Middle English Word of the Moment

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Chaucer and Mozart: Twin souls!

Alright, so the last post wasn't really mediaeval in subject. Neither is this one - but it has a mediaeval connection, in that I leap-frog from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Mozart along a common thread. Never mind that each leap is 200 years long.

I was chatting to a cellist friend, who's staying in this house while rehearsing for an audition for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. She mentioned that she'd like to get to know the operatic repertoire a little better, and... well, it ended up with me having one of my besotted little raves about the three Mozart/da Ponte operas, particularly my favourite, Così fan tutte.

For those who don't know it - well, it's easy to summarise. Remarkably easy, for an opera. One of the reasons I love it is for its beautiful structure - it has a lovely symmetry, both musically and dramatically, which makes it a joy to listen to and gives it the perfect action curve for a theatrical piece. There are six characters - three women, three men (two sopranos, one mezzo, one tenor, two basses - symmetry!), consisting of two pairs of lovers, their older male friend (Don Alfonso) and a ladies' maid, Despina. Don Alfonso makes a bet with the headstrong, enthusiastic young men that, despite their passionate belief in their lovers' fidelity, no woman can possibly remain faithful. They're not made for fidelity, and so "così fan tutte" - all women behave like that. To prove the women's fidelity, the younger men agree to pretend to go off to war, then to dress as foreigners and each attempt to win the fiancee of the other man. Eventually, it works; a wedding feast is prepared, and in the middle of it the men slip off and return in their own persons to upbraid their erstwhile fiancees for unfaithfulness.

A two-sentence summary like that is a little misleading. The young men (Guglielmo and Ferrando) take most of the active verbs, reducing Don Alfonso's role to the initial bet, their lovers' to passive ciphers, and leaving the maid Despina out altogether. But Don Alfonso and Despina in fact run the whole affair - Alfonso is the puppet master from start to finish, and lets Despina think she is one too, though he doesn't let her in on the whole affair and she is, by the end, reduced to humiliation with her mistresses. Despina also provides an important thematic counterpoint, in that she tries to urge the women on to love, asserting feminine independence from men and their ability to choose their own path (while Alfonso maintains they have no choice but to fall), and pointing out repeatedly that men are just as unfaithful as women, if not more so. The summary, however, is not misleading in one thing: the two noblewomen (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) are passive. But to what degree, and just how - this is the critical problem!

Whenever I explain Così to anyone, I usually find myself excusing it. Don Alfonso is proved right - women are like that - so it can come across as horribly misogynistic. Its performance history has suffered from that - I believe in the nineteenth century it was rewritten to have Despina reveal the secret to her ladies early on, so that they are only playing along for most of the second act, and turn the tables on the men in the final scene. But you see, knowing the opera, and knowing (to a certain extent) Mozart and his librettist da Ponte... I can't believe that we are meant to watch it so superficially. If it were a work of non-operatic literature, no one would believe that was the intent. Perhaps operatic audiences are just too used to having morals on the surface, simple but very loud answers, tragic or comic. If the point of the opera were simply "ha, see how faithless women are!" we would be laughing at them by the end. But we aren't - the level of sympathy and the psychological depth in the music of the women - particularly in the second act, when they feel themselves beginning to give way - are such that we increasingly rebel against Don Alfonso's instructions - just as the young men are becoming too drawn in to back out. We can't lay blame easily - the women are played on, Despina is just going along with her cheerful philosophy of 'do unto men as they do unto us', the young men pledged their honour as soldiers to obey Don Alfonso's instructions for 24 hours in the blithe confidence that they would win the bet easily, and Alfonso - well, the indignant lads forced him to promise to prove his assertion, at swordpoint. Over breakfast! And the final scene is heartbreaking. They have to marry - there's no other way forward, no other way to end the opera and insist that it is a comedy, Alfonso and social expectation and genre constrain them, but the music... how on earth are these couples going to ever trust each other, or anyone else, ever again?

It's generally believed that the opera was commissioned - Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart did not have the freedom to choose their plot, could not decide that the women would remain faithful and disprove the adage, but they could choose how they treated it: spreading the blame, exposing the cruelty to all parties involved of the situation, the plot, the actions of the characters that weren't meant to be cruel, that were all a bit of fun until... And suddenly, as I was explaining this, I realised that this line of argument was familiar - not just from my own previous rants about the opera, but from much more recently:

For which right now myn herte ginneth blede,
And now my penne, allas! With which I wryte,
Quaketh for drede of that I moot endyte.
For how Criseyde Troilus forsook,
Or at the leste, how that she was unkinde,
Mot hennes-forth ben matere of my book,
As wryten folk through which it is in minde.
Allas! That they sholde ever cause finde
To speke hir harm... (Troilus and Criseyde, IV.12-20)


Ne me ne list this sely womman chyde
Ferther than the story wol devyse.
Hir name, allas! Is publisshed so wyde,
That for hir gilt it oughte y-noe suffyse.
And if I mighte excuse hir any wyse,
For she so sory was for hir untrouthe,
Y-wis, I wolde excuse hir yet for routhe. (V.1093-1099)

And so on. Chaucer's uneasiness with Criseyde's fidelity is well-known, of course, and there's little point quoting more of it. But the attitude in both cases seems to me very similar. The essential difference, I think, is the necessary lack of authorial presence in a stage production. But is it necessary? Not really. It's easy enough to add an authoritative moral presence - either through a consistent moral message that's easily detectable (often put in the mouth of the chorus), or physically, in the form of a character whose opinions are meant to be taken as sound judgement (and who is usually, in opera, disregarded, otherwise the tragic ending might be tragically averted). And then, of course, there's the even simpler expedient of sticking to plots that completely fail to challenge the audience's judgement at all and go for their effect by either tickling or punching in the belly. This is the majority of opera.[1]

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that disrupting the easy moral closure of any theatrical piece requires conscious effort on the part of the composer/playwright. Well, either that or extreme carelessness. Which brings us to our convenient midway point, he who made a theatrical piece out of Troilus and Criseyde, he who was the expert at avoiding giving us any hint of his real voice: William Shakespeare.

But even for Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida is remarkably unstable in terms of a moral base. The introduction to the play in the Norton Shakespeare[2] details admirably the competing codes for evaluating actions and events that are thrown at us in a dizzying array within just the first few scenes of the play. Those of them that do recur are never finally resolved, unless it is to be proved insufficient. The only character who might be seen as finally admirable is Hector, and his code is, finally, not sufficient either: we see him abandon it for the sake of glory when he agrees to sell away Criseyde so that he can have his duel with Achilles, and his adherence to it in the end deprives Troy of its greatest protector, Priam of his son, Andromache of her husband, his son of a father, his city of a future. Nothing that is presented to us in the course of the play suffices to judge it: they are all proved limited points of view, belonging only to the characters that speak them, incapable of comprehending the whole world. The scene that brings this most sharply into focus is quite near the end: the scene in which Criseyde, in the Greek camp, finally gives herself to Diomedes. She and he talk in the centre; she comments on her own actions; Troilus and Ulysses watch and comment on that scene; Thersites watches actors and watchers, commenting on all of them; and the audience sees them all. The instability and limitation of every judgement passed onstage is witnessed by the final set of watchers, putting them in a privileged position and inviting them to judge for themselves, but demonstrating in the process the limitations of any judgement at all.

So why the distancing? why the instability? Is Shakespeare disassociating himself from the story, drawing back as Chaucer the narrator does? I don't think so - at least, not in the same way. But certainly, to focus specifically on the question of harsh judgement on the fickle woman - it would be much harder to ascribe any comments passed about her in the play to Shakespeare himself than it is to, for example, imagine him agreeing with the final dismissal of Don John as a villain in Much Ado About Nothing. His attitude to Cressida, so far as it can be detected (which is barely at all) doesn't seem to me very similar to the attitudes of Chaucer and Mozart/da Ponte to their unfaithful women; but there may be a thread of connection there.

Mozart and da Ponte don't dissociate themselves to nearly the same extent. Neither have a narrative "I" to intrude into the theatre - but Mozart was literally in the theatre, remember, dominating the performance in a way that Shakespeare couldn't, even as an actor. As a conductor, he led it, and as composer... well. He gives it a soul which is much easier to trace, to feel, than grasping through printers' errors and actors' amendments for Shakespeare's meanings. The warmth and tenderness in his music, the wit and the humanity and the delicate distinctions in the reactions of parallel characters in identical situations... they are human, where they could so very easily remain ciphers to the plot, as the women seem determined to remain ciphers to social constructions.

... And now I think of it, there are a remarkable number of eavesdropping/spying scenes in the opera too - especially in the second act, where the seduction starts to take effect, and the characters start to obsessively analyse their own actions and feelings, as well as those of the others onstage.

That was entirely too long a post, wasn't it. If anyone read to the end - well done!

I did mention Mozart makes me rave besottedly, right?

[1] As a former singer who adores opera, I have licence to say so, just as I'm allowed by virtue of nationality to poke fun at Steve Irwin's accent.

[2] I don't remember who wrote it, and my Norton is in Melbourne and I am in Adelaide. This will have to do for a citation for now.

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