Così Fan Tutte

I watched a filmed production of this opera directed by Peter Mumford, with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

Programme Notes

Cast

Amanda Roocroft – Fiordiligi
Rosa Mannion – Dorabella
Rodney Gilfry – Guglielmo
Rainer Trost – Ferrando
Eirian James – Despina
Claudio Nicolai – Don Alfonso

Introduction

Mozart’s cheeky, light hearted opera was first performed in Vienna in 1790. It is a story that does not take itself too seriously, and yet provides touching moments of passion, love and guilt. Reflecting ever changing social attitudes, it has moved in and out of the standard performance repertoire, sometimes being considered immoral due to its theme of infidelity. Unusually for operas of the Classical period it has no single leading lady; instead there are four equally major roles which provides a pleasing symmetry and ample possibilities for ensemble writing.

Synopsis

Act I

Young lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo open the opera by singing rapturously about the beauty and faithfulness of their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. The older and wiser Don Alfonso tries to persuade them of the fickleness of women and the dispute ends in a wager. The two lovers agree to do everything Alfonso tells them for the next twenty four hours, in Alfonso’s attempt to prove that “all women are the same” (così fan tutte).

Dorabella and Fiordiligi are introduced next, praising their fiancés in equal measure. They practically faint with despair when Alfonso tells them that Ferrando and Guglielmo have been called off to battle. A military band and chorus accompanies their pretended departure, and Alfonso sings a wistful trio with the two ladies as the boat disappears over the horizon.

Later, in the sisters’ home, their maid Despina sings of the unworthiness of men and makes fun of their sorrow. Ferrando and Guglielmo enter disguised as Turks and make overtures of love to the sisters, but are rejected.

The disguised men feign attempted suicide by drinking arsenic. Despina, who has been bribed by Alfonso to help carry out his plan, disguises herself as a doctor and revives them.

Act II

Despina tries to persuade the sisters not to resist the Turks’ charms. They eventually agree to a little flirtation and the two couples separate in the garden. Dorabella gives in and accepts a heart shaped locket from her new lover, in exchange for the medallion Ferrando gave her. Ferrando is heartbroken by her betrayal when he finds out, and Fiordiligi is also upset, deciding to go into the army to find her fiancé.

Eventually however Fiordiligi also succumbs to temptation and the final scene opens with the two couples signing a supposed contract of marriage. The officers then return in their true characters, much to the distress of the sisters. The deception is finally revealed – the marriage is a fake (with a disguised Despina presiding over the ceremony), and Alfonso recommends to the men to forgive their fiancées, who cannot help their true natures.

Critical Review

This traditional production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutti is a feast for all the senses. The stunning costumes and beautifully painted backdrop transport us immediately back to eighteenth century Italy where this Shakespearian tale of romance and comical deception unfolds. Amanda Roocroft and Rosa Mannion portray the gaiety and sweetness of sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella beautifully – their duet in Act I is the picture of youth and innocence, their soprano voices blending together as one. In Act II Fiordiligi’s aria when battling with her guilt is particularly powerful and moving.

The male characters are equally well cast, and Eirian James plays a wonderfully saucy Miss Despina. In Act II, Guglielmo sings his frustrations about the fairer sex from within the audience, to their evident delight. As well as solo arias, Mozart treats us to trios, quartets and quintets; my favourite is the quartet in Act II where the two couples are drinking champagne to celebrate the imminent wedding.

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Music Publishing in the 18th Century

I found some interesting perspectives on the history of music publishing in a book available online: Music Publishing in Europe 1600-1900, by Rudolf Rasch. Mechanical printing techniques for music were first developed in the 15th century, and by the 18th century engraving was the dominant process. This century saw quite a difference in the way that composers earned their living – instead of being supported by patrons and being tied to a particular Royal court, they started to rely on publishing for their income and became more independent (though now at the mercy of publishers who would ultimately decide what was worthy of being printed). Publishing houses became bigger and started to collaborate with growing numbers of shops across Europe to disseminate printed music.

There seems to be evidence that the availability of published music encouraged the development of musical literacy in the general public, leading to more domestic music making. On the negative side, it’s possible that it contributed to a decline in aural ability as people no longer needed to learn music aurally. Perhaps most importantly, composers’ works were able to be played and heard within a much wider radius than before, and musical styles began to cross borders. It would be interesting to research how the performances of works changed when the composer was no longer on hand to instruct how they should be interpreted – I think this led to a need for more explicit notations rather than relying on conventions.

Mozart and Krommer

Mozart: Serenade No. 10 (Gran Partita)

Richard Edlinger | German Wind Soloists | Naxos 2000

Mozart’s serenade is written for 12 wind instruments and double bass. I have played an arrangement for strings in the past but I think it works best with the original scoring as the different timbres of the instruments add so much colour. The Adagio movement I think is particularly beautiful.  This movement has a steady, walking bass line throughout, over which the harmony is played on a characteristic slurred semiquaver upbeat. The first melody appears in the oboe line – a long note high above the harmony. I love the way the melodies are passed between the oboes and clarinets in a very natural way – one starting as the other finishes. There are some fairly large leaps in the melody lines, which works as the harmony parts are very bounded. The crescendos and diminuendos occur in all the parts at the same time, giving the sense that the instruments are almost a single entity, breathing as one.

Krommer Partita Op. 45 No. 1

Amphion Wind Octet | Accent 2008

The first movement contains some fairly fast triplet and semiquaver passages built on scales and arpeggios as well as some syncopation – it has a real feeling of energy about it. The last movement is similar, also containing accented off beats. The whole piece has lots of the Classical characteristics such as appoggiaturas, symmetrical phrases and firm establishment of the tonic chord at the ends of sections. I did slightly lose interest towards the end because of the constant use of tonic and dominant chords.

Mozart: Harmoniemusic zu le Nozze Di Figaro

Oktavian Ensemble | Preiser Records 2010

It’s interesting to hear the famous overture to this opera played by a wind ensemble – to me the strings are such a key part of the sound when the forte section kicks in, and this scoring can’t create the same power. Also when the fast string accompaniment sections are translated for wind instruments, it does give me a slightly comical sense of breathlessness! I thought the slower, lyrical parts worked better, such as Porgi Amor. There are so many famous tunes in this opera – I’ve never seen a performance of it but I recognised a lot of the music.

The Mannheim School

Mozart: Flute Concerto No. 1

Roderick Shaw | Swedish Chamber Orchestra | Patrick Gallois | Naxos 2003

This exercise asks us to listen to the first movement of the concerto whilst following the score.  Although it’s an Allegro movement, thankfully it isn’t so fast that it is too difficult to follow, and the limited number of parts helps too! I found following the score quite enjoyable – it made me more aware of the texture at any point in the music and more likely to notice some fine details. It also meant that it was possible to identify any differences between the performance and the written score; for example in this case the flautist plays several additional ornaments that are not written down.

Several Mannheim School characteristics are evident in this concerto. In the first  and last movements there are sudden dynamic contrasts from to p. The harmony changes are also generally quite slow, sometimes changing up to twice a bar but other times remaining static for several bars in a row.  The texture is mostly of a melody and accompaniment style, but the second movement does contain sections of homophony where all the sections move together.  The flute naturally has most of the solo lines, and there are just a few short phrases where the oboes and horn play by themselves, e.g. bar four of the first movement.

Period Instruments

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 26

I listened to two performances of this piano concerto:

  1. Christopher Hogwood | Robert Levin | Academy of Ancient Music (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBprBP9We0s)
  2. Sándor Végh | András Schiff | Camerata Academica des Mozarteums Salzburg | Decca Music Group 2016

One noticeable difference between performances by the Academy of Ancient Music and more modern performances is the layout of the orchestra – the cellos and basses are placed towards the centre with second violins and violas to their right, and the piano is embedded within the orchestra instead of at the front of the stage.

The main difference in the sound between the two performances of this particular piece comes from the piano which has changed radically since Mozart’s time; the early instrument created a much quieter, thinner tone which decayed very quickly, as a result sounding considerably more percussive to my ears. The woodwind instruments also look very different to modern instruments – the flute for example has a conical bore.  I think the difference in sound in these instruments is less pronounced than with the piano, but it seems to me that the wind section can be heard more clearly over the strings in the modern performance.

Another major difference between the performances is the pitch – the Academy of Ancient Music play the concerto at a lower pitch than today’s standard A440.  The style of playing is also quite different, the strings use much less vibrato than they do in the modern performance. The dynamic range used in the piece is significantly larger in the modern orchestra, and overall the sound is more resonant. It’s interesting to hear it played in a historically informed way but generally I think I prefer the full sound and expressive potential of the modern piano and orchestra for this work.

Haydn: Symphony No.79

Ottavio Dantone | Accademia Bizantina | Decca Music Group 2016

The Accademia Bizantina is an Italian early music ensemble. I really liked their performance of this Haydn symphony – it has a real clarity about it.  Style wise it has a lot in common with the Academy of Ancient Music’s performance of the Mozart, for example minimum vibrato on the strings. In this particular symphony the woodwind are often doubling the melodies on the strings, and I think the tones of the instruments blend well –  it definitely creates subtly different sound colours to a modern orchestra.

 

Amadeus

This 1984 film is a really interesting insight into the lives of Mozart and his contemporaries, especially the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The film features a huge amount of music from the Classical era – orchestral, operatic and choral, as well as improvisations on the harpsichord and early piano. Much of the music was clearly designed to entertain (e.g. in light operas or at court); this style has a few common characteristics:

  • Simple harmonies, revolving around the tonic, dominant and subdominant
  • Melodies based on scale patterns
  • The tonic established very firmly at the beginning and end of the piece, often with an ascending or descending arpeggio
  • Phrases created out of repeated rhythmical patterns

The more serious music such as Mozart’s Requiem is much more subtle, with more varied and unexpected harmonies. The choral works are often also quite contrapuntal, each vocal part given its own independent melody. I love the slow movements in Mozart’s works, where long notes are sustained expressively over changing harmonies underneath. A great example is the beautiful Adagio movement of his Gran Partita, which in the film Salieri views as a sublime work of genius.  Mozart’s D minor piano concerto which features briefly towards the end of the film is also one of my favourites – the sudden change to a major key after the dramatic introduction is so unexpected.

Classical Composers

There is a huge list of Classical composers on Wikipedia – most of them I had not even heard of.  Many are Italian or German. The prominence of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven is even more striking when you consider just how many other composers were active during that era.  Here is a shortlist of some of the more famous ones:

  • Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788) – second son of Johann Sebastian
  • Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787)
  • Johann Christian Bach (1735–1782) – youngest son of Johann Sebastian
  • Elisabetta de Gambarini (1731–1765)
  • Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805)
  • Antonio Salieri (1750–1825)
  • Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
  • Friedrich Heinrich Himmel (1765–1814)

Boccherini

Luigi Boccherini was a virtuoso cellist and wrote a large amount of music for the instrument, including 12 concertos.  He also wrote many symphonies and chamber music works.  The composer was born in Italy and spent some time in the musical centre of Europe, Vienna, before moving to Madrid where like many composers he served the Royal court. The heritage of Spanish culture can be seen in his music, and he wrote a number of pieces for guitar.  He was known to have been strongly influenced by Haydn in particular, who was born a decade earlier. I have made notes on some of his pieces here.

Salieri

I have come across the name of Antonio Salieri several times during my reading and research for this course – he was the director of the Italian Opera and had a big influence on the development of this genre.  He had a direct connection with Mozart, who was said to have been his biggest rival (they were of a similar age), and also became Beethoven’s teacher.  He wrote some sacred music, a small number of instrumental works, and 37 operas.  The works of both of these composers were not often played after the end of the eighteenth century, but have seen a revival more recently in the second half of the twentieth. I have made notes on some of his pieces here.