Così fan tutte reveals how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart revised an apparently light-hearted theme to turn it into an incisive drama that lifts the veil on human nature with great finesse and irony. Following on from Pelléas et Mélisande in April, this Mozart masterpiece is the second opera Ludovic Morlot will be directing this spring. As the resident conductor of La Monnaie’s Symphonic Orchestra, he evokes the subtlety, profundity, and complexity of this extraordinary score.
With Pelléas et Mélisande and Così fan tutte this season, you are taking on two great works from the operatic repertoire. What guided you in your choice?
First of all, I adore both of these works. Each one in its own way is a culmination, a theatrical and dramatic success. Also, from the start, I wanted to do a work of Mozart’s with the orchestra as well as one from the French repertoire. For me, Così fan tutte and Pelléas et Mélisande are ideal, perfect works, where each note has its function!
How do you see the aesthetics of this and the manner of working?
First I look to the pace, the forms, the structure, and also quite simply at how to approach the orchestration of Mozart and de Debussy’s music…the tones, the bow-strokes, their intensity, vibrato, phrasing… All of these elements directly influence how it all comes together with the singers and the stage… What these works also have in common is the subtlety of the text, the intimacy (and indeed even ambiguity) between the text and the music… If possible they have to be played in a small theatre like that of La Monnaie as this allows the audience to not only be really close to the action, the drama, the text, but also to hear all the intricacies of the orchestral play.
Where do you place Così fan tutte in the Mozart/da Ponte trilogy?
In a way, Così fan tutte is far more complex a work than one is generally aware of. The rapport between text and music is truly fascinating. So what exactly is the degree of parody throughout the work? Is there not more gravitas to Mozart’s music than can be glimpsed through da Ponte’s text? There is certainly a kind of ongoing ‘contradiction’ in the ensembles, a passage from farcical to poetic, from the sombre to the burlesque… At the same time a parody and a despair-ridden, very earnest, vision of the relations between lovers. I can’t wait to see how Michael Haneke tackles this rapport between text and music. Act II of Così is magnificent as the essence of each of the characters ultimately comes to the fore more individually. And, despite the fact that everything goes back to how it was before, nothing is ever the same again. Therein is the tragedy of it… and what makes this such an extraordinary work. I find it more interesting than Don Giovanni or Le Nozze di Figaro as far as the libretto is concerned, be it in terms of dramatic, theatrical, or even poetic composition.
Would that have anything to do with the liberties Mozart takes in relation to the text? Could it be said that his music seems more knowing, more eloquent than the text?
That’s one way of looking at it. In this particular work, I think it’s impossible for there to be a definitive interpretation. Take, for instance, Fiordiligi’s aria « Come scoglio ». It’s always sung so seriously, but maybe it shouldn’t be! Too much more emphasis on the farcical than Mozart intended his music to convey? So how simultaneous can the expression of contrariness in Così become? Just as one starts believing in a sentiment… seconds later it is thwarted and runs into contradiction. Tenderness intermingles with the frivolous and sensuality is immediately veiled by a kind of naivety… Is there not more to this than one might be led to imagine?
The orchestra will be playing with modern-day instruments. So what are the most important elements of this musical production?
Oh, this will of course influence the rendition, especially the sound structuring compared with period instruments. It is impossible today to overlook the work already accomplished in this field in recent years. However, most important in Mozart’s music, in my humble opinion, are the tempi as well as the rhythm of the narratives. I spend a lot of time looking at how the different tempi interrelate and exploring a ‘pace’ so as to make each number as dramatic and pertinent as possible while keeping it vocally ‘natural’. Mozart was such a dramatist that all of his music can be regarded as ‘vocal’ and ‘theatrical’. When you really think about it, his symphonies, his chamber music, and his concertos are but ‘sketches’ reflecting the splendour of his lyrical works. In each of his musical themes, one has to discern a character, a personality… So that’s my approach to Mozart… theatrical and individual. And that goes for his operas and music in general. As in Pelléas et Mélisande… with its lengthy narratives… the great difficulty of this repertoire is to find just the right tone, just the right rhythm…
That brings us to actually working with the singers… How are you going to go about this given that they are preparing the production in Madrid with another conductor?
I want to take the time and be free to go through the recitative passages with the vocalists here in Brussels! There’s no need to fear any ‘reworking’… even if the outcome is the same as in Madrid. The main thing is to have a common understanding. This is obviously not about ‘reinventing’ anything. It’s about having the opportunity for all the performers to delve deeper into the work together. That’s the beauty and magic of our quest to evolve creatively. As soon as a recitative phrase takes on greater importance for any one conductor or director, its focus can shift - and then it’s an all-round metamorphosis! When it comes down to it… that’s Mozart for you! Until the end of our lives… there will always be more questions than answers…
And that is especially so in Così fan tutte, which ends on something of a question mark.
Indeed! And as you study these operatic figures you realize that it’s very difficult to gain insight into who any of them really are. The ambiguity is astonishing! Take Despina for instance. What extraordinary depth to that character. A servant maid throughout and yet she is the counterbalance of Don Alphonso and displays extreme intelligence. One crucial point in my understanding of this work is the issue of conflict between two generations… Between those who have experienced love and no longer believe in it… and those who still do... As the music grows in earnestness, I can really identify with the opposition of a certain kind of pragmatism on the one side and that of the idealism of youth on the other. Guess which side I’m on?
Interview by Marie Mergeay