Sunday, March 06, 2011

Sunday Classics special: Remembering Margaret Price, Part 3 -- as Mozart's Fiordiligi


Is this the most beautiful music ever written?

MOZART: Così fan tutte: Act I, No. 10, Trio, Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Don Alfonso, "Soave sia il vento"
Gentle be the breeze,
Calm be the waves,
And every element
Smile in favour
On their wish.
Margaret Price (s), Fiordiligi; Yvonne Minton (ms), Dorabella; Hans Sotin (bs), Don Alfonso; New Philharmonia Orchestra, Otto Klemperer, cond. EMI, recorded 1971

by Ken

I'm going to be suggesting, as I've suggested before, that "Per pietà," Fiordiligi's second aria from Così fan tutte, which we're going to be hearing, may be the most beautiful music Mozart wrote, which means it may be the most beautiful music anybody ever wrote. I thought I would preempt some obvious jeers, since we're also going to be hearing this trio again (I don't mind hearing it repeatedly; in fact, I've been playing the above audio clip quite a lot while I've been working on this post) to the effect, "What about this, smart guy? Huh? Huh?" Surely, some readers are bound to object, this is the most beautiful music that Mozart or possibly anybody else ever wrote.

Could be. You'll get no argument from me. For that matter, we're also going to be hearing the two "separation" quintets from Act I, as the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are duped into thinking that their beloved boyfriends, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are about to go off to war.

Thus Do All Women would be a reasonable rendering of the Italian Così fan tutte, the last of the three unimaginably stupendous Mozart wrote to librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte, and the first that wasn't an adaptation of existing material. (The word "women" doesn't appear in the title, but of course "tutte" is the feminine plural form, so we've got to specify somehow that the "doers" in question are all female.) And it has conventionally been taken for granted that Mozart is having fun at the expense of the women in the cast. Oh, those babes! That's how they all are!

Unless, of course, you listen to the music, which we're about to do, in quick-sample form. Margaret Price wasn't quite 30 when she recorded Fiordiligi with Otto Klemperer (who wasn't quite 86). The recording as a whole is controversial, because it doesn't exactly sparkle most of the time. But then, I'm not so sure the opera is meant to sparkle. I argued, in fact, in The Metropolitan Opera Guide to Recorded Opera, that the Così is the least indispensable of Klemperer's four Mozart opera recordings (sadly, the Abduction from the Seraglio he was preparing for, and for which EMI actually scheduled sessions that had to be canceled, was never made), simply because so many of the discoveries had already been discovered, with perhaps more consistent executant success, by others, notably Eugen Jochum in his ground-breaking 1962 DG recording.

Klemperer with his Così score at the time of the recording

But on at least one count the Klemperer Così does remain indispensable: Price's Fiordiligi. In the click-through we're going to hear a sort of preécis of her performance, including of course both arias, and I direct your attention in particular to the first one, "Come scoglio." I don't think I've ever heard it sung with this combination of full-range freedom and security (and this music not only goes way high but dips down into virtual contralto territory) and tonal heft and beauty. And all the while she brings to it the quality of total commitment and seriousness.

You will often see stuff written about Fiordiligi's writing in general, and "Come scoglio" in particular, well, stuff like this by Noël Goodwin, from the booklet for the Klemperer recording: "The aria itself is a musical parody of "serious" operatics, and its wide leaps were Mozart's joke at the expense of the original singer who had a voice of unusual range (and also happened to be da Ponte's mistress." I raised this point with Margaret Price the one time I met her, probably a few years after the Così recording had been made. I had professed myself a wild admirer of her performance, and stressed that I was blown away by the seriousness of her take on Fiordiligi. She simply dismissed the idea that the writing is a parody, pointing out the obvious reality that exactly the same sorts of writing are to be found among Mozart's fearsomely difficult concert arias, which nobody ever suggests were intended as parodies. Hmm, end of discussion.

(Let me add that I would agree that da Ponte and Mozart are having fun with the mindless abstractions to which we're all prone as a substitute for actual understanding of ourselves and the world around us. But I think it's crucial to understand that they aren't making fun of Fiordiligi.)

If "Come scoglio" expresses the bold front Fiordiligi presents to the world, and perhaps more important to herself, the later aria, the ineffably beautiful rondo "Per pietà" (yes, the piece I keep suggesting may be the most beautiful thing Mozart ever wrote), shows us the quivering vulnerability it hides. Both the men and the women of the opera undergo transformation, but it's because the preposterous wager forces all of them, and the men in particular, to dig below their formulaic declarations of "perfect" love and fidelity to real human values. I've never heard anyone understand and communicate this better than Margaret Price.



Career beginnings (plus the Act I Love Duet from Verdi's Otello)

Part 1: From Handel's Messiah to Wagner's Tristan, emerging in Mozart

Part 2: The Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (plus "Or sai chi l'onore" from Don Giovanni)

Still to come: A career in song, plus non-Mozart roles (Weber, Verdi, et al.)



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At 11:07 AM, Blogger Orwell's Bastard said...

Player won't play, but I found it on YouTube. Gorgeous.

At 11:18 AM, Anonymous me said...

Yup, the link doesn't play.

Here it is on youtube:

At 11:37 AM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

Strange... it works perfectly well for me

At 11:44 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I've had some trouble with some clips. I think the server is just slow on the uptake at the moment sometimes with some of them. But yes, I think there are significant chunks of the Klemperer COSI on YouTube -- thanks for being so creative, guys.


At 11:57 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

FURTHER THOUGHT: All of the clips do work, though I've re-embedded the "Sento, o Dio" one twice -- even though there was nothing wrong with the previous version. If you have trouble now, I hope you'll come back and try again later.

I know that they've been having problems with their server, and at these prices I guess I can't complain. Still, it's disappointing. But trust me, the music's all there waiting to be squeezed out.


At 2:15 PM, Blogger Al Tecacca said...

The short answer is 'yes' it is the most beautiful music ever written.


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