Sunday, November 22, 2009

Symmetry and comedy

We went last night to Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Oberlin! What a great opera! And what a great job these students did!

Here's one of the many wonderful things. To figure this out, I have to do a little of the plot. Two sisters are in love with a couple of guys. They (the guys) are persuaded by a slightly nasty friend, Don Alfonso, to test their lovers' fidelity by leaving and then coming back in disguise as Albanians to court the girls. One guy succeeds, and we watch him courting and the girl responds, pretty joyfully. Then, obviously, we have second guy.

Classical music is so formally constructed that of course what we expect is another scene where guy #2 courts girl #2 and succeeds. It doesn't happen that way: he pleads, and she not only resists, she completely changes the kind of opera we are watching. She (and, yes, she does have a name: Fiordiligi) sings an aria that should be in a tragic/heroic opera, full of immense leaps of the voice, intense phrases, and self-recrimination that doesn't belong in comedy. This is a woman, and an opera, for which decisions have consequences.

Here's a YouTube video of Liah Persson singing the aria. 

And of course that's completely averse to comedy, where there are (almost) no consequences. The opera ends that way: the guys in disguise have won over the girls. Everyone has pretty much been a jerk, testing their lovers (no one should do that!), falling for some clowns that appear unannounced and unnamed (not a good idea)...  But at the end the music just takes over. The opera's ending, so of course we need to resolve things. There's really no time to make the resolution come out of their characters, or histories, so it's just imposed.

Why not? A memo to myself (who tends to believe in symmetry and consequences): Does everything  have to work predictably?


Tom Copeland said...

Here's to symmetry and consequences all the time!
However, a wise person once said, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds!"


gtimson said...

Nick asks "Does everything have to work predictably?" --

Here is an appropriate quote:
"...[Norman Mailer] was trained at Harvard as an engineer, and I have a
theory that the mind of an engineer, though well suited for many things, is ill suited for either literature or politics. For the engineer everything must connect; while the natural writer or politician knows,
instinctively, that nothing ever really connects except in what we imagine science to be. Literature, like the politics of a Franklin Roosevelt, requires a divergent mind.
Engineering (Mailer and Solzhenitsyn) requires a convergent mind. Compare Roosevelt's inspired patternless arabesques as a politician, artfully dodging this way and that, to the painstaking engineer Jimmy Carter, doggedly trying to make it all add up, and failing..."

I recently read the fine book from which I take this quote, Palimpsest", by Gore Vidal, and would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the arts or politics. Yes, there is the occasional queeny gossip item that you expect (the Duchess of Windsor shortened her life willingly so that she could keep having facelifts). But it is full of insights like the one I quote above, and Vidal, grandson of a senator, stepbrother of a First Lady, knew just about everybody worth knowing in the mid 20th century.


--George Timson