Monday, August 31, 2009

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Phoenix: Libretto Problems, Part IV

So somewhere in there, JoJo & I ended up spending an afternoon with a total genius, a friend of a friend of ours—you know, the kind of guy you can talk to about Leoš Janáček or William Blake and you really want to hear what he has to say on either subject. At various points we talked about Così fan tutte; we talked about Cymbeline. I'd never read Cymbeline! I went right home and did that. And I noticed something weird. See—wait, have you read Cymbeline? Oh, you haven't. Well, it's the story of Princess Imogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline of Britain. (FUN FACT: the name "Imogen" was probably invented for this play. Except that it's actually supposed to be "Innogen"—"Imogen" is probably an error in the transmission of the text. So everybody named "Imogen" is actually named after a typo?) Imogen's husband, Posthumus (and in the unlikely event that you are named "Posthumus," you also have this play to thank) has been expelled from the kingdom because her parents don't approve of her marrying somebody of such modest means, apparently? Really her wicked stepmother is to blame, because she wants Imogen to marry her idiotic, hot-tempered son, Cloten. There's also a pair of long-lost princes in there somewhere, obviously, because you always need a long-lost prince or two. Oh and an invading Roman army. So what happens is, the exiled Posthumus and his friend Giacomo the ancient Roman make a bet over whether or not Giacomo can seduce Posthumus's gal. Posthumus claims that she is totally faithful, but Giacomo insists that no woman in the world is totally faithful. (Is this starting to sound familiar?) Well, Giacomo meets the lady in question, introduces himself as a friend of her husband, and, wowed by her beauty, says:
If she be furnished with a mind so rare, She is alone th'Arabian bird, and I have lost the wager.
By "the Arabian bird," he means the Phoenix, my helpful footnotes point out. But okay now is it sounding familiar? Because that's the moment at which a little bell went off in my head! This is, essentially, the same plot scenario as Da Ponte's libretto for Così fan tutte—and isn't that pretty much the same figure of speech, even, that Don Alfonso uses on the boys in that opera?
Woman's constancy Is like the Arabian Phoenix; Everyone swears it exists, But no one knows where.
Crazy! So what does it mean, this correspondence between Shakespeare and Mozart? I guessed there were a number of possibilities: OPTION #1. Da Ponte, as we know, was familiar with Shakespeare, and was quite the magpie. Did he have Cymbeline in mind when he wrote Così? OPTION #2. Shakespeare was a magpie too. Could both of them have borrowed this line from the same source? OPTION #3. Maybe "a faithful beauty is rare as the Phoenix" is just the sort of thing people used to say in olden times. Fortunately I recently found out about these things called "books," which apparently contain just this sort of information! I asked JoJo if he had any suggestions, and he did, and more about that in a minute, but first he asked me, "What exactly are you trying to find out?" Which gave me pause. I was investigating a small, specific link between the two texts—and the link was undeniably there; all I was doing now was determining whether or not it was intentional. If it were, would that help me to understand either work any more deeply? Or was I just falling into the old high-school essay trap of treating the text under consideration as if it were a mystery to be solved? (Like Oedipa Maas, mistaking clues for evidence.) JoJo quoted George Saintsbury: "I have never myself had much of a fancy for Quellenforschung, and plagiarism-hunting as a sport appears to me to rank only one higher than worrying cats"—"worrying" here meaning, like, "torturing." But I went source-hunting anyway. One of those books I checked out was the extremely helpful and well-written Cambridge Opera Guide by, as luck would have it, one of my favorite undergrad professors, Bruce Alan Brown! PLUG: If anybody out there wants to get to know Così a little better, I highly, highly recommend this book, which even by the high standards of the Cambridge Opera Guides is charmingly written and well-rounded. Brown places the piece in a Big Picture of philosophy, art and literature, while also scrutinizing the internal workings of the piece. Anyway, as it turns out, both Cymbeline and Così are probably based on a tale from the Decameron (by which I mean, Cymbeline is obviously and perhaps directly descended from the Decameron; Così is more of a variant.) But there's nothing in Boccaccio's story about the lady being like a phoenix, so that seems to scratch off the aforementioned option #2. Option #3 is far less sexy, but seemed increasingly more likely than #1, and sure enough, we find that both Da Ponte and Shakespeare returned to the phoenix as an emblem of female chastity on more than one occasion—such as Da Ponte in his earlier Una cosa rara libretto and Shakespeare in his perplexing poem, "The Phoenix and the Turtle," which is about a phoenix and a turtle who get married. Just kidding, it's about a phoenix and a turtle-DOVE who get married. The trope makes a sort of sense: a phoenix is beautiful; it burns (as with ardor) but consumes itself aone; it remains solitary (being a totally unique creature); and yeah, as implied by these passages, it's really hard to find one (see last parenthesis). So, is it reasonable to suggest that the audience might be expected to put Shakespeare in mind when we hear these lines? Well, I'm not totally ruling it out here, but I'm disinclined to say so. Not because Cymbeline was nearly as unpopular during Mozart's time as it is in ours (it was apparently a pretty hot ticket back in the 18th c., apparently?), but because there's another, very specific allusion in play here—the Don's aria is an almost exact quotation from an earlier libretto by Actually this post is already a little long. Let's continue this discussion next time in LIBRETTO PROBLEMS, PART V, a slightly deeper discussion of Da Ponte's sources for Così fan tutte, and this passage in particular.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer "worrying" cats.


September 1, 2009 at 6:58 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Posthumus or Postumus is the name given to a child who is born after his father has died. Anyone named that does not have this play to thank, but probably the fact that some relative's education included some Roman history or, more likely, enough Latin to reach Horace's ode addressed to someone of that name: Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume, labuntur anni...

September 1, 2009 at 8:21 PM  
Blogger Dan Johnson said...

Oh. Duh. Ha. I'm starting to think I should just not write anything, ever, without first running it past the vastly more intelligent JoJo. NEVERMIND, EVERYBODY.

September 1, 2009 at 9:09 PM  
Blogger Brian Robinson said...

I have nothing more intelligent to say than that it made my day seeing the panel from Claremont's X-men used in reference to a discussion about the Bard and Mozart. Huzzah.

September 10, 2009 at 4:08 PM  

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