Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Know your limits

Went to the opera yesterday, darlings, to see Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. “That was simply lovely,” said the bloke next to me as it finished, which made me wonder if we’d seen the same show. He’d also been humming along and air-conducting, bless him.

Yes, it was jolly, lively and expertly staged and performed. The lead blokes looked strapping in breeches (I’m told), and the ladies were rather yummy too. It zipped along, directed with pace and excitement. But there’s something troubling about the story itself, something subversive – even sinister, as the Dr said.

Two Italian chums are dating pretty sisters and everything in their lives is just peachy. But the chums’ mate knows that women are fickle, unfaithful and devilbitchwhores, and bets the chums he can prove it.

Under the terms of the wager, the chums tell their girlfriends they have to go off to war, then return later in the day in different clothes and fiendishly good moustaches and pretend to be lusty Albanians. With poetry and flowers and the feigned taking of poison, they try to make their own birds unfaithful.

The women resist piously into the second act, but pushed by their slutty maid they ultimately give in to some naughties. And the wearing of another man’s pendant. To make things all the more galling for the chums, they’re bedding each other’s missuses.

For such a wild comedy, it ends on quite a lot of questions: will the couples stay together? What have they learnt? Can they be happy? And, depending how it’s staged, who ended up with who anyway?

The men, of course, are just as badly depraved as the ladies – testing them so duplicitously in the first place, and for a wager, and then doing the dirty with their best friend's lady, just to make some kind of point. This irony is not exactly acknowledged in the words of the singing.

Also, that they protest so strongly about female inferiority and sinfulness immediately makes you suspicious about who really ruled the roost when Mr Mozart was writing. You wouldn’t have to insist that women know their place if they were already meekly obedient.

(Sometimes I gaze wistfully at the Dr and pray the words “meekly obedient”…)

By protesting too much, the opera implies the weakness of patriarchy. It confounds the usual guff about universal and transcendant love, and the “happy” ending denies real closure. It may seem silly and giddy, but there’s something vicious and political in its underbelly.

Mozart got in trouble for writing stuff that upset the dignified courts of his day. In another one of his, a working class hero runs rings around his master, just prior to real working class heroes lopping their masters’ heads off. Not exactly the most tactful thing to set before the Austrian king.

Now I know there are lots of people who don’t “get” opera, let alone like it. But I think that’s a question of not knowing where to start with it – a bit like girls and science-fiction. (Yes, there are wondrous and pretty girls who know their Alan Moore and Akira. But these are – in my paltry experience, anyway – a terribly rare, terribly precious sub-species, who must be treasured, protected, cultivated and encouraged to breed.)

This may well be to do with reading strategies – of the kind I’ve gone on about before. Opera is usually a century or two old, with in-jokes about people who’ve been dead nearly as long. It helps to have an idea how to engage with the stuff.

This is not as difficult as it sounds, and can consist of three easy steps:
  1. What’s Opera, Doc?
    Yes, the Bugs Bunny cartoon. If you are unmoved by this, give up now. Not just opera, give up the whole breathing thing, too.
  2. Frasier: Out With Dad
    It starts with Frasier’s dad muttering that opera is all so improbable and silly, and develops into glorious farce as Martin tries to help out with his son’s love-life.
  3. The Marriage of Figaro
    Don’t bother with what it’s about, just get the CD and have it on in the background. Don’t pay attention too closely, but play it through a few times. Do the washing up, or some typing.
No, that’s all you have to do.

Nice, isn’t it?

Balls to the dressing up posh to go hear it live – though that can be fun too. (Yesterday was chilly, especially after I’d given up my dinner jacket to the frail princess.) It’s just tunes and a bit of a silly story that’s good to listen to, and which can have something a bit more to it if you’re looking.

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