Problems & perfections Three modes of perception in Mozart: the philosophical, pastoral and comic in Così fan tutte Edmund J. Goehring Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2004); xvii, 301pp; £45, $80. ISBN 0 521 83881 9.
COSÌ FAN TUTTE has long been perceived as a problem opera. Across two centuries, critics have found a mismatch between the text variously called frivolous, immoral or untrue to nature - and the music, which almost everyone but Wagner has judged sublime. Early in the 19th century, widespread criticism of the libretto provoked a number of German translations and adaptations that attempted to remove the challenges of Da Ponte's subtle drama, reducing a sophisticated philosophical comedy to an expression of simplistic hedonism. What could be lost in such a translation can be seen by comparing Da Ponte 's measured concluding lines, uncannily resonant of The magic flute: 'Happy is he who [...] through trials and tribulations is guided by reason [...] amid the tempests of the world he will find sweet peace', with the facile ending of Treitschke's version (1805): 'Happy is he who easily forgets the pain of faithlessness [...] To make life happy, all one needs is a light heart'. It is no wonder that the critic in the Berlinische musikalische Zeitung, hearing this travesty, failed to grasp the intimate connections between music and text, and asserted that 'The opera is not an opera, but rather an outstanding concert piece'.
Così was not always so misunderstood. There is some evidence that its initial reception was warm. And although we need not take Count Zinzendorf's mild praise ('charming') as proof of widespread approbation, the number of performances and the box-office receipts support the claim that Cost was 'the most successful opera of the 1789-90 Viennese season'. Goehring takes this initial appreciation as his starting point, seeking to read the opera as Mozart's contemporaries might have read and enjoyed it. Through a study of its literary and musical heritage, and above all its genre, he reveals the complexity of the opera's vision, the scope of its ambition and the extent of its achievement. His study focuses on three aspects of the opera: the enigmatic Don Alfonso, the ambiguous Despina, and the nature of the comedy in Cosi, poised between the false realism of sentimental drama and traditional buffoonery.
Goehring's method is to set these investigations in the context of contemporary thought, drawing on an abundant repertory of literary and operatic sources. Don Alfonso as philosopher is compared (and, more to the point, contrasted) with operatic portrayals of ludicrous, pompous, Latin-mangling stereotypes. Goehring carefully detaches Alfonso from these caricatures. His Alfonso is a faithful spokesman for Enlightenment science; a pragmatic empiricist, his pronouncements are grounded in common sense and distinguished from the mockheroic mode of the lovers and Despina's guilt-free epicureanism. Seeing Cost as an experiment in natural philosophy does much to explain the nature of Alfonso's authority - neither meddling nor gratuitously cruel. His philosophy is not of a particularly abstruse or theoretical nature: textually and musically he expresses himself in the aphorisms of popular wisdom, and here I part company from Goehring, who finds in the citing of common proverbs and pithy quotations from Sannazaro and Metastasio evidence of Alfonso's poetic thought. But both in his words and especially in his music, Alfonso's language is surely prosaic. Poetry is the domain of the lovers, and the contrast between their inflated cadential tropes and Alfonso's neatly articulated phrase endings, where musical and verbal sense perfectly coincide, points up the difference.
One of Goehring's most ground-breaking initiatives is to uncover elements of the pastoral mode in CosL Pastoral in opera is an elusive language, never quite a genre, but rather a collection of symptoms and …