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Commentary

The Italian garden at Westonbirt
09 Jul 2015

The ‘Other’ Così

Twin sisters – one pensive, the other gregarious – are soon to wed their beau, whose contrasting characters – one earnestly introverted, the other a boisterous hedonist – perfectly match their respective betrotheds’.

The ‘Other’ Così

By Claire Seymour

Above: The Italian garden at Westonbirt

 

But, the meddling of a ‘master-of-ceremonies’ transposes their personalities and tangles the pairings: confusion and consternation reign as the mischief-maker carries out his ‘experiment’ with the antithetical couples. Sounds familiar? However, this is not Così fan tutte, the third of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations, but Antonio Salieri’s La Grotta di Trofonio, which had its first public performance at the Burgtheater in Vienna in October 1785 and became a huge popular success.

1780s Vienna was a network of alliances, allegiances and jealousies. Men of letters such as Lorenzo Da Ponte and Giambattista Casti joined the leading composers of the day – Martín y Soler, Mozart and Salieri – in competing for the cultured Emperor Joseph II’s patronage and favour. Friendships were formed, hostilities nurtured; grudges born and reconciliations engineered.

Bampton Classical Opera previews their 2015 production of Salieri's "Trofonio's Cave' (La Grotta di Trofonio)

Though subsequently demonised by Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, it was Salieri, Emperor Joseph II’s Hofkapellmeister, who was most esteemed by his contemporaries. In his somewhat unreliable Memoirs, Da Ponte described Salieri as ‘a most cultivated and intelligent man […] whom I loved and esteemed both out of gratitude and by inclination’; but when their first collaboration, Il ricco d’un giorno, flopped in 1784 the composer wasted no time in blaming his literary partner, declaring that he would sooner cut off his own fingers than accept another libretto from Da Ponte. The success of Mozart’s Il nozze di Figaro in May 1786 seems to have encouraged Salieri to reconsider his assessment of Da Ponte’s literary skills. Two extant trio drafts discovered by musicologist John Rice in the National Library in Vienna suggest that Salieri began work on a setting of the Così libretto in the late 1780s but, uncharacteristically, abandoned the work: perhaps his dispute with Da Ponte concerning the librettist’s pasticcio L’ape musicale was the cause behind his decision, or simply waning creativity?

Whatever, it was Mozart who was to pick up the discarded text. How ironic, then, that Salieri’s own La Grotta di Trofonio, with a libretto by Casti, seems to anticipate the satirical artifice of Mozart’s comedy of 1790. And, beyond the meticulously wrought symmetry of both operas, there are striking similarities between some of the ensembles. Even the casts overlapped: having taken the role of Aristone, the girls’ father, in La Grotta, four years later the veteran buffo bass Francesco Bussani stepped into Don Alfonso’s shoes, while Francesco Benucci swapped the role of Salieri’s magician, Trofonio, for Mozart’s Guglielmo. Cast as the contemplative Artemidoro by Salieri, tenor Vincenzo Calvesi was Mozart’s first Ferrando; restored to his serious self, Artemidoro sings a cavatina, ‘Sognai, o sogno ancor?’, which has much in common with Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amorosa’.

Indeed, Così – like Salieri’s opera, an elegant essay on the deceptiveness of desire – might be said to engage in a musical and dramatic ‘conversation’ with La Grotta. But, in the words of Jeremy Gray, director of Bampton Classical Opera, “Does Mozart pay some sort of homage to Salieri, or is it rubbing salt into wounds …?”

Bampton Classical Opera perform Salieri’s La Grotta Di Trofonio – directed by Jeremy Gray, conducted by Paul Wingfield, with a new English translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray – at The Deanery Garden, Bampton on 17 and 18 July; at The Orangery Terrace, Westonbirt School on 31 August; and at St John's, Smith Square, London on 15 September 2015.

Claire Seymour

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