Opera Scotland

Così fan tutte Women – all the same; The Don's Wager

Music
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (born Salzburg, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791)

Text
Lorenzo da Ponte.

Source
Original.

Premières
First performance: Vienna (Burgtheater), 26 January 1790.
First UK performance: London (King’s Theatre, Haymarket), 19 May 1811.
First performance in Scotland: Edinburgh (Nelson Hall), 13 February 1934.
Scottish Opera première: Perth (Theatre), 12 April 1967.

Background
On the face of it, Così can seem a frivolous, misogynistic, and almost farcical story. The device of testing the faithfulness of a female character by having her lover court her in disguise is not novel. To have two couples, to have the men court each other’s girl, and to have the whole plot based on a drunken bet does, on the face of it, lower the tone. It is not surprising that the opera gained a dubious reputation in the decades after its creation. It was considered shocking, even disgusting, or contemptible. However any justification for this view evaporates when Mozart’s glorious music is heard well performed. Even in recent decades, eminently respected conductors continued to cut wonderfully dramatic arias that didn’t fit their preconceptions. Some less talented directors give the impression that they have not read the text or, more importantly, listened to Mozart’s music. They therefore reduce the piece to the level of a not very good farce. In recent decades it has become possible to recognise the depth of musical characterisation in this opera. The six people are all fully three-dimensional and clearly have their lives changed as a result of the day’s business. It is a comedy in the sense that no one actually dies, but it is sometimes a close run thing. Even at the end, when sanity is ostensibly restored, we do not know which arrangement of couples is left for the final curtain. It is one of the truly great operas.

Main Characters
Ferrando, a young army officer (tenor)
Guglielmo, another officer, his friend (baritone)
Don Alfonso, a middle-aged bachelor (baritone)
Fiordiligi, a young lady engaged to Guglielmo (soprano)
Dorabella, her sister, engaged to Ferrando (mezzo-soprano)
Despina, maidservant to the sisters (soprano)

Plot Summary
The setting is a villa on the bay of Naples, with Vesuvius usually visible in the background, symbolising the passions bubbling down below. Opening and closing scenes frame the action with a Neapolitan café setting. The officers, encouraged by their friend Alfonso, are debating the respective virtues of their girls, and are persuaded to have a bet on the matter. The sisters are horrified when they hear that their boys are off to war. Alfonso then introduces two “old friends” from Albania, exotically disguised, who proceed to woo each other’s girl. Initially the girls fight them off easily, but with Despina’s help the men persevere, and a staged fake suicide attempt at the end of the first act sows seeds of doubt in the girls’ minds. In the second act the atmosphere deepens dramatically as the girls eventually succumb. When the soldiers return, just in time to prevent a double wedding, all sorts of doubts are left hanging in the air regarding the behaviour of all the characters.

 

RECORDINGS

DECCA (3 CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1974
Conductor: George Solti
London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Pilàr Lorengar (Fiordiligi), Teresa Berganza (Dorabella), Jane Berbié (Despina)
Ryland Davies (Ferrando), Tom Krause (Guglielmo), Gabriel Bacquier (Alfonso).

This recording was rather under valued when it first appeared, but it has worn well. The French pairing as Alfonso and Despina (unusually a mezzo) work together beautifully. Two Spanish ladies are excellent as the sisters – Lorengar’s voice always had a natural flutter that some listeners dislike, but it gives her Fiordiligi an attractive vulnerability. Berganza’s voice is wonderfully creamy. Ryland Davies was a naturally dramatic and serious interpreter of Ferrando, singing it for the first time with Scottish Opera in 1967. He went on to sing the part in many major houses and here gives a riveting performance, well supported by the Finnish baritone. Solti is more flexible than was sometimes the case in his Mozart recordings.

 

CHANDOS (3 CDs) Sung in English Recorded 2007

Conductor: Charles Mackerras.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
Janice Watson (Fiordiligi), Diana Montague (Dorabella), Lesley Garrett (Despina).
Toby Spence (Ferrando), Christopher Maltman (Guglielmo), Thomas Allen (Alfonso).

It is good to have a modern recording in English, beautifully conducted by Mackerras. He had decades of experience in conducting Così all over the world, but in his 80s rethought it in terms of an orchestra using original instruments with splendid results (and it was the last opera he conducted in the theatre, working at Glyndebourne, in spite of acute pain, only a few weeks before his death). The cast is without a weak link, and Thomas Allen, although used to the Italian text, has no problem adapting to an English version. The translation used is the old one by the Rev Marmaduke Browne. In the ‘60s this was rejected in favour of more modern versions, but now the circle has turned, and with a little tweaking by John Cox for his Coliseum production a few years ago, it now works well.

 

EMI (3CDs) Sung in Italian Recorded 1962

Conductor: Karl Böhm.

Philharmonia.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Fiordiligi), Christa Ludwig (Dorabella), Hanny Steffek (Despina).

Alfredo Kraus (Ferrando), Giuseppe Taddei (Guglielmo), Walter Berry (Alfonso).

This classic set still sounds good, and the singing is uniformly excellent. Böhm’s conducting now seems a bit leisurely but was much admired at the time. Several cuts, traditional in those far-off days, now seem surprising and rather regrettable.

 

PONTO (3CDs) Sung in English Recorded 1969

Conductor: Alexander Gibson.

Scottish National Orchestra

Elizabeth Harwood (Fiordiligi), Janet Baker (Dorabella), Carol Anne Curry (Despina).

Kurt Westi (Ferrando), Peter van der Bilt (Guglielmo), John Shirley-Quirk (Alfonso).

Scottish Opera live in 1969 is self-recommending for anyone curious about the standard of performance in those days. Gibson, Baker and Harwood are just as good as everyone said at the time. The others back them up well. Sadly, the Martins' translation seems sometimes clumsy.

The Cast

Despina
 maidservant to the sisters
Don Alfonso
 a middle-aged bachelor
Dorabella
 Fiordiligi's sister, engaged to Ferrando
Ferrando
 a young army officer
Fiordiligi
 a young lady from Ferrara, engaged to Guglielmo
Guglielmo
 another officer, Ferrando's friend

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