Women are Just Like That

ItalyItaly Mozart, Così fan tutte – in concert form: Chorus and Orchestra of Santa Cecilia Rome. Conductor, Semyon Bychkov. Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica Rome, 27.6.2016. (JB)


Corinne Winters – Fiordiligi
Angela Brower – Dorabella
Paolo Fanale – Ferrando
Markus Werba – Guglielmo
Pietro Spagnoli – Don Alfonso
Sabina Puértolas – Despina

Of the three librettos that Lorenzo da Ponte wrote for Mozart, Così fan tutte is by far the wittiest: words and music continuously spark unexpected sense. (Is that a definition of wit?) Così is of course, politically incorrect. That is part of its mischief. And mischief is its very essence. As its composition predates the concept of political correctness, offended souls can take heart. Those original audiences probably took it as a delicate suggestion, nothing more! Politeness more or less disappeared from the world a long time ago, but hypocrisy was just as rampant in 1790 at the Imperial Court Theatre of Vienna as it is in today’s parliamentary circles. So the fun speaks as clearly to modern audiences as it did at the premiere. The farce narrowly avoids descending into bawdiness, and bawdiness formed a central part of Mozart’s spirit, if not of da Ponte’s too.

When Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was staging Così with Margaret Price, he asked her if she would be prepared to do a striptease while singing come scoglio. That seemed like a witty suggestion those some thirty years ago, when no holes were barred. I’m an opera singer, not a striptease artist, retorted Dame Margaret. So that was the end of that bit of proposed jollity. A pity that da Ponte and Mozart were not still around. They would surely have rewritten words and music to accommodate Ponnelle’s wit.

Or would they? Maybe a delicate suggestion, nothing more! which is a bit of sly doublespeak, slots more neatly into their ironic style.

Due donne ferrarese says da Ponte in the libretto. The women of Ferrara had a reputation for being flirtatious. Da Ponte should know. He was having an affair with one of them, much to the irritation of Mozart. Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, who created the role of Fiordiligi was noted both for her amazing high notes as well as her expressive low ones. But she had an unattractive habit of throwing her head back to sing high notes and sinking her head onto her chest for the low ones. That is why Mozart punishingly hands her all those impossible leaps from high to low in come scoglio so that she would appear as a frightened chicken expecting to have its head cut off. Moreover, Adriana’s sister, Luisa Villeneuve was the original Dorabella. So the two sisters of the opera were sisters in real life. What fun.

I report all the historical gossip because I think conductors and singers might keep it mind in their performances.

Da Ponte gets the ball rolling as the curtain rises with the two officers waging a bet with the elderly philosopher, Don Alfonso, that their betrothed would be unfailingly loyal in any situation they found themselves. Da Ponte seems to have known as many officers as me: he treats them like the schoolboys they seem, and provides them with rhyming couplets which Mozart sets to a bouncy allegro:


La mia Dorabella
Capace non è;
Fedel quanto bella
Il cielo la fé

[My own Dorabella / Flirtatious? not she / As staunch as she’s bella / The heavens made her be. Translation JB]

The “boys” go on with their conviction with the old philosopher knocking them down at every turn. However, the wager is on. Otherwise the curtain had better come down right away.

The casting of the three men was much better than the three women. Pietro Spagnoli – an old hand at Italian comic opera – plays Don Alfonso as though he is the Master of Ceremonies of the show: poker faced and nonjudgmental, cool when the argument gets heated and heated when it gets too cool: the authors would have applauded him. He doesn’t exactly invoke mischief, but when it starts to get lower, he knows how to inflame it. And does. His diction is admirable with a delightful hint of pomposity. He doesn’t ask, Don’t you know who I am? Because he expects you to know. I don’t know the off-stage Spagnoli, but I suspect that all these traits of Alfonso are also his by nature. That, anyway, is how it comes across.

The Austrian baritone, Markus Werba (Guglielmo) was the most striking of the three men. Not because he has a great voice. He doesn’t. But he is a superb singer-actor. He brings the character of Guglielmo to life like no one else. Guglielmo can easily come across as a cardboard figure. Not here. Werba is tall, slender and handsome, with movements of a dancer, looking a decade younger than his forty-three years. (The opera was semi-staged with the cast in evening dress, darting round the stage under their own tutelage. I see Werba has sung Don Giovanni: can’t wait to see that!) He is a hard colleague to be on stage with because few are ever so totally involved in the characterization of the part they play.

However, the other “boy”, Paolo Fanale (Ferrando), a Palermitano tenor, can stand comfortably alongside Werba, because his is the most outstanding voice of the evening. It sounds as though he is almost carelessly massaging his voice – and what a voice – as he gives out its golden tones, never holding anything back. He never forces his magnificent instrument. In Un aura amarosa I thought Caruso had come back to life. This is baritone quality at tenor pitch: easy, perfectly placed and focused. And for glamour he stands comfortably alongside handsome Werba, with the advantage of being a decade younger. I’ve just interrupted writing this, for a good half an hour checking him out on YouTube. If you do this, don’t miss una furtive lacrima. Then hear Jonas Kaufman singing the same aria –and no mean tenor he. But against Fanale he sounds throaty and vulgar and without the soulful involvement of the Palermitano.

Now to the women. The worst first. Despina’s chief quality is the easy to name and not so easy to understand matter of charm. She is sometimes clever, often scheming, even quick-witted, but above all, charming. The Spanish soprano, Sabina Puértolas, has as much charm as the Second World War. It begins with her beautiful red evening dress, eminently suited for maybe, Rosalinde in Fleidermaus, but hideously out of place for Despina. She is a pretty woman, but on this showing, she hasn’t learnt how to put that to good use on stage. This was serious miscasting.

Angela Brower as Dorabella was guilty of what is perhaps an even more serious crime. She was boring. In both her arias she sounded as though she was reciting her week’s shopping list. Many in the audience found themselves working out their own lists during her performance. I’ve scarcely ever heard a singer as uninvolved in her role as this.

It is all the more irksome to report this, since arguably, as many agree, the women’s parts are better written than the men’s. Corinne Winters as Fiordiligi was another case of miscasting. I can certainly hear that there is some kind of a voice there. But it is not Fiordiligi’s. Maybe she would work as Mélisande, which I see that she has sung in Zurich. That is a very different kind of role. But in come scoglio as well as per pieta, ben mio, perdona, her top notes were harsh and ugly and her bottom notes too uncomfortably low to make an audible appearance. Her attire was wonderfully elegant and what little movement she made was tasteful and dignified. But there was no missing the inappropriateness of the voice. Miscasting again.

Semyon Bychkov paced the opera well throughout. The second act can sometimes drag, but here it didn’t. This means a lively pace has to be maintained almost throughout. Unless, that is, you are Otto Klemperer, when you can go as slow as you like and it will still sound all right. But he was lucky enough to have the incomparable Margaret Price as his Fiordiligi. Anyone thinking of singing that role should hear their recording. Bychkov should also be praised for the fine phrasing he drew from the strings and especially the orchestra’s fine woodwind soloists.

Jack Buckley


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