From The Writing Desk: Stages, Chapter 15

Chapter 15 is up, with many thanks to the beta input of The Duchess.

We have left the chapel, perhaps we should get engaged, stupid things people say at opening night receptions, and other issues at hand during an Aix summer night.

I’m reverting to alerts here and posting the chapters in the Pages section, because with the design overhaul, the reading space on pages (sans the tag column) is larger and more comfortable.

Just follow the sound over here.

46 thoughts on “From The Writing Desk: Stages, Chapter 15”

  1. I don’t know whether in keeping with all the recent Seria madness (as well as the LFG story-line) you might be tempted to permit the customary Seria ending to this story – you do know what I mean don’t you? And you needn’t answer my veiled question, at least not directly.
    And as for the best – and cutest ‘Voi che sapete’, imho, Rinat Shaham owns it completely.

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    1. Oh yes, Shaham is wonderful. Choosing just one Cherubino proves impossible for me – so many facets, so many good singers…

      A seria ending: yes and no. (Definitely no larger focus on senior paternal figures, though!

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    2. Oh, what fun to browse these voi che sapete clips and it also helps to get the mass in b minor Sanctus out of my head which has been following me half the night after it was mentioned in the story.
      Rinat Shaham’s version is lovely indeed! I much prefer Cherubino to be sung by more lyric types or even Sopranos (Christine Schäfer’s version is also very nice), while i.e. Maite Beaumont’s version doesn’t work so well for me.
      But there is one you shouldn’t miss and maybe, Anik, you have shown the link before but it’s not on the youtube list so, find Marianne Crebassa’s Berlin version here:

      (I promise I won’t mention her again for at least 10 comments, but couldn’t resist here)

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      1. oh, no need to wait for 10 comments! 🙂
        I really like her version (there are so many aspects to Cherubino, I love the differnt takes there are, independent of which works most for me (oh, this one does!)) – but I was already pretty gone when she appeared at that Minkowski Mozart gala in a bowtie.

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  2. Take another look at Shaham and see if you don’t see what I see – the gawky and intense tidal wave of adolescent confusion and uncertainty which accompanies sexual awakening, particularly when it catches up to a little dykelet in her coming out experience. Innocence is changing, and the rose is going from white to red before our very eyes. There is nothing frail and anemic here, but instead all the emotions struggling with each other. Love is no longer just a dream but an awakening, and this charming Cherubino is not just a little putto posing on the periphery of a painting or a child appealing to motherly instincts, but someone who will fast learn how to turn liabilities into assets. This slightly off-balance unsure gaucheness is going to transform itself and become a huge advantage when it is employed to disarm and charm the socks (and no doubt other crucial items of clothing as well) off women. You can see how Röschmann is already succumbing – as I know many other women in this little Casanova’s future doubtless will.

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    1. beautifully described, inkbrain – can we get you to talk about more of your favorites? 🙂

      With Cherubino, I simply cannot settle for one. I like the brash ones and the melancholic ones, the romantic ones and the bratty ones, the ones a little too young or a little too old, and those that put everything together. I want all 1003 of them – there are so many possibilities, some more convincing and more endearing that others. I try to (and sometimes fail) not to find one portrayal perfect to the exclusion of other possibilities, even if I connect to some much more strongly than to others.

      With Agathe, a few days ago, we mentioned the staging of trouser roles in a spirit of toxic masculinity, however nicely wrapped. I had to think about Cherubino there, too, and how Ponnelle has him sing the Champagne Aria before the last finale. I always found that fitting (and it is), but now I am thinking about whether it is the only way of looking at it and if the Casanova trope is perhaps also buying into toxic masculinities. (during editing this chapter, the Duchess and I ended up talking about Don Giovanni and Don Giovanni scholarship – well, more like I went off on a rant – so it’s very close to me right now, and I will have think some more about Shaham!)

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      1. Exactly, I am always a bit disappointed of Cherubino by the obtrusive way he approaches Susanna/La Contessa in the finale. Maybe that’s why I like him portrayed quite young and a bit fragile, so he can get away with that.

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    1. That is another fantastic example of the scope the role – it was one of the first portrayals I saw (senza voler, senza saper captures it to a t), and at the time, I must have been the same age as Ewing’s Cherubino, I did not appreciate it at all. By now, I find it to be one of the most intriguing takes I’ve seen – starting with seriously staging him as “half a child” – Ewing makes him look like a putto, the term inkbrain mentioned. On a side note, why is it that mezzos who also sing Carmen seem to be so good with the unsettling sensuality aspect of Cherubino?

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  3. Well, there is a huge difference between a Casanova and a Don Juan/Don Giovanni isn’t there? One has a huge susceptibility and tenderness for women and the other is a cad who prefers quantity over quality, and furthermore I think he doesn’t really love women at all.
    I too have been thinking about your comments on “toxic masculinity.” I have to ponder a little more and allow my intuition to guide my perceptions before I can be clear. I hope that if mezzos are now being made to play trouser roles from this unfortunate perspective that it will be a short-lived phase.
    But there was something else you said about the ‘Romantic’ operas and of your seeing those heroines as being punished for their desire. I saw them differently –  as presenting an eloquent plea or a strong argument against punishing female desire. In opera no one sides with the crypto-moralists against the heroines. And I think I know why I saw especially the female bel canto roles this way. Growing up, as I did at the tail-end of old school gay culture, I naturally acquired the habit in my mind’s eye of transforming male romantic leads in movies etc into lesbians. Heterosexuality has always seemed slightly bizarre and slightly incomprehensible to me, and I just couldn’t see it in the context of romantic love. When you mentioned that tenor roles used to be sung by contraltos, I gained a whole new, and natural to me perspective. So I have been mentally re-structuring the whole romantic pageant in opera in that light.
    And again, I love Shaham’s Cherubino because she is brimming with that fluttering, palpitating energy that flirts so well with pure (vs impure) seduction. Impure seduction is very much of the Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva types. I see the seductiveness shimmering around Cherubino as an assertion of same-sex female desire that is untainted with guilt or doubt about its rightness – in other words my ideal. Cherubino is diffident only because women are so beautiful and mysterious and so very desirable, and right now a bit unattainable. Just look at the welter of emotions they are so effortlessly able to provoke. That’s why I prefer Shaham’s Cherubino to others that seem bloodless in comparison. Nothing about Voi che sapete makes sense if Cherubino is puerile and asexual and has limp wrists to boot.

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    1. Thank you for conntinuing this – reading Cherubino as awakening queer desire is an excellent chiffre which restructures you passionate argument for me. Also that concept of pure/impure seduction (which also weighs in heavily when it comes to discussion of queer desire).
      I’m thinking about how our different paths to the material have us come up with different foci – romantic opera is a good example for me, and I think I will have to go back to it with your argument in mind (I make a split between belcanto – up to Lucia, more or less – and then romantic repertory that is completely beyond the contralto musico setup) because I think my zoning in on women characters being emotionally tortured and then killed (“emo torture porn”, to put it in a provocative phrase), with being given very little agency in the plot unless it is internalized destruction, stems from getting into romantic opera as a “straight” (little did I know…) pre-teen. I ate up all the great het romances with no regard at all to how women were treated: much like the music, I romanticized everything. My favorites were Aida and Tosca, for a time. I can pinpoint turning 13 (Cherubino age, ironically), experiencing first confusing, conscious attraction to women, and falling into Mozart seria. My position on romantic opera is tainted by feeling duped by it, by realizing how gullible I had been in romanticizing abusive storylines. You rewrote things with agency in mind, focusing on the protest to the torture. I am still influenced by being aghast at having bought into abuse as romantic: I lacked your agency.

      Giovanni vs. Cherubino: agreed! I find it more interesting to look at them not as “me” and “mini-me” (to borrow from Austin Powers). I understand that one *could* look at Cherubino as some sort of Giovanni-in-the-making, it is just not what I find to be the be-all-end-all of it, and I tend to get impatient with unquestioned purporting of toxic masculinity. And that happens so much in music scholarship (and in staging, too)!!
      One of my pet peeves is the Kierkegaard-heavy tradition of Donna Anna’s dilemma being that she is attracted to Giovanni (tying in with some Freudian offing of paternal authority through desire) and that Ottavio is such a bore and OF COURSE she would actually want Giovanni. Complex undercurrents, all good. But I find it very dangerous to look at Anna as a romanticized image of “oh, she actually wants this” without even thinking, for one moment, that Anna is A SURVIVOR OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE. It’s all we ever see Giovanni do: approaching women with menace. Same with Zerlina (with Elvira, we only have Elvira’s accounts). So much of the Giovanni tale hinges on the conditio sine qua non that he is irresistable (Mozart is irresitable, he is not), and all women just illustrate his power. Yes, I know, historical context, and a lot of it harks back to gallant love vs. romantic love, pre-Enlightenment, but audiences tend to NOT be aware of that. And to sell an unreflected idea of “all women want this man and exist solely in relation to this man, and that’s how things are and it’s romantic and she may have sung ‘no’, but of course she meant ‘yes’ and she is just ashamed of admitting it to herself” is promoting rape culture and I cannot keep from at least adding that aspect to the complex net surrounding these figures.

      Back to Cherubino: my perspective is likely shaped by having been on the directing side of things for many years. I cannot say one interpretation is perfect, or “it”, because with every new mezzo (or even soprano) whom you have step up to it, you have to believe that this can turn out into an ideal performance, and you have to keep your mind open for a new take, their take, or you will do your production a disservice. Things might not work out, but respecting your singers is, to me, placing the trust in them that it *could* work out.
      As a teenager, I read an interview with Lucia Popp on the 1979 Munich “Rosenkavalier” that infuriated me because she called it “the perfect production” that no other one could ever hope to reach (I paraphrase). Back then, I could not articulate my reaction to it: I was mad. Of course the KLeiber production is epic. It’s magic. It’s on of those moments where everything fits. What I object to is describing such a moment as the ONLY moment where everything fits. What Popp’s judgment did, to me, was devalueing my viewing experiences, and it was taking away my future viewing (and staging) experiences, too, already coloring them through a lens of “less than”.
      Semantics: There can be just one “perfect” interpretation. But there can be more than one *ideal* take on a matter.
      It is something that has always stayed with me, that interview and my reaction to it, and it has always informed my theatre work, and, to an extent, it is also informing my viewing of performances (and even my academic work). It is a touchstone to make me remember that however strongly I connect, on an emotional level in particular, to one production, that I always need to give new singers and new voices the space to come with an interpretation that may turn out to be just as valid, and just as touching. I may not be able to imagine it at the time, but I do not want to make the mistake of devaluing someone else’s view of something through the lens of my experience.
      That said, I do not really think of Cherubino as having “limp wrists” (even though flexible wrists are a core feature of Baroque gesture, also when it comes to coding masculinity, so that’s an interesting point, too), per se, but I believe that the right singer, and/or the reight director, could make me see that approach and accept it.
      (And thank you for making me think about all this and write it down!)

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  4. I have to admit that for me everything boils down to how deeply someone playing a role can immerse me in their character’s predicament. That to me is at the very heart of things. In the end I don’t care about how the sexes or the genders are presented, because I can pass all that through my own lens. But I do care about how the actors/characters settle and live and die with the dramatic problem with which they are coming to grips or not coming to grips. What those non-seria operas told me was that love is an intensely powerful and dangerous thing.
    We cannot know what Elvira found to love in Don Giovanni or what did the Countess found to love the Count. It could be just a given that the plot required them to and they did. Perhaps we are just meant to say let love be love, or perhaps that love can be sorrowful and disappointing.
    I don’t know about Anna – not everything the composer and librettist set up for us is going to work. Is the Don irresistible, or are some women, for their own compelling reasons, just drawn to cads? Or is Anna just immature?
    We do agree that Cherubino could never be a Giovanni. I see the Shaham Cherubino as a burgeoning dyke, whose greatest desire in life would be to do her best to please women in whatever way women wish to be pleased. I see no incipient toxic masculinity there – just youthful desire. And it is remarkable to me that on the very cusp of youthful love, Cherubino is able to hold a mirror up to himself/herself and take serious stock. On the other hand, Don Giovanni had no ability at all to self-reflect. He is a predator and a rapist in the grip of some sordid sexual compulsion
    When it comes to punishing female desire, consider how it is that Countess Almaviva is punished (from my perspective) for her desire, very much as you describe any ‘romantic’ 19th century opera heroine. She (Porgi amor) achingly loves her sleazy husband, who we all know will go on being sleazy until some suitably distasteful disease takes him to his grave. Does this mean that Mozart uses the romance/abuse dynamic too?
    The conclusion I come to is that we do not inevitably have to romanticize abusive story lines, but nor do we have to anathemise them. Sure, Aida and Norma and Tosca are romantic heroines, but they are not just about romance and betrayal. Romance is there, but it is the token of a much bigger existential conflict. At least these women have a solid core, unlike the badly damaged Judith (Bluebeard’s Castle) and Lulu.
    And it is not only Lucia speaking, it is Donizetti speaking, it is Sir Walter Scott speaking, and so on. And I think what they are saying is, treat women better, and don’t thwart them, because if you try to make them into puppets who serve your purpose they might just suddenly cut their own strings and break free and lunge at someone’s heart with a sharp weapon.
    And returning to Don G, remember, he was a character created by a priest, who had a different agenda from Mozart, even though Mozart was compelled to preach the priest’s sermon for him. That is why the Don is more or less a stick figure with a splinter for a heart. From among all the women he seduced can’t recall even the name of a single one.
    I apologize if I seem to have made too strong a case for my Shaham Cerubino. I didn’t categorically say she was the best, but I admitted I preferred her version to all others, and I attempted to explain why. I can’t help it, hardened fossil that I am, that I deem many others to be effete.
    What draws me to trouser roles is not just the brilliant sleight of hand and eye with gendering that goes on there, but the degree to which some mezzos manage to embody both female virility as well as virtue. The best trouser roles show me that virtue and virility come from the same root. We know that custom assigns virility to men and virtue to women but an exceptional mezzo in pants with erase that false distinction. I recognised the bud of that in the RS Cherubino. Female virility is also why VK’s Sesto was, is and always will be for me an absolute stand-out, and the same with Fassbaender’s Octavian. I do see why Popp might have expressed herself as she did, but what was perfect for her does not have to be perfect for anyone else. ‘Perfect’ does not have to be taken in an absolute Platonic sense. It could mean many other things. It is not a case of zero sum.
    Not mentioning the Shaham Cherubino again, but you know….

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    1. Please feel free to mention the Shaham Cherubino all you want to, it is a pleasure (and food for thought) reading your case for her performance!

      I like your perspective of combining (female) virility and virtue, in a single (female) body, possibly through masculine (but is it, really?) engendering. That is a beautiful, succinct capture and is close to my own experiences with Mozart seria.

      What your comment made me think about is authorship and viewer authority.
      Much of our recent comments are a blend of rethinking author’s intent and drawing upon very current-day theories and experiences in looking at works, and it changes the reception fundamentally.
      Personally, I am no friend of the “but this is (not) what the author intended” reasonings the kind of which often surround regiethater productions. In most cases, we do not know what authors intended, we *cannot* know, and even if we do have material, the passage of time still changes our perspective on things and requires an acknowledgement of that change to enable an honest connection with the text.
      On another level, texts are of course always more than an author’s intention (how much does end up in any given text without intent!), and take on new life in each reader’s (director’s, singer’s, viewer’s) perception. Hm, I am probably protesting another instance of the “one and only version” of something here… 😉

      This makes an approach to texts difficult (taking my own case here, because I continuously struggle with it) because on one hand, when I argue a case e.g. against culinary misogyny in much of romantic opera, I write as a 21st century feminist who is belligerently aware of tropes like the virgin/whore one. And I cannot unsee that, or unthink that. On the other hand, I try to approach older operas with an awareness for historical context. In a time where women were belittled and considered half-children who mainly consist of emotion, of course the context for writing women changes (who, are on a structural level, of course also projections written largely by men – with the curious perversity in romantic opera that the staged, languid sacrifice of female desire for a final establishing of order was written by men for women to consume, identify and comply – I think it was Ian Biddle who pointed that out in “Masculinity in Opera”. Good read!). So I cannot ignore history, neither can I ignore the present; where does that leave me in analyzing, in making arguments?
      We cannot pretend that we can fully slip into the historical context; we cannot pretend to leave our own biographies to the side. I try to be aware of those, yet I often find in my work that a lack of information has me draw wrong conclusions, or miss valid links and thoughts. (then, of course, what is “Wrong” in viewing? An interpretation can never be “wrong”: you see what you see, based on your understanding of a text. An interpretation with a deeper knowledge of the source context may be more informed, but it is not, especially in artistic contexts, automatically more “right” than another. Just more informed. Yet it is something I expect directors to strive for, no matter on what focus they settle, but given the impossibility to get it perfectly, I cannot truly blame them if they fall short, especially if they manage to create a meaningful, honest and engaging reading of a work regardless. That said, I usually find things to be richer when there *is* a heightened awareness of context.)
      Don Giovanni is a prime example (I apologize for singling this one out, but I have two faculty colleagues who have their research focus there).
      Don Giovanni, and the entire da Ponte trias, are set around a shift in the enlightenment-fueled creation of romantic love as a life concept. In all these three, you have the older conception of gallant, seductive, passionate love (also linked to aristocracy) interacting with the new bourgeois concept of emotional possession and commitment as a defining factor. Add to that the state of women’s rights and what am I doing when I rant about Anna and rape culture and sexual violence? It’s things I cannot unsee, yet the source context still worked with hugely different ideas of romantic and sexual connection, and a different economy of desire.
      Of course there are human themes that speak to us through all times, in all tales: yet those are always colored by a certain historical context, both theirs and ours. We all just relate to tropes and archetypes, no matter who wrote them down when in what version.
      Is the Count a sleazy husband or a regular husband? Is there a difference to 1780s viewers? Is the Contessa – born out of aristocracy, and having largely organized her own marriage, with considerable agency – a victim of emotional abuse the way 19th century heroines are? Does not her plotting and scheming and ultimate success (no matter how you stage it) put her on a different plane of agency? Does the buffa stance not imply a vastly different take on the world than romantic seria-successors? Will the Count go on as before if we believe in the musical epiphany of “Contessa, perdono”? All up for debate, for interpretation.

      And back to Giovanni (and my dear colleagues whose works I am referencing): “Don Juan” is not the creation of a priest, or of any author, even. One could argue whether he is a character since he is not contained by diegesis. Tirso – who got into a lot of trouble for his comedia writing precisely because it was so un-priest-like – merely wrote down one version of a much, much older myth (think “Faust”), a specific configuration of figures. I don’t know if the Pedro/Juan pair appears in Ines de la Cruz’ writings (I remember your expertise on her), too? In larger Hispanica context…
      Juan leads back to pre-Christian myths of the feast with the dead and the crossing between world and otherworld. The seduction (and Tirso precisely called his collection of the myth ‘el burlador’: seduction is still a game here, and romantic love still holds no place, and the ‘burlar’ is applying to a much bigger context, too, with masking/unmasking and challenging the dead and duping them) is only one facet, and not the important one – different to Da Ponte/Mozart later, who of course also still carry on the old link to the feast with the dead that was present in Mozart’s Vienna far into the 18th century. “Juan” was played at one of the comedy houses, on All Hallow’s Eve, for decades. Fiesta de la Muerte!
      And you travel to Spain today, and you still find Pedro and Juan as a cultural configuarion within the myth, in proverbs and tales, woven into the fabric of how we perceive and structure reality.
      Do I think about Giovanni differently in having learned all this? Of course I do. Does that mean my thinking about “Giovanni” before was less valid? I like to think that no, it was not. It was simply less, or differently, informed. This brings me back to what Agathe said yesterday, about “while my approach to opera may be an emotional one…”, which seems to imply that it is less learned, and therefore less valid. I oppose the idea of a learned engagement with a text being automatically “better” than a primarily emotional one, particularly when it comes to viewing and experiencing theatre. Every viewing, every interpretation is valid. And then our interpreations change, become more aware, shift in focus as we learn, and talk to each other…
      Thank you, all of you, for turning this space into such an inspiring place of different perspectives over the past weeks.

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      1. Oh Anik, I would love to respond to you here, but I fear I might bore, offend and alienate your readers if I do. They might be thinking the equivalent of “shouldn’t you take this conversation outside, because its getting too loud in this bar, and the rest of us want to have our drinks in peace”.

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      2. I only just read your longer reply in “the manual” discussion round, thank you for that, and would like to add, that I never have the feeling of my views not being regarded as valid here, while at the same time (I cannot say it often enough) I just very much appreciate the opinions and impulses of people obviously having done so much of (professional) thinking on opera as well as of others with a more emotional approach. So, Inkbrain, please don’t take the conversation outside, it’s not boring at all!

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        1. Thank you Agathe, you are most kind. I don’t want to seem like the drunk who is spilling her drink and leaning across the table to shout! This is turning out to be a huge and deep and complicated discussion, and I am afraid of being too loud and insistent with my so very personal and subjective views. So I will wait for Anik to decide whether we drop the discussion or continue for a while.

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        2. Don’t some of the best epiphanies happen while ranting loudly late at night in a bar with the beverages sloshing over the rims of our glasses?

          As long as we continue with respect for our passion, a passion for reason, and reasoning to connect and inspire each other, I say carry on, and thank you for bringing so much energy and so many avenues to the table! And if anyone wishes not to read on: they will simply not do it.

          I may have to take myself out of the equation somewhat for the next few days (I say that, and already know I will likely succumb to new ideas having been sparked by this exchange) because I am so behind on next week’s lectures it is not even funny. All because I found it so much more interesting last night and this morning to think about authorship, which I blame on you, inkbrain 😉

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          1. Ok, so I’ll take all the blame and any lumps that go with it! Please excuse my lack of editing and my typos – I see some in my previous comments, and there are bound to be more here. So here I am, downing my drink and ordering another.
            No, of course you cannot “un-see” the tropes and contrivances you find offensive, but you can pare them down to the nub and look to see what you might find there. You can in fact see around it and on the sides of it, and you might be surprised at what might be hiding in plain sight. There is a lot more to operatic heroines than abuse in the form of romance and punishment for the crime of desire.
            Perhaps we can never know the precise details of an author’s intent – but we can know what we ‘take’ from an experience. I tend to think that in Mozart’s opera the Don was a kind of overdrawn lecher, who had to be punished for the sake of public morality. Though his challenging of the dead, has profound metaphysical implications, in the opera it boils down as the means of bringing about a morally unambiguous ending.
            I am in agreement with you that there is not just one valid interpretation of a story/plot/aria. But I am saying that for some of us there is sometimes one which is preferred above all others, and I think there is no harm in that. In fact, you are showing me the path to a more humanised Don, which was something that had completely escaped me before this moment.
            I guess I don’t take as much exception to the ‘offensive tropes’ because I see them as a means to an end, and frequently a short-cut to that end, which is to give us an experience of elation. It helps me get past all the non-essentials (compulsive ratiocination) when I am utterly transported by the music and the rapture of the performance.
            I think when it comes to non-seria/romantic opera, both men and women get a heaping portion of punishment when they recklessly engage in non-bourgeoise liaisons. Sometimes we can’t even tell what is being punished for example, in the case of LCdiT Sesto, is it treason that brings about the (suspended) death sentence or is it love-induced treachery? And look – here we have a seria ending with a loose thread! And Anik, please don’t take that as your cue for ‘Stages’! Your answer to me of “yes and no” tells me that half of my heart may yet be broken.
            Opera is personal to me, and I take that position because for me there is no ultimate ‘objective’ position to be had in a multi-layered narrative. It is possible that you share some version of this view as well. Maybe there is only one summit, but there are many slices of the view from any peak. I tend to see the story-line as just the form on which the arias and dialogue are suspended. I don’t want to go so far as to say any device will serve as such, but you know what I mean….
            With regard to the Count, I ask why can’t he be both a regular husband as well as a sleazy husband? When it comes to human nature not much seems to have changed in two and a half centuries. What is significant to me is that he makes the Countess suffer and that she suffers because she has deep feelings. He does not suffer because he does not. It is the same with DG. That is why the devil has to intervene to make him suffer.
            In ‘real life’ it is one who loves and wants the least who leaves most easily, but the beauty of this trope is that it shows so well that the winner is really the loser. The Count will repent for a moment or two, and maybe bring along a gift of flowers or jewels or candy, but he is a reprobate and he will never be chaste or faithful – of course he will go on as before! Yes, the Countess, despite all her efforts, is made to suffer, but the Count, the one who loves the least is the real loser, because it is the capacity for love that ennobles human nature and gives it profound depth. That’s another evidence of my fossilized condition. There is a price to be paid for that, but I think the alternative is to waste ones life. So I circle back to saying that (the Countess) being punished for love may not, after all be a punishment. Is it possible to see that as something contemptible? And to see it as a woman embracing her abuse and her abuser? Of course! I am making your case here, which is that there are several possible completely logical and valid perspectives. We could even write a story called “Is this what happened to Rosina?”
            And you are right in pointing out there here are many ‘generations’ of Dons going back in time. Tenorio (who looks like he might just have been on the verge of surrendering to love) is just one of them. These figures are protean, and a writer is free to pick and choose the one that best serves the story.
            And yes virility and virtue go together like a horse and carriage, because both are essential in love. I am glad you like my observation! When it comes to seria love and romantic love, who knows, we might end up converting each other. We each have a deep resistance to the other’s ideal. I see The Enlightenment as being a deeply flawed detour into the realm ultra masculinist thinking. You see ‘abusive story lines’ in the romantic genre’ in a similar light. Not that I idealize romantic love, but I see it as an aspect of life which has endlessly recurring reverberations and implications. I see seria as artificially trying to manage love and prune it like topiary meant to decorate the garden of a head of state, and I see the romanticizing of love in later operas as a reaction to that managed restraint. Seria (imho) tries to keep things chaste and ignore the hormones (think castrati here!) and there is the predictable reaction that results in the opposite trend! Do you think that women get a better hearing in seria than in the ‘abusive story line’/bel canto (shorthand again) phase? By the way, I feel – and I think you might agree – that the biggest detriment in the ‘romantic’ genre was the very regrettable feminizing of its mezzos. That was sad. Than goodness for some relief with Octavian, Composer and Orlofsky
            We may as well agree that we are discussing the subject of ‘women as symbols in opera’ But really, there is so much overlap in our thinking that we may each be taking the other on a circular path to a similar – if not the same – conclusion. You mistrust and deplore the romantic trope in bel canto etc (pardon me for using shorthand here) and I mistrust and deplore the Confucian trope (shorthand again) in seria. Perhaps what we both want is a humane treatment of female desire on a scale that is expansive, inclusive, and ennobling of human nature. As for authorship and viewer authority, would you think it flippant of me if I said what the author thinks is none of my business? – because with me that is partially true in some cases.
            This is to say I am not by any means an originalist. I call the shots from where I stand, and I expect others will do the same. However far back we go in researching a story, we, all of us, stand on a sequence of other similarly subjective opinions. And for that matter, the love/death connection in Don G and Tenorio goes, as you say, into the Faustian past. But nevertheless I fear there will not be any Easter bells for the Don. Then again….

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            1. Some more thoughts on Don Giovanni as your blogs really made me wonder about the fascination of this opera for a modern audience (apart from the music, although that’s probably the key feature, I don’t think I would have looked at that story twice otherwise): I think we can agree that Don G. is not irresistible (strangely, I can’t even find a real connection to him through his music), but, through his treatment of the opera’s women we are able to find a strong connection to them, in particularly Donna Elvira, in terms of identification. Elvira’s „Ah taci, ingiusto core“ while she is rejected (again) and humiliated on top, really broke my heart as a teenager. So, in total contradiction of the perception you cited as ‘all women want this man and exist solely in relation to this man, and that’s how things are and it’s romantic’ for me, Don G. exists primarily in relation to the operas women, while I can’ t find anything particularly fascinating on him as an individual (well apart from some respect for his courage on facing death maybe).
              As for the count, I would like to add in his favour that he seems to have really fallen in love with Susanna. Look at his vulnerability in „Crudel! Perché finora farmi languir così?“. While this may not justify his cheating on the countess it makes him at least somewhat humane and understandable to me.

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            2. When I first experienced Don Giovanni (it is the music. And the multi-facets of everything. And always, always the music which – the Duchess and I are talking about this at the moment – is a physical entity. As I make Hugo say, “It always has a heartbeat”.), I connected most strongly to Elvira and her plight, a well (and, since it was the Losey film, I also ended up in awe of the beauty of Kiri Te Kanawa) and it wasn’t until much later that I thought “Wait a minute… why do I think it is normal that she is running after him and that she prefers a cloister to getting over him in the end?” Of course Elvira has agency, and she is a compelling character either way.
              I’m all for ALL the Giovanni stagings that take the uncontested Casanova trope out of business or rake it over coals. We still need a lot more of those to wash that idea out of our systems.
              I love your observation on the Count. Once, I worked on a “Figaro” and the director said early on that for her, the interesting figures were those who could be reached, tempted and toppled by desire, who struggled and changed, audibly. And those, to her, were the Count (precisely because of “Crudel, perché fin’ora”), Cherubino and Susanna (because the lines blurred in that duet for her, and also in “Deh vieni”). I still think she had a very good point (and I loved that production, I yet have to see a better one). I would have hated it as a teenager: when I first heard Figaro, I wanted this black and white and straight-laced and forever. I appreciate the layers of very human gray more with each passing year.

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            3. No Easter bells, no (and in part, I would say because Juan is a figure older than the concept of Easter – though he has a lot to do with the concept of resurrection/rebirth).
              Thank you for continuing this – I wish I had time to reply properly, but unless I can find a way to make my students read our comments and say “Discuss, and tie it back to pottery!”, I need to find another way.
              The difference between seria – and belcanto basically still being seria, if you think in genres – and romantic (as of latr 1840s) repertory for me is not as much a shift in dramaturgy, but an underlying, enlightenment-caused (for good and for bad) change in anthropological positioning, which then also influenced dramaturgy. [The castrati, in their time, were the hormonal pinnacle: our ears and eyes have changed since then.]
              I am not opposed to romantic opera. I may still cry over a good Traviata and be very happy with an intelligently staged Aida (and damn attracted to N. Petrinsky’s Anmeris, but that is another story). But when I cry over a gripping Traviata, at the back of my mind I know I should rage at the story and not romanticize the love-sacrifice if it cements misogynist ideas. There are different aspects in all these stories – as you said, many of those operas are not just about love, but about politics, or a blend of love and politics, and I find that an important point – and I think there are versions of every one that will or would enjoy. Talking about female desire is important (as long as it isn’t 50 Shades), as is looking at female agency within restricted frameworks. I simply will not let myself be unaware of dangerous tropes.
              PS. There will be no dying of either lead in “Stages”. I can promise that. But overall, perhaps it will be more romantic opera than seria.

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            4. So Juan, as a very distant cousin of Orpheus and Anchises, might come to us dragging along a few chthonic roots, but Juan and Giovanni are not at all the same. A couple of things you mentioned about the Don got stuck in my mind – the ‘irresistible’ question and his assault on Donna Anna. I couldn’t help feeling that there was a Wizard of Oz quality about him. I agree with Agathe, he is not irresistible. In fact none of the three woman in the opera finds him irresistible. Elvira’s love has very little – if anything – to do with being attracted to him. I don’t think its just her word against his because their conversation corroborates her version. I see Elvira (there’s that ‘vir’ root again) as a Christ figure who loves the Don unconditionally and wants to save his soul. Donna Elvira like Doña Inés is surely destined for the convent, and long after she dies I am sure her body, like her character, will be found to be incorruptible.
              Even the Don’s credentials as a rapist seemed to come into question. Donna Anna accuses him of assault but not rape. The more I tried to de-fang the Don, the more evident it became to me that he really had no fangs at all. And again I agree with Agathe about his scorn for the sticks and carrots of religion, no small thing, really, is something thing I too can find to admire in him. Even though his life is given to the single-minded pursuit of sexual conquest, (Dons just wanna have fun) beneath all that is person who refuses to surrender to anyone.
              It seems to me that from the very beginning of the opera that the Don’s best days were behind him. Beginning with his failed attempt force Donna Anna, things go from bad to worse for him. Except for the woman he told Leporello he had accosted on the street (and could he have just made that up?) he doesn’t succeed in a single of his attempted seductions. His only power is to corrupt the weak Leporello and Masetto and perhaps Zerlina and induce them into questionable behaviour and to destabilize the bereft and emotional Donna Anna.
              I just finished watching the fabulous 2001 Zurich production with Harnoncourt conducting and Bartoli as a stunning Dona Elvira. The dinner with the Commendatore was the most chillingly powerful I have ever seen and it had me holding my breath. I liked very much that it appears to have been staged to offer full integrity to the characters of all the women, so the buffo component was barely in evidence. And so Anik, I have to thank you for inspiring so much thought, and as a consequence, a newfound and much deepened appreciation for this opera, which before had been mostly a musical feast for me. From this day forward I will take it very seriously. When the Commendatore asked for the Don’s hand La ci darem la mano flashed through my mind.

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            5. ‘The best days behind him‘, I really like that, and it would certainly make Don G. more intriguing if his advances at the women through the course of the opera could be seen as desperate attempts to live up to his reputation. In fact, him seducing Zerlina really has something pathetic anyway, although in her case, I think, her leaving Masetto for a man she sees for the first time in her life can only be explained by her already having had cold feet with regard to the wedding before the appearance of Don G., so maybe in fact she is using Don G., not the other way around? With regard to Donna Elvira I don’t really buy the story of Christian unconditional love, although she may convince herself of that as well. Of the three women she is the only one in whom (romantic) love as a motive (for whatever reason) is believable since she actually had a kind of relationship to Don G. However, her being in love doesn’t matter for Don G’s ‘success’ as he is only interested in new conquests. Donna Anna stays a mystery for me since we can only speculate about what actually happened between her and Don G, but she certainly finally rejects him, so this is in line with the theory of an unsuccessful Don G..
              Oh, and to add another point against ‘Casanova stagings’: I asked my husband for his perspective on the character of Don G. and he said he couldn’t identify with him at all, but was ‘unnerved by his cheesy ways of seduction and by the women still buying his cheap tricks’.
              About the other discussion on the count and Susanna: I also think it adds some interesting shades if she as well is not totally immune against him. I recently saw the Salzburg 2015 production and in this ‘Crudel, perché fin’ora’ Susanna, although she tries to fight it, is obviously quite attracted to the count (understandably, in my view, with Luca Pisaroni singing the count here). Actually, if Pisaroni, who I think is very good with expressing multiple facets of a character, would add Don G. to his repertoire and with all the interesting thoughts we shared on him in this discussion, I might still grow to like him.

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            6. That Zerlina is a real minx (yes, I know – not p.c) and that is one reason why I can’t help thinking that she has a lot in common with the Don. They are both great at singing honeyed and seductive arias to the people they wish to win over. Now, if she had sung Batti, batti to Don G…. They are birds of a feather, hence her susceptibility to the Don. There’s no way she has doubts about marrying Masetto, because she knows he is her puppet, much as the Don is assured of his virtuosity in pulling female strings.
              Donna Elvira’s entanglement with the Don was indeed (for him) of a relatively long duration (three days ?) and she of all three women has the greatest cause for remonstrating. Despite all that, she repeatedly proves real love for this wretched man, though she has the most justifiable motivation for revenge and retribution. I see nothing that can justify her love for the Don except for his soul, which she knows is in great need of redemption. On the other hand, there IS that sensible patriarchal tradition (extreme irony here) of compelling rapists to marry their victims, and Donna Elvira just might have considered marriage as her due. I saw her as ‘Christian’ because she shows so much nobility forbearance, and those are traditional Christian virtues. Also because she is a counterpart of Doña Inés of the Tenorio story. Inés was bound for the convent and returned there and chose purgatory after her death so that she could help Juan go to heaven.
              And Agathe, I am with you in being unable to solve the mystery of Donna Anna. I ask myself what does she want and why does she want it, and all I can do is scratch my head. She is so vehement and obsessive that I think it has to be a powerful combination of her particular sense of vendetta and honour. I wonder how she would have reacted had she known that her father would eventually avenge himself from beyond the grave. I don’t think she loves Don Ottavio and I am not predicting a happy ending for them. Perhaps she just doesn’t like men?
              Poor flawed Casanova, I have a soft spot for him because he has always interested me. To my way of thinking, he and Don G (and Juan) are night and day and I can’t see why they are ever compared to each other. If Cherubino, that little ‘demonietto”, as Susanna affectionately calls him, is to be compared to a womanizer, let him be compared to Casanova who was truly interested in women rather than the Don who just wants to prey on them. I think the reason why women (both the Countess as well as Susanna) are attracted to Cherubino is precisely because he is sweet and androgynous and decidedly gallant. There is nothing predatory about him, and I don’t see how anyone can think he is an embryonic Don G.
              There is only one side to Don G. He is a one-trick pony. That perhaps is why in the end he only has Hobson’s choice – either go to hell or come to terms with the fact that he is getting past it. All things considered, it is clear that he would have preferred hell to such a come down, and I can’t help feeling respect for his choice!

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            7. was it London or was it Slazburg where the final shot is of Giovanni making eyes at a woman in hell? (which makes for a good laugh, but of course it takes the bite out of the death/damnation choice).
              Elvira being written with knowledge of Inés (and of the religious undertones of slavation which are so dominant in the comedia nueva – I just had to reread “la devocion a la cruz” and it is a consciousness hard to transfer into contemporary secular identity) is a good point; those three days were something I paid a lot of attention to at a time.
              Is Anna a mystery? Does it need to be solved? How much of that rhetoric is in turn informed by partriarchal gender sterotyping?
              Now a lesbian Anna would be an interesting take (and I don’t say this because I enjoy seeing queerness on stage – that would be an added bonus – but it might be a take to try to remove her from all the masculine framing through father, fiancé and Giovanni, and see what she could be then). Hmm…
              I’ve seen productions (among them, a few really old ones) with Zerlina with doubts about Masetto, I have also seen takes with Giovanni as a tragic figure (an interesting recent take was Salzburg for me in that regard, with Giovanni mortally wounded and living the opera as a fast-forward of a dying man) – and I found those plausible, too. I can accept Ponnelle’s idea of Cherubino as a little tiger, who is unthreatening now, but will be a dangerous tiger soon (but even as I can accept it, I look at the ideas of gendered power behind it. Ponnelle was a guy, in a certain time), even though that may not be my personally preferred reading.

              On a side note, I would never say “s/he is xy” (Xy to me, at this point in time, at most). I find that with all three of these characters, with most characters overall, many approaches are possible and can be sustained. Even in my own engagement with works, I see my opinions shift and change over the years, so I try to focus on possibilities. My only beef may be with character takes that I cannot find sustained, or with material that makes, perhaps also due to a hisotrical gap, a credible take on a character impossible.

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            8. I know with Donna Anna there is this unbridgeable hiatus which makes it impossible to definitively ‘solve the mystery,’ but I still would like to speculate. Is it possible that Donna Anna could have been ambivalent about men prior to the traumatic encounter with the Don? Could that have been the reason for the long engagement? Then comes the attack, which could have shocked her into a realization that she knows will have a profound influence on her life now and in the future. Could this is why she is postponing the marriage for another year? Her implacability and thirst for revenge could better be explained this way, rather than by speculating that she really was raped but now has to lie about it so as not to upset Don Ottavio. Her fury could stem from her having been involuntarily awakened to an aspect of her nature which had been slumbering, just as she was, when the masked intruder came to force himself on her. She should have been protected both from the man as well as the realization. She should have been safe, and there was no one around to make sure she was not harmed. On the other hand, both Susanna and the Countess go to great pains to protect Cherubino because they know he is a girl. The logic is flawless – Cherubino may have a boy’s name and look like one (mostly) but listen to him – even after puberty he has a woman’s voice. And what are women who are attracted to other women?
              Beaumarchais wrote the role for a woman, and so did Mozart, who might just as easily have written it for a castrato. Cherubino’s dress disguises as him as a woman but reveals him as a lesbian. A tiger cub who will grow up to be a tiger? Yes that’s quite possible – but a really nice one who looks great in stripes, particularly in silk. Remember, Mozart was also a precocious cub – as a child he proposed marriage to the young Marie Antoinette!
              And no wonder Cherubino is blushing when the Countess is enchanted to see a girl in drag suddenly become a boy in drag. Also from the first moment we see ‘him’, Cherubino is ducking undercover and in fear of being uncovered and he is in and out of drag and in drag again with oh come ingenues. Barbarina seems to know….”most beautiful of all the girls…” why does Barbarina want to dress Cherubino as a girl? The Countess might be so nervous because she is afraid the Count will find a ‘half-dressed’ Cherubino and discover that she IS a girl and do her some terrible damage. The Countess knows that under those circumstances Cheubino’s suffering on account of her gender would be greater than either that of herself or Susanna.
              If only there had been a Susanna or a Countess for Donna Anna….

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            9. Intriguing idea – I am trying to remember if I have ever seen a “Figaro” that staged Cherubino as a girl, but I don’t think I have. Octavian, yes, but Cherubino, no.
              (Cherubino could not have been written for a castrato, I would argue, because castrati were destined for heroic and not marginal masculinity (in case of Rome, also heroic femininity), apart from the related fact that they were generally not employed within the buffa genre (female signers as (young) men: yes, e.g. in the Neapolitan commedia per musica))

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            10. Thank you for this wonderful opportunity to ponder so many lovely thoughts, and for your incredible patience.”Ah tutte contente saremo così.” And please excuse the change of a vowel.

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            11. lovely (mis)quote! 🙂
              (It should always have been Così fan tutti, but that is a gender beef for another day)

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            12. Just one more thought about Zerlina because, as you said Anik, she is really getting more interesting the more you think about her. If we really only look at the facts, I would agree with Inkbrain that she has a lot in common with Don Giovanni and is in fact not much better, morally speaking. Still, we don’t judge her as hard and tend to forgive her, exactly because her arias are so seductive. So, I think we may be immune to Don Giovanni’s charm but, with regard to Zerlina we are not much better than poor, naive Masetto. I watched Mia Persson’s ‘Batti, batti’ with the tone switched off and thought ‘how can he be so stupid’ but with tone, well…
              And the lesbian Donna Anna: Her obsessive vendetta as a means to cover something she can absolutely not accept from Ottavio and, more importantly, herself, does make sense, but, if she would actually be staged that way you can imagine what the audience would make of that with regard to Don Giovanni’s irresistibility.

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            13. The audience response, I’d suspect to go two ways: 1) “Oh, but Giovanni should be able to turn her because he is, you know, irresistible”. or 2) “Well, of course she’s gay, that’s the only possible explanation as to why she does not fall for him.”

              Are queer women more lenient when it comes to Zerlina because we would all fall for her “Batti, batti”? Good question. And if I think back to the ROH Giovanni and Miah Persson, I can definitely not say that I would be immune to this particular Zerlina. Likening Giovanni and Zerlina (wouldn’t it be fun if they had a counter-seduction going on, which might be difficult to pull off with the narrative position, but wouldn’t it be so much more interesting that Zerlina just swooning away?), or simply thinking of both of them as seducers, puts a few imbalances on the spot: both with regards to gender, and to class: a young woman as a seducer does not embody a threat – or does it? Can it even, in a patriarchal framing? And a lower-class person does not count as a threat when it comes to someone socially/economically better off: the only plot device is ‘seducing someone for money’, but it is economic, then, and not as much moral.
              Then again, would a threateningly seductive Zerlina appeal to me? Who am I even kidding: of course she would (but of course I am not free of patriarchal system perspectives, so that would play into it, too).

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            14. Ok, I get your point (and to take this back to Cherubino, I really think the same applies to him. His rude approach on the countess in the garden would certainly be threatening if he had the physical strength of a grown up man. He can only get away with it because of his feminity and relative physical weakness.). But, certainly a woman as seducer can be threatening with regard to the psychological damage she does to others. And Zerlina really doesn’t have any good excuses for leaving Masetto at the altar. Or does she? As I am writing this, and you having mentioned economics, I wonder if she just never loved Masetto and had to agree to marry him simply for material security? Maybe she just has to be a seductive ‘minx’ (learned a new word here) in order to survive? Anyway, after having seen her as simply very stupid for many years, I now find her an interesting and complex character, thanks to our discussion!
              And the audience reaction: Yes, that’s exactly what I meant!

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            15. Psychological damage: yes, of course!
              But then, how is she written, in 1787? is that a narrative frame that sees a woman – a lower-class woman – capable of actively harnessing desire and seducing a man who is not Masetto, but socially her superior? I think her seducing Masetto is already a very, very interesting point. (is the marriage to him arranged and unenthusiastic? does thinking differently make her a cold-hearted social climber? (again with the tropes we are accustomed to…))

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            16. Zerlina comes across to me as a very intelligent woman who ‘learns’ from the Don’s Là ci darem la mano the power of a polished seduction and tries it out on the beaten-up Masetto. You can see how greatly her technique has progressed from Batti batti to Vedrai carino, by which time I think she has come to feel some remorse for her part in the imbroglio, and I also think she loves Masetto, though perhaps not exclusively!
              This trope of below stairs liaisons appears frequently both in literature and real life (think of Puccini!) and there is no reason to suppose that occasionally some of the women were not unwilling. Zerlina does not seem at all cold-hearted to me. She is very open to an emotional appeal and knows how to respond to one as well as make one. Masetto is clod in that department, and I think Zerlina would wish him to be a little more romantic, but if romance is missing she is willing to let his jealously be a proof of his love and desire. I just can’t read threat into a soubrette role, and especially that of lovable Zerlina, though I think in the course of their married life she will give Masetto more than a few headaches, but I think she will always make it up to him very nicely.
              And Donna Anna, I find it impressive that she successfully fights back and handily repels the Don’s assault. That shows courage and determination as well as the ability to react effectively to an ambush. These are traits one would not typically expect to see in a woman of her era. I think she has a keen sense of justice, which is why she does not want the Don to get away with his crime. These things, coupled with the fact that she is so impervious to Don Ottavio’s emotional appeals are very suggestive to me….
              And Agathe, could you please direct me to the version garden scene with Cherubino that you are referring to? I recently watched the Teatro Communale di Firenze version, and I didn’t see what you saw, meaning a brash Cherubino….

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            17. I’m with your husband on this one, Agathe – I keep asking myself “why would anyone fall for this?”, and I’m back the structural issue of writing women as receptive to those lines (would a gay Giovanni work, I wonder?), and back to the idea of “The Seducer”.
              When I first enganged with Don Giovanni (I was still a tenager) and was was focused on Elvira, I wondered whether she “killed” his success because he is still stuck on her, somehow – from her tale, we learnt hat he married her, lived with her for three more days. Then, of course, my teenage self found that idea of “Love him enough and he will return to you and even if not, it is your fate to LOVE” very romantic (my current self, not so much).
              Zerlina becomes more and more interesting to me as the years pass, perhaps alos as a character who actively moves within the sensual quality of the music. “Vedrai carino” may be the most seductive thing Mozart has ever written, to my ears. She falls perhaps into that Susanna/Count/Cherubino spectrum of character who change and shift in contact with passion?
              Anna and Giovanni: exactly, we do not know. And I continue to be fascinated by how people (and often scholars) try to fill this space of not knowing, and the explanations say a lot about internalized sexism, too.
              I like the idea of Zerlina with cold feet regarding her wedding, too. Or simply finding it lackluster? I think that is a take on the character that could be pulled off well.

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  5. Since I’m a complete ignorant on the topic I would just like to add that I love the chapter. Thank you so very muy mucho for continuing the story. It is really interesting to see how the chracters are developing. The chapel conversation was specially good in terms of understanding Helena a bit more. Thanks!
    R

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    1. Thank you! I am not quite sure how we escalated back into opera and relating to it under this post (oh, I do – Cherubino), so thank you for remembering the story. More to come as soon as I get to it.

      >

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      1. How we escalated: Desire. Concupiscence. Cupid. Cherubino (pien di desir) as Cupid, hymning their union.
        Mozart voices desire for three minutes. You tell it for hours. Days.
        Respect.
        Delight.

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      2. I am really enjoying all the Opera posts but I am certainly missing the continuation of this story. Looking forward to keep reading it.
        R

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        1. As soon as classes are over for this semester, I will get to the next chapter. Right now, in between teaching and papers, I don’t find enough time – all I manage are the opera posts, which are a lot quicker to write. Thanks for your patience!

          >

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