My brother told me the other day there was no sex in Tristan. You don’t have to be a close member of the family, or even very familiar with the opera, to know that he was not talking about whether or not Tristan and Isolde manage to achieve physical union before Melot and the King and the rest of the court interrupt them; I have always regarded that moment as the biggest coitus interruptus in music. Granted that they are `inter-assured of the mind’, as Donne puts it, the question is academic. My brother decided somewhere around 1954 that there was no one to touch Mozart in opera and the view has sustained him into late middle age. His visit to Tristan had confirmed him in his view: I told him once that Tristan was the opera in which Wagner explores the idea that indulgence of sensual feeling is the source of human redemption, whereas Parsifal presents the opposite view, that abstention from sex, if we can manage it, is what ultimately saves us. What my brother was saying was that if that was the best Wagner could do, it was fine in its way but it wasn’t a patch on Mozart.
He was really interested only in the da Ponte operas and often talked about Figaro, where the domesticity of the situation clearly appealed to him, but rarely about Don Giovanni, and hardly ever about Cosi. I suspect that at sixteen he found the idea of the Count having his way with the delicious Susanna overwhelmingly exciting and, of course, he felt the opera to be about `real people’ despite all that distasteful business of the droit de seigneur – simply invented by Beaumarchais for his own dramatic purposes; I don’t think there was historically such a feudal due in any European country. Don Giovanni’s mythic element and supernatural end…
… sweet love) two years later in the Ave Verum Corpus to accompany the words in mortis examine. In the quintet Alfonso laughs behind his hand but he plays a similar part in the deceit in the next number, the hardly less heavenly trio, Soave sia il vento. `Non son cattivo comico’ (I’m not a bad actor) Alfonso says immediately, almost in case you have been carried away by the music into thinking he meant what he has just been singing.
‘Ow we know? We know because Mozart tells us. Even if we had forgotten the trick in Figaro he warns us unequivocally at the start of Cosi, and we must be prepared for anything after that. The whole performance is so stylish and exquisite and evocative of Dresden china and Sachertorte that it’s easy to forget, of course; Mozart is like a skilful conjuror who can surprise you with a trick even though he reminds you to expect it.