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Thread: Mozart's "Voi Che Sapete" and Romantic Irony

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Default Mozart's "Voi Che Sapete" and Romantic Irony

    First, the aria, for anyone who somehow hasn't heard it:


    This has long been one of my favorite moments from an opera that's full of glorious ones, but I've never really bothered to analyze why beyond the sweet melodicism. However, I was recently thinking about how opera can effectively use music to ironize its situations, so that while characters may be taking something seriously or lightly in the drama, the music itself is telling us something light or serious in opposition. I also thought how often this happens in Mozart. Think of how in Don Giovanni we have Leporello humorous Catalog Aria that is juxtaposed both against the seriousness of Don Elvira's sense of betrayal and the rather gross misogyny that the "catalog" itself represents. Think of how in Cosi fan Tutte we have Mozart setting some of the women's early arias in an opera seria style, that ironizes their out-sized sense of faithfulness and romanticism.

    Voi Che Sapete is a bit different, however. At least to my ears, the music seems to present a wonderful equilibrium between mocking the naive sensibility of Cherubino while also, through its sparkling melody, inviting us to share in his feelings. It's a neat trick that allows us see and experience things from both perspectives simultaneously, from the more enlightened, mature perspective in which we view Cherubino's frustration with an amused, even if sympathetic, detachment; but also from Cherubino's perspective as well, as the music is so sweet and enticing that it's impossible not to hear it as an analog to being precisely how love (or lust) at that age feels. It also seems to cut to the heart of many of the opera's themes, how the adults are playing at a more mature game of love and seduction, yet, underneath the surface of sophistication, are as rattled, confused, and driven mad as Cherubino; they're just better at hiding it.

    As for romantic irony, there's actually some controversy over what the term means/refers to, but among the ways I've seen it used is to describe art that manages to hold two opposing ideas or perspectives in balance so that an audience can't tell decisively which "side" the artist agrees with. There was an especially good book that analyzed Hitchcock's films under this device, so that's the sense I'm using it in here.

    For discussion, I'm curious as to whether, one, people hear the same thing I do in this aria and, two, if you can think of other examples in opera where there might be two different perspectives that the music manages to express simultaneously so that we're not sure which is given precedence.
    Last edited by Eva Yojimbo; Sep-24-2019 at 02:36.

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    Senior Member Woodduck's Avatar
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    It seems to me that we're most likely to find this "dual perspective" in comedy - that, in fact, it's almost a defining characteristic of comedy, where the characters take themselves seriously but the audience is amused, and a great composer will find ways of conveying both sincerity and irony in the same music. Mozart is obviously sklled at this, but I would suggest that Wagner does it brilliantly all through Die Meistersinger, in which human ambitions, passions and foibles are expressed in music both affectionate and satirical, even in the purely orchestral overture.

    Great thread, btw!
    Last edited by Woodduck; Sep-24-2019 at 03:03.

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    This is a really interesting topic. I prefer the act one aria 'Non so piu' and think that it better encapsulates passionate infatuation with it's short phrases, like small, fast heartbeats. This act one aria is certainly romantically ironic, in that it both is a superb depiction in sound of adolescent infatuation, but also allows us to laugh at the constant amorousness of this youth who falls in love with everything he sees.

    Voi che sapete is different, as it is meant to be a song that Cherubino has composed for the Countess. (If it were in a play it would still be sung.) Non so piu is how he feels, the act two aria is how he wants to present those feelings to the Countess and therefore it is more traditional and formal as a piece. The contrast is very telling of Mozart's art. Interestingly the middle section of Voi che is freer and more impassioned as if Cherubino can't help himself let go and wear his feelings on his sleeve even when he should be more subtle in front of a married Lady.

    Either way Mozart's settings have a perfection about them.

    N.

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    Senior Member DavidA's Avatar
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    'Either way Mozart's settings have a perfection about them.'

    Agree with Conte wholeheartedly in his assessments. I remember as a teenager (in days of yore) being smitten by a girl and my reactions being somewhat the same as Cherubino's. Just an incredible example of Mozart's genius at drawing character unmatched imo by any other composer.
    Last edited by DavidA; Sep-24-2019 at 21:53.

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    Senior Member Larkenfield's Avatar
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    I’m not hearing what might appear like the portrayal of a comic situation, but more the anguish, pain and bewilderment mixed in with the desire and pleasure of the awakening to love. Others might find it amusing but I don’t think he does. The aria is full of such a complicated mixture and contrast of emotions. Well done Mozart!
    Last edited by Larkenfield; Sep-25-2019 at 01:19.
    "That's all Folks!"

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    Quote Originally Posted by DavidA View Post
    'Either way Mozart's settings have a perfection about them.'

    Agree with Conte wholeheartedly in his assessments. I remember as a teenager (in days of yore) being smitten by a girl and my reactions being somewhat the same as Cherubino's. Just an incredible example of Mozart's genius at drawing character unmatched imo by any other composer.
    Whilst I think that Mozart reached a certain 'perfection' in these two arias doesn't mean that other composers didn't in their works. Handel - in places, Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Britten are all greats and I can't see how one can say that one is greater than all the others, although individual operas are easier to compare. Then their is the issue of personal taste, which is a whole different kettle of fish!

    N.

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    Senior Member amfortas's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    It seems to me that we're most likely to find this "dual perspective" in comedy - that, in fact, it's almost a defining characteristic of comedy, where the characters take themselves seriously but the audience is amused, and a great composer will find ways of conveying both sincerity and irony in the same music.
    A good point, though I wonder if we sometimes find a different kind of "dual perspective" in the darkest tragedy, where we can feel tremendous sympathy, even pity for the hero while at the same being horrified and repelled by his actions. Otello, Wozzeck, and Peter Grimes come to mind. Again, I think a great composer finds ways to contribute to that effect.

    Not quite the same thing, I know, but for what it's worth . . .
    Last edited by amfortas; Sep-24-2019 at 22:31.
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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Woodduck View Post
    It seems to me that we're most likely to find this "dual perspective" in comedy - that, in fact, it's almost a defining characteristic of comedy, where the characters take themselves seriously but the audience is amused, and a great composer will find ways of conveying both sincerity and irony in the same music. Mozart is obviously sklled at this, but I would suggest that Wagner does it brilliantly all through Die Meistersinger, in which human ambitions, passions and foibles are expressed in music both affectionate and satirical, even in the purely orchestral overture.

    Great thread, btw!
    As the saying goes, "comedy is tragedy viewed from a distance," and I think when viewing it from a distance it's probably easier to consider (and represent) both perspectives simultaneously; much harder to start from the "up-close" tragedy and be able to pull back to see the comedy. Die Meistersinger is my least favorite of Wagner's mature operas so I've heard it the least; beyond the orchestral overture, would you offer any other specific examples?

    Thanks!

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    Senior Member Eva Yojimbo's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by The Conte View Post
    This is a really interesting topic. I prefer the act one aria 'Non so piu' and think that it better encapsulates passionate infatuation with it's short phrases, like small, fast heartbeats. This act one aria is certainly romantically ironic, in that it both is a superb depiction in sound of adolescent infatuation, but also allows us to laugh at the constant amorousness of this youth who falls in love with everything he sees.

    Voi che sapete is different, as it is meant to be a song that Cherubino has composed for the Countess. (If it were in a play it would still be sung.) Non so piu is how he feels, the act two aria is how he wants to present those feelings to the Countess and therefore it is more traditional and formal as a piece. The contrast is very telling of Mozart's art. Interestingly the middle section of Voi che is freer and more impassioned as if Cherubino can't help himself let go and wear his feelings on his sleeve even when he should be more subtle in front of a married Lady.

    Either way Mozart's settings have a perfection about them.

    N.
    Interesting thoughts. My own would be that I hear "Non so piu" as more purely comedic. In a way, the fact that it's representing Cherubino's "actual feelings" is what allows us to view it that way, precisely because it's got such a nervous, anxious energy to it that we're less inclined to (or invited to) identify with it. Perhaps because Voi che sapete is a performance it's easier to tread that middle ground; it's not JUST the feelings but a representation of those feelings, so you have the "truth" of the naive feelings on one end, the "humor" of being able to see that from the perspective of the adults, and the sweetness of the "art" that finds a medium between them.

    Of course, that's just how I hear them. As is common, so much of this comes down to our subjective reactions, but I can certainly agree about Mozart's perfection!

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    As the saying goes, "comedy is tragedy viewed from a distance," and I think when viewing it from a distance it's probably easier to consider (and represent) both perspectives simultaneously; much harder to start from the "up-close" tragedy and be able to pull back to see the comedy. Die Meistersinger is my least favorite of Wagner's mature operas so I've heard it the least; beyond the orchestral overture, would you offer any other specific examples?

    Thanks!
    It's harder to give examples in Wagner because his musical fabric is so different; there isn't a neatly constructed aria that would present a parallel to Mozart's procedure in "Voi che sapete." The fluctuating emotions and ambivalent, serious/comic perspective unfold over whole scenes, but are focused nicely in the character of Hans Sachs, who is the guiding spirit of the whole plot and whose blend of melancholy pessimism, kindliness, sarcastic wit, humility, respect for tradition and openness to the new constitute a kind of magnetic force field into which the problems of less enlightened souls are drawn, and ultimately resolved for the good of all.

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    Great topic. I also often find hidden easter eggs of irony when I watch operas - the form seems to be a natural for expressing artistic ambiguity.

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    a "four" like for me!!!
    Last edited by ldiat; Sep-26-2019 at 05:14.

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    It's describing young love. In retrospect it seems ridiculous, but at the time it's all-consuming. To me, this is the one work in all of art which best describes how that feels. I don't know of any higher praise for this aria than that...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Eva Yojimbo View Post
    Think of how in Don Giovanni we have Leporello humorous Catalog Aria that is juxtaposed both against the seriousness of Don Elvira's sense of betrayal and the rather gross misogyny that the "catalog" itself represents.
    it isn't about misogyny but disdain for ranks in a ranked society and this is gross.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Zhdanov View Post
    it isn't about misogyny but disdain for ranks in a ranked society and this is gross.
    I think Eva's comment is only referring to Don Giovanni's misogyny in that he sees women as only existing in order for him to add them to his list. He is a typical narcissist who can't see women as separate beings, but merely an extension of himself. (Interestingly he treats men in the same way, but that isn't covered in the catalogue aria.)

    N.

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