"Così Fan Tutte: A Crash Course in Sex and Identity'
Welsh National Opera Programme (2020)
Two sisters watch a ship sail over the horizon and out of sight, carrying their lovers off to war. The girls are on the cusp of adulthood and the departure of the men has come as a sharp shock, shaking them out of their naïve, romantic view of their destiny. It is their first painful experience of loss and adversity. Their initial reaction is one of panic and disbelief. A teenage tantrum. But then, in one of the greatest moments in all opera, they sing a quiet prayer for a safe voyage: “Soave sia il vento”. Murmuring strings evoke a breeze gently rocking the waves. The sisters become calmer and, as if suddenly conscious of the importance of this moment in their short lives, they abandon themselves to this new, bittersweet feeling of growing up, of passing from innocence to experience.
But what are we to make of this journey towards so-called maturity? What values are we left with when faced with the cruel games life plays on us? The human experiment conducted in Mozart’s Così fan Tutte comes up with several possible answers.
Over the course of 24 hours the young lovers undergo a brisk and often brutal education, guided by the old philosopher, Don Alfonso, within the confines of a house, a symbolic School of Love, sealed off from the outside world. Alfonso’s view, like Freud’s, is that the sex instinct is amoral and selfish. As he predicts, the girls and the boys cheat on each other in quick succession. The pursuit of pleasure is too tempting and their idealised notions of love and fidelity prove worthless. Or so Alfonso thinks…
It’s interesting to compare his cynical worldview with that of the infamous Marquis de Sade, Mozart and Da Ponte’s contemporary. Sade believed that sex is power. When it comes to making love there are no moral obligations; only our natural urges. Seduction inevitably involves pressure and submission. There’s no point fighting our true natures when it comes to sexual attraction.
While Così fan Tutte does tap into these ideas, the young lovers do not end up complete libertines, immune to guilt or morality. When Alfonso’s lesson turns the emotional lives of these young people upside-down he prescribes marriage, a heavy dose of realism and a sense of humour to ease this unpleasant transition to rational adulthood. Taking his cue from Alfonso’s ideas, Mozart’s music pokes fun at youthful immaturity and has a strong absurdist streak. But it also depicts the young lovers’ situations with the greatest tenderness and empathy. Just as adults may laugh at the mood swings of the adolescent brain, the heightened feelings of vulnerability or confusion that young people experience as they reach sexual maturity can be deeply unsettling, even traumatising. A lesser composer may have been content to maximise the farcical elements of Da Ponte’s libretto, but Mozart wanted to go deeper. Why else write that magical, mysterious trio: “Soave si al vento” ? Perhaps the opera’s story resonated with Mozart’s own life. Before marrying Constanze, he had loved her elder sister, the singer Aloysia Weber. The profundity of his music for Così fan Tutte ultimately clashes with the deep cynicism behind Alfonso’s experiment. The central character of Fiordiligi has a moral core that has no place in Alfonso’s view of the world. The ending feels anticlimactic and open-ended because the music does not wallow in reconciliation or newfound confidence. Alfonso’s School of Love highlights the need to accept this darker, fickle side of our natures, but the opera suggests when it comes to relationships our desire for lasting love, mutual trust, and moral values are just as essential to our common humanity.
A more transparent and joyful aspect of this coming-of-age opera is the playful exploration of identity. Disguises, cross-dressing and free sexual expression have a liberating effect on these young people’s minds and bodies. They begin this coming-of-age opera, singing near-identical music and repeating each others’ text. In this sense they are just like schoolchildren who congregate around cliques, mimic each other’s behaviour and suppress their own personal tastes or eccentricities. The individual character traits of Alfonso’s pupils only start to emerge more clearly with the commencement of this radical lesson in love; when the boys return disguised as moustachioed Albanians to seduce their fiancées. Their assumed personalities and exotic costumes allow them to behave without any inhibitions. They are suddenly free to express their own true natures and desires. Then there’s the mischievous maid, Despina, who acts as a counterpoint to Alfonso’s misogyny. She rages against gender-based double standards and encourages the girls to freely explore their sexuality and enjoy the pleasures of polyamory. The more adventurous of the two sisters, Dorabella, becomes Despina’s willing pupil, culminating in her ecstatic, hedonistic aria “E amor é un ladroncello”. Despina’s use of magnetic stimulation in the whacky Act One Finale fits in brilliantly to this narrative of emerging sexuality and identity. Her bizarre mesmeric treatment involves a vibrating magnet that unleashes the invisible primal forces within the boys, leading to total hormonal mayhem onstage.
Mozart and Da Ponte confront us then with three contradictory attitudes towards what might be considered an enlightened education of young adults. Sometimes it feels like we’re watching a calculating, nihilist comedy, stage-managed by a bitter old sexist, Don Alfonso. But this is only the surface. Beneath the cruelty there is a more compassionate perspective that refuses to allow romantic relationships to be reduced to flippant farce. Finally, there is the idea of education as a series of disruptive experiments that sets the characters free and leads to a new, more complete sense of identity.
In his colourful memoirs Da Ponte refers to Così fan Tutte only by its second title: The School of Lovers. If Mozart had not rejected this option in favour of the more provocative title by which the opera is known today then the work might be better understood. Rather than placing misogyny centre-stage, the opera is really about the unpredictability of human potential; our ability to transform, to fall in love, to hurt other people and to hurt oneself.
Così è la vita. That’s life.
According to the Office of National Statistics, if Mozart’s Susanna and Figaro had married in Wales or England in 2012 there would have been a forty-two percent chance of their marriage ending in divorce. Two hundred and thirty-four years on from the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro it is hard to find a work of art today that champions the concept of marriage as key to social stability and our wellbeing in the same way. Indeed, when Welsh National Opera recently commissioned a sequel to Mozart’s opera the result was Figaro Gets a Divorce, a bittersweet fantasy about what happens next to Mozart’s characters as they struggle with midlife crises against a backdrop of revolution and class war.
Mozart and Da Ponte celebrate the positive social and ethical role marriage plays in the lives of the opera’s characters, building on key progressive Enlightenment ideas, but never denying the complexity of human interaction and motivation. The opera ends with a great transcendent hymn to happiness based around a loving, trusting and pragmatic understanding of human relationships. The two central couples, Susanna and Figaro, the Countess and the Count, have gained enough self-knowledge during an action-packed, often painful day to look to the future with renewed hope and optimism.
The search for happiness on earth through human relationships is the conundrum that occupied many Enlightenment artists like Mozart. The reforming Habsburg Emperor Joseph II made his own contribution to this debate by passing a new piece of legislation in 1783 that confirmed marriage’s status as a civil contract while also legalising divorce for the first time in modern Europe. In other words, marriage became a contractual affair between two autonomous individuals rather than the result of religious duty. As Nicholas Till writes in his essential Mozart and the Enlightenment, “Figaro retraces the progression of relations in modern society from those based on pre-ordained status to those negotiated by contract.” Throughout Le Nozze di Figaro the characters are renegotiating the terms of their relationships, both emotionally and economically. In this way, they reach the end of the opera with their marriages intact and their roles newly defined.
Women in the opera use marriage as a tool for greater social mobility and freedom. Susanna and Figaro’s marriage wins them economic independence thanks to an unexpected dowry from Marcellina and Bartolo. The peasant girl Barbarina blackmails the Count and becomes engaged to Cherubino, her social superior. Bartolo meanwhile marries his old housekeeper, Marcellina. The women are the true revolutionaries of the piece in the way they use marriage to transcend the social and gender hierarchies of the time.
The Count also opposed social convention when marrying Rosina, an orphaned member of Seville’s bourgeoisie in the first play of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy. But at the beginning of Le Nozze di Figaro their marriage is at a low ebb. The sexual spark in their relationship has gone out. The Count has become a serial philanderer. Yet Mozart makes clear in his music that he is far from happy. In the composer’s correspondence he was always dismissive of male restlessness and pleasure-seeking. Instead he valued “the blessed happiness of a deep and true affection” over “the pleasure of a transient, capricious infatuation”. This attitude towards marriage comes across clearly in Figaro.
Eroticism is a destabilising, ambiguous presence in the opera. Cherubino is perhaps an early study for Don Giovanni, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. The Countess cannot win the Count back with declarations of sentimental love like “Porgì amor”. She must take action, change the Count’s view of her and force him to understand the consequences of his own irresponsible actions. Following “Dove sono” she reinvents herself, writing Susanna’s love letter to the Count, wearing her servant’s clothes and meeting with her husband under the cover of night. Mozart’s music for their encounter is both painful and deeply romantic. The Countess maintains her composure and carries off the disguise. The long-lost chemistry with her husband is rekindled, albeit incognito. It is the Countess’s final extraordinary act of forgiveness that ultimately saves their marriage. The Count recognises his wrongdoing and the Countess’s true moral strength in the face of the misery he has inflicted on her. He asks for redemption and the Countess delivers it. Her music has a calm, celestial glow about it. The French writer Stendhal compares this ensemble to a church hymn of the most perfect beauty.
Yet Mozart and Da Ponte’s happy ending is man-made and not God-given. It is hard-won and based on a view of marriage as life’s most important action in determining personal happiness, growth and maturity, providing it is continually nurtured by mutual affection, shared moral values, a healthy dose of realism and the ability to forgive.
"Staging the incendiary opera Biedermann and the Arsonists"
Feature written for The Guardian (2015)
Šimon Voseček’s opera, based on the absurdist satire by Max Frisch, revels in mayhem. The director of the first UK production, Max Hoehn, explains how he orchestrated the chaos.
I am four weeks into rehearsals for the UK premiere of Šimon Voseček’s 2013 opera, based on Max Frisch’s absurdist 1953 play Biedermann and the Arsonists, and the visceral impact of the music continues to entertain and disorientate in equal measure. Enter its soundworld and you’re hit by the wailing clarinets, giggling strings and wild percussion that accompany its colourful lineup of eccentric characters.
Rehearsing the alcohol-fuelled finale, the cast become increasingly light-headed as they attempt to follow the composer’s directions in the score. “Falsetto: a climax of absurdity”; “chaos is desirable.” Given the source material, it’s not surprising that Voseček’s opera revels in such mayhem. Frisch’s play is a major work of postwar European drama; a satirical fable about bourgeois guilt taken to hyper-theatrical extremes.
One evening in his quiet suburban home, successful businessman and respected member of the community Gottlieb Biedermann is enjoying a glass of wine and surveying the latest headlines about a spate of arson attacks in the area. As he looks up from his newspaper, he finds an enormous wrestler standing in his doorway, asking for shelter. Biedermann permits him to spend the night in his attic. The wrestler is soon joined by a second dodgy-looking individual, a former waiter, full of charm and panache. They then proceed to transport barrels of petrol into the attic, right under the noses of Biedermann and his wife, with the clear intention of burning down their home. The Biedermanns, however, are incapable of evicting the two criminals, or taking any preventative action at all – Biedermann assures his wife the best policy is one of appeasement. It all ends in a smoking pile of rubble and ash.
I responded immediately to the surreal, non-naturalistic elements of the original text. Several productions of the play, including a 1963 Austrian television adaptation and a 2007 production at the Royal Court with Benedict Cumberbatch, adopted a muted, realistic aesthetic to counterbalance the piece’s moments of madness and farce. But Voseček’s music calls for an overtly theatrical approach, particularly with the arsonists.
The wrestler-waiter double act parody middle-class etiquette with their impressive knowledge of bourgeois manners, culture and wine. They express their pyromania in playful rhapsodies on their love of flames and the sound of sirens. To create these demonic figures, designer Jemima Robinson and I decided to give Schmitz the wrestler an exaggeratedly muscular bodysuit and to char the waiter Eisenring’s uniform as if he has just emerged from a blaze.
A trio of incompetent firemen offer another opportunity for stylisation. These three represent the moral centre of the piece, and scold Biedermann for his moral paralysis. But this caricature of a Greek chorus also proves unable to prevent the impending fire. I chose to add angel wings to their costumes, to suggest their role as guardians of society who preach about fire safety with great religious fervour.
The comic juxtaposition of the realistic uniforms and the wings helps to further ridicule these figures who alternate solemn chanting and singing with an emasculated head voice. Further inspiration came from Voseček’s menacing orchestra, which mocks, disorientates and collides with the singers – especially during the explosive finale. The sinister colours and textures of the instrumentation seem to represent the world of the arsonists as opposed to the Biedermanns’. Our production visualises this clash of worlds by creating a hellish pit of rusty barrels of petrol and old gas canisters underneath the Biedermann apartment. The orchestra – the Britten Sinfonia – reside in this subterranean world that is visible to the audience, which incidentally corresponds to Voseček’s instruction for the orchestra to abandon its usual role as accompanist and to have its own strong narrative identity.
Biedermann and the Arsonists is not only a comedy of grotesque characters and bizarre humour but also a timeless, disturbing work about the collapse of secure cultural assumptions and values. Gottlieb Biedermann is no fool; Frisch wanted his audience to identify with his struggle. His failure to deal with the arsonists is driven by a toxic combination of liberal guilt, naivety and plain cowardice – weaknesses that resonate just as much in 21st-century Britain as they did with Frisch’s German audience more than 50 years ago.
When rehearsing Biedermann’s scenes with the tenor Mark Le Brocq, we stressed his everyman qualities. We wanted to share the character’s deep insecurities and contradictions with the audience. It seems to me that if the production concerns itself only with turning the stage into a nightmarish playground for the arsonists, full of theatrical effects and outlandish costumes, the opera risks becoming an exercise in style rather than a morality play for today.
But Biedermann could be any suited worker during the morning rush hour. Putting ourselves in his shoes, would we act any differently? Would momentary panic or a sense of charity blind our judgment? Come to Sadler’s Wells this week and decide for yourselves.