Salzburg, Mozart and ‘Così’

This summer’s visitor to Salzburg discovered every approach to the city, from Autobahn, Bahnhof, and Flughafen, displaying a poster of a handsome headwaiter—to judge by the white tie and tails, although he carried no menu, and his transcendent expression exceeded the mystique associated with even the poshest restaurants. In some places the affiches stood no more than fifty feet apart, at one intersection almost obscuring the signs for Berchtesgaden, and the tourist must have wondered what this glamorous maître d’ could be advertising, with his manner so different from that of the contented users pictured on other billboards.

But close up the face looked familiar, and the caption and CBS trademark confirmed the suspicion: “Leonard Bernstein: Wir Wilkommen Sie Bei den Salzburger Festspielen!” Yet who could deny that the presentation was a triumph of packaging, as well as the launching of a mode, this one ad having sunk the Sixties: Ozawa’s beads, Previn’s hair, Karajan’s melodramatic gestures—all were obsoleted in a single coup. Moreover, here was an icon to replace that of Mozart, whose image was nowhere to be found among the two hundred glossy-page photos of jewelry and Jaguars, conductors and banks that comprise the Official Program.

To the question posed in an article in this booklet, “Festivals—An Expensive Anachronism?” the answer should be an unqualified “Yes.” Festival repertory is no longer distinguishable from that of the regular season, while standards of performance have fallen in inverse proportion to their cost (both to producer and consumer), and artistic control seems to be in the hands of airlines and hotel chains. What else could explain the choice for Bayreuth’s centenary Ring of a producer whose total experience with opera consists of one work by Offenbach and one by Rossini, and of a conductor who has never led the Ring or performed any other Wagner in a way to warrant such an endorsement? (Carlos Kleiber, the one recent conductor there who has demonstrated the temperamental as well as the technical qualifications for the undertaking, may not be a marketable name as yet; but such considerations did not always take precedence over artistic goals.)

A quotation from the aforementioned article exposes the schizoid confusion of the Salzburg Festival’s philosophy by actually suggesting that classical music is inherently less enjoyable than some of the more popular forms of entertainment with which it supposedly must compete:

Our affluent society offers far more agreeable opportunities to have a good time for lots of money than waiting out five hours of Tristan.

Apart from the oddity of airing such a point of view in an opera program, the statement insults all those who treasure every moment of Wagner’s masterpiece. Yet the article goes on to prophesy that

the so-called classics must capitulate…in competition with Frank Sinatra, to say nothing of the possibilities of élite pastimes on the exclusive beaches of St. Tropez….

What, in the name of Neptune, élite seaside pastimes may be, and why such classics as Tristan are only “so-called” and doomed to surrender to Frankie, are not explained. But the article seems to defend music festivals in the claim that “according to Franz Kafka, ‘Art is to step out from the ranks of the manslayers,’ ” a dubious postulate even if the translation had been grammatically correct, for has it not been inalterably proven and attested to with human lives—not long after Kafka and not far from Salzburg—that art-loving and man-slaying are quite compatible?

At least one of the article’s observations is beyond argument: Salzburg is expensive. Indeed, it is immorally so! A single good seat for an opera costs ninety dollars at the official price and double that in practice, for the hall is bought out by scalpers months ahead. “Capitalists are not the only ones receptive to artistic experience,” the same writer continues, broad-mindedly, but without distinguishing between political ideology and bank balance. In fact a six-digit total in the latter is a sine qua non for anyone “doing” the festival, while as far as opera-going is concerned, the difference between the privileged and the deprived is probably greater in our day than in Mozart’s. This, at any rate, is the impression made each evening as the Beautiful People arrive on one side of the street for the theater spectacle, while the Third Estate gathers on the other for the spectacle of the audience—like peasants and masters in Figaro and Don Giovanni.

Of the 1975 season, only the three-year-old production of Così fan tutte and last year’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (not reviewed here) were worthy of Salzburg. (Karajan’s scandalously bad Figaro, unless it is restaged and recast, should be discontinued and the money donated to the new Mozart Gesellschaft edition; less than a third of this has appeared in almost twenty years, a rate guaranteeing that few living musicians will ever see the complete publication.) But a more nearly perfect realization of Così would be difficult to envisage. Few productions adequately meet the musical requirements, to say nothing of the dramatic and visual ones, this elevated comedy habitually being abused as low farce. In every dimension the Salzburg performance sustained the virtuosity which is the essence of the work.

Karl Böhm’s tempi were occasionally slow but did not stifle the music’s wit, and if his conception of the score was unusually mellow, the quality is implied in the opera’s moral: “Da ragion guidar si fa.” Böhm never italicized by adding a degree to a dynamic, driving an allegro or dragging an andante, or bringing out an “inner voice” that was intended to remain just that. He is not a scholar, and at some places his phrasing and articulation could be questioned. ^1 Böhm radiated the music, however, and even when the orchestra played raggedly for a measure or two, this evidence of human fallibility was more endearing than Karajan’s steely precision. (Böhm, at his curtain call, clasped hands with the singers and graciously redirected the applause to the orchestra, while Karajan, after Figaro, bowed independently and at a higher elevation than the cast, of which he took no notice.)

Gundula Janowitz, the ideal Mozart soprano, sang Fiordiligi with her customary beauty of tone and flawless intonation. Brigitte Fassbaender, as her stage sister, provided a smooth vocal blend in the many duets, and an appropriate contrast in the dramatic role. Peter Schreier as Ferrando and Hermann Prey as Guglielmo were no less excellent, both individually and as a pair. (For a real appreciation of Schreier, the reader need only listen to the Philips recording in such passages as “bisogno non ha” and “ed intanto di dolore,” frantically bellowed, below pitch, by Nicolai Gedda.) Rolando Panerai, as Don Alfonso, was vocally pleasing but too benign for the philosophy he preached, and Reri Grist’s coloratura was too light for Despina, but she more than compensated for this by her superb acting. Having many more ensembles than arias, Così requires six singers who complement each other in a variety of combinations. A more satisfying sextet than Salzburg’s could not have been selected even by an optimally functioning computer.

Günter Rennert’s direction was busy but never distracting. The principals stood still in their big arias, except where a change of tempo or second verse justified a change of position; but faces registered meaning, and the singers were obviously inspired to the full use of their histrionic talents. Rennert replaced the curtain with a panel-drop “tapestry” representing Paradise, an allegorical porcupine added to the usual serpent; his one mistake was to have exhibited this tableau during the overture, which does not deserve to be treated as background music.

The stage was sparsely furnished, the Bay of Naples being evoked by fishing nets and by space. The seductiveness of the Neapolitan atmosphere is an important influence on the conduct of the characters, and if the plot is a laboratory experiment—Masters and Johnson, but two centuries ahead of time—then the aura of the South is a part of the chemistry. Period was established by such props as an eighteenth-century swing and a flock of mechanical birds, but some of the sisters’ clothing seemed to belong to a later era, a peccadillo that can be readily forgiven, since, for a great rarity, all trace of slapstick was absent from the Albanian disguises of the amanti.

Richard Wagner, condemning Così, spoke for his century and part of ours:

Mozart’s greatness is confirmed by his inability to compose music such as he did for Figaro, for the dull and insignificant libretto of Così fan tutte; otherwise he would have shamefully desecrated music itself.

So far from desecrating music, Così, in today’s opinion, compounds its glory. Moreover, one of the reasons that the opera is now able to stand with Figaro, and has lately become equally popular, is the expertise (whatever else) of the libretto. The changes since Wagner’s time that explain this reversal are as numerous as those of an entire century’s music—and manners and morals—though this review must confine itself to a few directly related specifics. Wagner’s contemporaries despised the story for its immorality and absurdity, and the first impediment to their willing suspension of disbelief was the time element. The sisters’ fidelity to their fiancés fails to survive a twelve-hour siege by their new suitors from Albania. Today, of course, a period as long as that would challenge the story’s credibility, in the opposite direction.

Idealizing Mozart, romantics and Victorians refused to believe that he could have composed such “chaste” music for dramas of illicit sexual adventures; hence the general blindness to the true themes of the operas, and/or pretense that his music could not be related to them. As for the composer himself, who would have believed that music’s divine cherub delighted in toilet humor and wrote indecent canons, let alone consider that this purest of spirits might possibly have been incarnate in a venereally diseased body (and have died from the effects of a mercury cure)? The critic Heinrich Bulthaupt, writing about Mozart’s operas in 1887, conceded a certain “warmth” in the music appropriate to characters in the married state, but he ignored or failed to notice the music’s sexual ardor when associated with the would-be philandering of Count Almaviva or Don Giovanni.

Ironically, this very sensuousness is what distinguishes Così fan tutte from both Don Giovanni and Figaro. The emotion of Così is different precisely because the seducers do not wish to succeed in their conquests: Mozart has delineated veritable and simulated desire. It is an established misunderstanding to think of the stylistic “extravagances” of the music of Tristan and Isolde in connection with an unholy eroticism, this, on the contrary, being the substance of the Mozart operas. In comparison, the passion and voluptuousness of Wagner’s music drama are purity itself, portraying a love which is true unto death.

Thus Wagner’s judgment, not only on Da Ponte’s libretto but also on Mozart’s music, becomes more understandable, the composer of Tristan being the foremost proponent of opera as drama: for him, music and libretto were wholly interdependent. Nevertheless, the acceptance of the libretto was to come about through the ever-developing comprehension of Mozart in his historical context as well as in his universality, and from this perspective it is obvious that the musician’s commitment to the subject matter was as wholehearted as his librettist’s. In evidence of this, clues from Mozart’s biography might be taken into consideration, such as his transference of his affections from one sister to another, his wife’s outspoken dislike of the opera, and his concern for her flirtatiousness. But on musical grounds alone, Così represents one side of Mozart—as The Magic Flute does another, the latter opera coming to mind because the two works share a dramatic device (the protagonists in both undergoing a “test” in order to achieve wisdom, worldly in the one case, spiritual in the other).

Analyses of most composers, including Mozart, usually consist of little more than tracing resemblances—recurring melodic patterns, harmonic progressions—between one work and another; thus Osmin’s “O wie will ich triumphieren” and the theme of the Presto of the D major Symphony (K. 385) are very closely related, as are Tamino’s “Der Götter Wille” and the second theme in the first movement of the clarinet Quintet. But far more remarkable are those works, of which Così is one, that create a world to which Mozart never returned. Such is the case with the slow movement of the E flat major Piano Concerto (K. 271), for it is without successor in its idiom while the depth of its feeling exceeds that of Mozart’s other compositions of the time.

Additional examples are the slow movement of the A major Violin Concerto (which, incredibly, Mozart was to reject as “too studied”), the fugue in the Violin Sonata K. 402, and the Rondo K. 494 (both forms, even though not detachable in the second, as a sonata finale). Each of these pieces (and some others) is without successors, in the sense that the quartets for Haydn are a closely related family, and the last group of string quintets another one. This is not to deny either the superficial similarities between Così and the other late operas, or the conventions that comprise the containing world of all of Mozart. Yet Così’s musical personality is unique and distinct in almost every measure.

Uniquely, too, Così is rich in parody, above all of operatic language and of exaggerated romantic sentiment. Thus Fiordiligi’s “Come scoglio” ridicules most of the staples of tempestuous prima donnas: the bombastic recitative, the showy trill, the rapid scale, the sensationally wide interval, and the ostentatious high note. At the same time, the aria is perfectly “serious” and apt in its dramatic function. Thus, too, Ferrando’s “Un’ aura amorosa” imitates a new, high-flown emotionalism, for the song actually says nothing—in an opera that demands constant attention to the words. But, once again, the music is unquestionably “sincere,” and happily exists on two levels. So does a sudden change of key, which musicians hear as a stunning technical feat, but which the audience feels only as a jolt called for by the stage action. Jokes, too, are “in,” like the reference to Mesmer, who was a personal acquaintance of Mozart’s and one whose methods seem to have been lampooned in the opera, for the “Albanians,” after drinking “suicidal” concoctions and pretending to experience trancelike states, are “revived” by a Mesmer magnet.

The originality of Così is manifest in its orchestration, both vocal—the greater number of smaller ensembles (duets and trios) than of larger ones—and instrumental. Though by no means the first instance of tone-painting in Mozart’s music, the rippling muted violins in “Soave sia il vento” are as overtly atmospheric as those in La Mer. The opera abounds in instrumental effects, and for one novelty, trumpets and violas, ordinarily part of the background, are featured instruments. Trumpets, generally used only at tutti passages and limited to a few notes anyway, permeate the timbre of the music as a whole; hence it is another of Mozart’s virtuoso stunts to be able to give them an important part in a small ensemble, such as the one that they share with flutes in the Quartet, one of the opera’s most ravishing numbers.

In Mozart’s other operas, the rounder, fuller horns would have had the notes that in Così are assigned to the more acerbic trumpets, and this, too, is in accordance with the “insincerity” of the sexual pursuit in the opera. Mozart also exploits a new viola quality in several obbligati, but nowhere more beautifully than in “Di scrivermi ogni giorno” (a piece that bewitched Stravinsky, and of which he never tired). Commentators have remarked the association of clarinets with the sisters, but the most ingenious employment of this instrument is a passage in serenade style (with Alberti-bass and a pizzicato accompaniment) in the third scene from the end.

The score contains other musical mottoes besides the one, “Co-sì fan tut-te,”2 in the overture. These include the snatches of the songs associated with the suitors when in disguise, and sung by them upon their return to their true selves; the revelations of the final scene are far more immediately effective musically than visually. The March is also a motto, but an almost too obvious one. The most subtle of them all is the link between the melody in slow triplets near the end of “Per pietà” and the melodies in fast triplets in the first number of the opera; this connection is underlined by the instance of the same phrase endings in both places, to ensure the recognition of the keenest irony in the opera, since, in the one scene, Fiordiligi declares the new-found love that, in the other, her betrothed avows to be his alone.

From under-appreciation in the past, the libretto’s reputation is at present somewhat inflated. The characters, mere ciphers in a psychological experiment, are limited and not very intelligent, especially when compared to the flesh and blood people of Figaro—though it may be unfair to say this since in the earlier opera Da Ponte had the advantage of basing his work on a great play. The source of Così in Ariosto—the Salzburg program states that none has yet been found!—is a mere story with cardboard figures; still, Da Ponte might have heightened the individuation of the sisters.

Then, too, the opera changes in mood from light to serious somewhat abruptly and late; that is, not until the second of the two acts. And since Fiordiligi’s behavior personifies the adage that “the more they protest, the harder they fall,” her second-act excruciations are not easily reconcilable with the precipitate, turn-about ending. In her case, at least, the “happy ending” is unconvincing, the profundity of the music not having prepared for the too simple return to “things as they were.” Nor is Don Alfonso’s assurance that the lovers will be the wiser for their experience completely convincing. Women twice mistaken in love cannot be as they were before.

Authorities on the opera are by no means in agreement about how it actually does end:

Whether the ladies pair off with their original lovers or with their new ones is not clear from the libretto, but, as Don Alfonso says, it will not make any difference to speak of.3

But by all of the traditions of the theater of disguise, reconciliation is implicit throughout the opera, and there can be no doubt that the relationships at the end are the same as they were at the beginning.

The libretto is more compact, fastermoving, and more circumscribed in content than those of Figaro and Don Giovanni. But it is also more artificial. The anatomy of love is a subject of all of Mozart’s operas, but it is the only subject of Così. The presence of Vesuvius in the background has been given a tendentious political interpretation. But no revolution smolders in Così, as it does in Figaro, and the impertinent remarks of the maid have no more social significance than if they were part of the script for “Upstairs, Downstairs.”

Even the crowd does not seem to be representative of a class as it does in the other operas; indeed, the chorus might well be kept out of sight—considering the cost of costuming thirty or forty extras whose voices are indispensable, but whose presences are not. One absence is remarkable, however, that of a family, or even a duenna, to chaperone the nubile sisters. The most surprising piece of action in the opera is that in which they dress up in uniforms belonging to their drafted boyfriends. What, one wonders, are such garments doing in the home of proper young ladies, and does this not belie their innocence and virtue?

Little is known about the first production of Così fan tutte, partly because the death of the monarch closed down the theater after only four performances. Mozart himself does not mention the opera by name, referring to it, in two letters, merely in connection with the first rehearsals. It is comforting to read Michael Kelly’s recollections4 of a rehearsal of Figaro, and to hope that something similar might have occurred at the first reading of Così fan tutte:

Mozart was on the stage with his crimson pelisse and gold-laced cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra…. I was standing close to [him], who, sotto voce, was repeating “Bravo! Bravo!” for Benucci5 …[suddenly] the whole of the performers on the stage, and those in the orchestra, as if activated by one feeling of delight, vociferated “Bravo! Bravo! Maestro. Viva, viva grande Mozart”…. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks….

(This is the first of two articles on Mozart.)

  1. 2

    Most of the many English translations of the title (“Everybody acts like this,” “They all do it,” etc.) omit the vital identification of gender present in the Italian: “Thus do all women.”

  2. 3

    Mozart’s Operas, by Edward Dent (Oxford, 1913).

  3. 4

    Reminiscences (London, 1826, reprinted by Oxford University Press this year).

  4. 5

    A baritone for whom Mozart wrote the most elaborate aria in the first act of Così fan tutte, which he then removed, believing the piece to be disproportionately large.