così fan tutte and a portrait of the artist as a young man

così fan tutte

(live from the met at the odeon south woodford)

as with tosca, i was surprised, and pleased, at the level of dark, serious stuff, but this time more so, as superficially it’s a comedy

spying on their women to settle a wager on whose is the most faithful opens all sorts of unpalatable doors – plugging in to a tradition which goes back to livy: lucretia, sextus’ rape, brutus’ expulsion of the tarquins and the birth of the roman republic

as in shakespeare’s comedies of romance and disguise, the layers of identity provoke much of our deeper response; with people playing people playing people (and the fact that they’re singing doesn’t help), fun and games can never be far away, but neither too can darker notes of gender conflict; the fake wooers’ insistence that their targets are, because they reject the advances, to blame for their attempts at suicide reminds me of amia srinivasan’s recent lrb article about a school shooter’s claim that his murderous actions were the fault of girls who rejected him

in livy nearly tutte the women così fan – only lucretia is not partying with beaux; in mozart it’s 100% (of the sample of two); amia discusses how some men require (at least some) women to – così should tutte; but in all three everything is anchored in what men expect or desire – as the met interviewer said, it’s important to perform such pieces ‘to see how far we’ve come’ (‘and how far there is left to go’); it’s hard to see how the story(ies) could be interpreted from within a female view – but no doubt people have

but the music…? oh yes – the music; dunno really – it was nice i suppose – that’s my problem with opera

a portrait of the artist as a young man

five big chapters in an autobiographical novel:

  1. the young man’s early boyhood
  2. his later boyhood
  3. his confrontation with, and initial acceptance of, religion
  4. the young man rejects religion for art
  5. a new artist picks his way forward

chapter one takes stephen from infancy through to his successful complaint to the rector about his unfair ‘pandying’ (beating) by father dolan

chapter two ends with stephen desiring to sin, and achieving his aim with a prostitute

chapter three, the centre, deals with the spiritual retreat and stephen’s response: stephen feels remorse for his sin, but cannot repent, and the priest gives, in gently spoken lectures, a clear and terrifying account of the tenets of the jesuits’ catholicism, in particular the nature of sin and its consequences in hell; the chapter ends with stephen, with great difficulty, finally repenting of his sin with confession, absolution, and then receiving the eucharist

in chapter four stephen is living a rigorously pious life, yet when the director, in response to this change, suggests stephen join the order, he realises that he will never be a priest, and rejects catholicism for a life dedicated to artistic endeavour – religious too, but in his own way: dedalus creates his own path, flies with his own wings; the epiphany (reminiscent of one of bloom’s) is watching, and being watched by, a girl on the sands – the sensuality of this moment provides a surrogate religious ecstasy

chapter five has stephen at the university, discussing the nature of art – his newfound mission in life: there’s a progression from the lyrical (an artist’s cry of emotion) through epic (where the focus is midway between artist and reader) to drama, where the artist has been effaced; stephen engages in further conversations with e.g. cranly, macallister, davin and lynch about art & politics, and the chapter and book end with a series of stephen’s diary entries

portrait is, like ulysses, a reworking of a greek myth – not that of odysseus but that of daedalus; is there an icarus? perhaps one of his later interlocutors? someone who tries to follow stephen but falls to earth?

the title reveals levels of artifice (a word used often – ovid’s daedalus (referred to in the epigraph) is an artifex): firstly in betraying its nature as a work of art, and secondly as ‘a portrait of x as y’ could either be showing ‘x in his time as a y’, or ‘x in the (fictional) guise as a y’, as ‘lord byron as a lion-tamer’: was joyce ever (such a) young man? is joyce inventing a young man such as joyce the adult might have had?

How they are related

The opera: two men, happily engaged, recklessly risk their relationships in a locker-room wager – yet all ends well. The novel: one man, torn between two lives, nearly chooses the worse but ultimately chooses the better. In both our hero(s) nearly bring disaster onto themselves, but come out OK.

Mozart’s pair’s claims to love are false. Stephen’s path to his conversion to Catholicism is via the ersatz love of prostitutes, yet Stephen’s final choice affirms this as a more authentic life than that of the soulless dead state religion (the epiphany of the girl on the beach takes us back to his earlier encounters in the alleyways). In this way Joyce rejects the social conventions of his and Mozart’s worlds.

In Stephen’s theory of art, drama, in that it effaces the artist the most, takes the highest place. Mozart’s opera embodies this in spades, as it is a drama containing another drama, as his male lovers act other roles – so they even efface themselves. But this is not a good thing, and leads us (with Joyce or against him?) to question Stephen’s theory: is it right for an artist to disappear from their art? Stephen’s final choice seems to affirm the individual, to put the artist centre stage, as it were, in the limelight. And Joyce’s work is, at least, in part, an autobiography – he is not following the strictures of Stephen’s theory.

Stephen’s theory of art coincides with Mozart, but his affirmation of life, in all its messiness and reality, (which in the end dominates our interpretation of the novel) leads us in another, modern, direction.

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