly sympathize with. I remember many conversations about that, in which I resisted the idea that this was a comedy with a depressing ending. I used to say that the key to understand Così is its subtitle “the school for lovers” – in the sense that Fiordiligi and Guglielmo’s and Dorabella and Ferrando’s relationship were engagements of convenience (made palatable by the fact that they were all young, good-looking and wealthy people) and Don Alfonso’s experiment obliged them to descend from their well-established pedestals and face the unpredictabilities of truly falling in love. In that sense, Ferrando would soon discover in Fiordiligi his soulmate, while Guglielmo and Dorabella would find each other hard to resist. Mozart’s score even supported this line of interpretation – is it not true that Fiordiligi and Ferrando’s lines become increasingly more and more similar during the opera? That theory does not however explain what happens when Alfonso reveals the whole scheme and tells them to get over the whole thing – after all “they were engaged”. If Fiordiligi is supposed to leave her newly-found kindred spirit Ferrando for Guglielmo – that would be indeed a sad ending. My own private idea was that the original couples would be restored but after their weddings the whole Naples would gossip about those sisters who had suspicious relationships with their brothers-in-law.

However, while watching the new Glyndenbourne video, it occurred to me that Ferrando is actually being sincere in Tradito, schernito. In this sense, it is him and Dorabella the two characters who experiment significant development during the opera. He discovers that – notwithstanding the fact that his beloved has none of the qualities he used to pray in a woman – it is her the one he loves. This is basically what the last lines in the opera mean: “fortunate those who are able to use reason to deal with the events in his life; he will find a matter for laughter in subjects that make others weep and will always enjoy perfect peace”. In other words – if you always use reason in your personal affairs, you’ll never be a victim of passions and your life will be a perfectly balanced row of peaceful days. In the eve of Romanticism, one might perfectly ask – who would want that? That is exactly what Dorabella discovers: it is better to surrender to passion and enjoy her life than being a well-behaved melancholic creature. In this sense, she is also actually being sincere in L’amore è un ladroncello.

It is no coincidence that both Ferrando and Dorabella have grandiloquent first arias (the hysterical Smanie implacabili and the almost childishly naive Un’aura amorosa) only to throw wigs and protocol to the airs and speak bluntly in their last arias. On the other hand, Fiordiligi begins as formidably as she ends and Guglielmo skates in the surface of events from note one to the fine in the last page of the score.

Of course, all that is idle writing – only to explain why I have changed my mind and now believe that the return to the original couples is not entirely sad – Ferrando and Dorabella have learnt something from the lesson taught by Don Alfonso and Despina – if you are in control of your feelings for someone, you don’t really love him or her – while Fiordiligi and Guglielmo are only shocked about themselves (she disappointed with her own vincibility and he disappointed with his replaceability) and will probably pursue their engagement out of convenience (exactly as in the beginning of the opera). On having a couple who has learnt the lesson and other who has not, the classical structural balance is preserved and the character of the experiment acquires a certain “scientific” character.

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