Thursday, 15 March 2001

Jill Paton Walsh: A School for Lovers (1989)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 783

Cosi Fan Tutti is an opera which has generated an immense amount of discussion over the years, particularly once it made its way back into the repertoire (after years of neglect because it was considered disreputable). Walsh has structured her novel to reflect on several aspects of the opera, with twin story lines about a couple of students studying it and an attempt to recreate its plot for a bet.

The plot of Cosi Fan Tutti is simple. Two young men boast of the fidelity of their betrothed. An older man laughs at them, and eventually they agree to test their boasts. Pretending to have been called up for military service, the two men disguise themselves as Albanian pirates and woo each other's girlfriends. This becomes awkward when, after a while, the two women show signs of succumbing (though they may have just seen through the disguises and be looking to get their own back).

There are a variety of interesting issues about the opera, which are discussed in one plot strand and (sometimes) illustrated by the other. These include the accusations of immorality and (more recently) of misogyny. There is the implausibility - how do the women fail to recognise their lovers in their disguises? There is tension between the libretto and the music, Mozart being more positive about the emotions of the characters than da Ponte requires him to be. There is also the deeper question of whether love can ever be permanent - perhaps more relevant now in an age where so many marriages end in divorce.

The novel is not wholly successful, though interesting. This is because the device to tell the reader the themes of the opera through the studies of Thomas and Anna (including quite long extracts from their essays) is overly didactic, not suited to fiction.

No comments: