Perhaps opera needs comedy to be properly serious…
In one scene, two girls are being abandoned by their lovers, who are going, so the girls think, to war. In fact, it is part of a bet about whether the girls will be faithful in the face of temptation. But as the boys sail into the sunset, the girls launch into a farewell song of such shivering sincerity and sadness, that the boisterous tone of japery is utterly subverted, and the audience is moved – as much by the beautifully judged change of dramatic register as the perfectly weighted phrases of the song.
Singing with the girls, apparently joining in their sorrow but actually the instigator of the wager is an older man, whose drooping bass-line shows that, for all his weary cynicism, he is momentarily captured by the girls’ emotions.
Over a hundred and fifty years after Mozart’s Cosī fan tutte, another absurd, and absurdly affecting, operatic scene. A feckless young man has married the bearded lady from the fair, purely for notoriety. He is bringing her home in a carriage, already tiring of her prattle merely hours after their wedding. He steps out of the sedan to be confronted by his former, abandoned, lover. They instantly fall into song together, as they always did – but he is summoned by his imperiously demanding new wife. Who was that? she asks. A milkmaid I owed some money, he replies, knowing his hurtful remark will be overheard.
And the crowd – the paparazzi – gathers round, calling for the bearded lady to remove her mask and show them her hairy face. With pompous ceremony she does – the music echoing her foolishness, and the foolishness of the crowd: a shabby mock-grandeur that is the essence of bathos.
But at this moment of total ridiculousness the audience is aware of the young man’s being caught between two women, one offering love, the other fame. Although of his own making, we feel for him in his dilemma. As the strutting freak he has married laps up her adulation, a moment which is set up to be broad comedy, becomes tinged with a genuine, and surprising, sadness.
As Stravinsky began work on The Rake’s Progress in 1948 he asked his publisher to send him the full score of Mozart’s Cosī fan tutte, which, according to Robert Craft, he studied at great length.
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