Sucker punches

I was listening to the Rene Jacobs (Harmonia Mundi 1999 I think) recording of Cosi fan tutte last night. There is a DVD of this that I rather like — it’s I think the Zurich opera from just a few years ago. This one. I read a professional review of this before I bought it, and the reviewer commented on the one (as he put it) “stunningly weird” directorial touch at the end, which is that Fiordiligi accidentally drinks poison and dies. The poison first makes its appearance at the beginning of Act I, and there’s a lot of stage business with the little bottle of it through the whole thing, so it’s not like it came from nowhere, but still, that reviewer has a point.

At the same time, I can see the impulse to pull weird shit with this opera. It’s sort of fragile, dramatically. What I mean is that none of the six main characters can be either completely sympathetic or completely repellent — the fact that these are not necessarily people we might root for is what gives the thing its punch: the music often takes their emotions seriously, while the drama doesn’t. (Also, if you listen carefully to the accompaniment to the recitatives, you get the distinct impression that that piano is fucking with them and/or you.) This is a story about rather silly people getting themselves into a situation where they are feeling fairly serious things. Talking about music is like summarizing literature — inanity risk: high — but much of the music in this opera has a double-edged quality: it acknowledges feeling and mocks it at the same time. Or, so is my impression, at least.

Which is why I can see the appeal of poisoning Fiordiligi. This opera is made for that kind of sucker punch: it’s possible to play it too straight, or too sweetly, and end up with a mess. This is why I’m a fan of versions that end with the four lovers staring at one another in increasing bewilderment, sort of like the ending to The Graduate.

Of course, there are sucker punches and there are sucker punches. Poisoning one character works — it functions as a sort of, ‘hey, you do realize how ambiguous and weird all that was, right?’ More than that and I suspect it would read as either Blackadder-esque or Wagnerian, and neither of those are places that you necessarily want to take a Mozart opera.