from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
with Susanna Phillips
SAVAGE: Infidelity is so common that if we tell people that it’s always the end of the relationship when there’s cheating, we’re gonna end a lot of relationships that shouldn’t end.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
PHILLIPS: She’s joyful and smart and really wants to get this guy back! That’s the goal.
GIDDENS: Every episode we pull back the curtain on a single aria so we can see what’s behind the scenes. Today, it's one of my personal favorites: “Dove sono” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, or The Marriage of Figaro.
ELLISON: It’s one of those arias when you feel depressed about something going on in your life and you start to feel hopeless, you can sort of indulge yourself in that little pity party, and then you can latch onto that tremendous hope.
GIDDENS: So let’s say you’re married, and you have been for quite a while. Let’s say things started out great, but now your spouse has been pretty much ignoring you... and flirting like crazy with other people. And you’re pretty sure they’re sleeping around. So... what do you do? Do you leave? Do you stick it out? Do you confront them?
Well, this is exactly the question that Countess Almaviva faces in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Things are pretty complicated for her. First of all, she’s a woman in the late 1700s, so... you know her options are pretty limited. And second of all, she’s married into nobility and her entitled, womanizing husband, the Count Almaviva, holds most of the cards. He’s all over the Countess’s maid, Susanna, and pretty much every other woman on the estate, too. The Countess sees it all, but she’s really not allowed to address it head-on.
So she and Susanna decide to swap clothes (as one does…) and lure the Count into a trap that reveals him as the philandering idiot that he is. But in the middle of all the commotion and the twisting subplots, the Countess has an intimate, reflective moment in the aria “Dove sono.” It’s a floating and gorgeous melody that asks a simple question: “Dove sono i bei momenti?” “Where are the beautiful moments that I used to have with my husband? Where’s the spark? And how do I get it back?”
Let’s meet the guests that will help the Countess answer these questions. First, soprano Susanna Phillips. She’s singing this at the Met right now, and this is actually the role she’s performed most in her career so far.
PHILLIPS: I've performed her as a 20-year-old, very traditional Countess. I've performed her as a drunk Liz Taylor kind of person. I've performed her as like a 60-year-old, really dowager kind of person.
GIDDENS: The many faces of Countess Almaviva! Next, we have Cori Ellison, dramaturg at the Sante Fe Opera.
ELLISON: Mozart just had radar into the human soul. Whether the characters were male or female or old or young or evil or good. What he brings to opera that distinguishes him is the ability to just plumb the depths of the human condition.
GIDDENS: And finally, a man who knows a thing or two about cheating…
SAVAGE: How dirty can I be on your show?
GIDDENS: As much as you want, Dan Savage. Dan writes the sex advice column “Savage Love” and hosts the Savage Lovecast, a sex and relationship advice podcast.
SAVAGE: It wasn't anything I set out to do. I started writing Savage love as a joke 30 years ago. I was going to, as a gay guy, give sex advice to straight people and treat straight people with the same contempt that straight advice columnists that I had grown up reading like Ann Landers had always treated gay people with -- that, you know, it was icky and gross and your poor mother must be heartbroken, but here's some advice. And when it turned into a real advice column under my feet, I realized that I actually had been preparing for this for a long time.
GIDDENS: Well, we’re glad, because the Countess could *really* use some advice. Now let’s get to it. “Dove sono” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
ELLISON: So Le Nozze di Figaro was written in 1786.
PHILLIPS: It does take place in one day. It’s set in Seville.
ELLISON: And it deals with issues like fidelity in relationships and in marriage.
PHILLIPS: Susanna, Rosina’s maid, is getting married to Figaro, and the Count has decided he wants to exercise his feudal right to have the first night of their marriage with Susanna. And the Countess is very distressed by this.
ELLISON: The Countess Almaviva is actually the same person as Rosina, in The Barber of Seville, the heroine of Rossini’s famous opera.
PHILLIPS: She's smart, funny, sexy, warm, conniving, energetic. She's fascinating.
ELLISON: But you have the feeling that in those two or three years between her marriage and where we find her in Le Nozze di Figaro, there's been a lot of growing up that's happened. And perhaps some of it is, unfortunately, through the suffering that she's endured at the hands of her philandering husband.
PHILLIPS: The Count has cheated on her and she knows that. She's often secluded and often cast aside. And I think that's very painful.
SAVAGE: The dynamic we see here between the Count and the Countess is really common. So common as to be something that we should anticipate going into committed long-term relationships. It's just a cliche to talk about -- we've been together for so many years, sex is so much less frequent, I don't feel desired in the way I felt at the start of the relationship. It's complicated to desire what you already have, to want what you have.
ELLISON: The Countess sings “Dove sono” in Act III of Figaro, so it's just before the evening's festivities, the wedding of Susanna and Figaro is about to happen. And the Countess here is awaiting news from Susanna of how her meeting with the Count went to arrange their tryst in the garden that night.
PHILLIPS:The Countess has conspired with Susanna to reveal the Count’s transgressions publicly and to bring him back to her.
SAVAGE: We tell people that an infidelity, that adultery is unforgivable. You know, if someone cheats on you, that's proof that they don't love you now and didn't love you ever, or may be incapable of love. And this conflation of love and intimacy with, with sex and desire undermines our relationships, because it is possible for someone who loves you to cheat on you. I don't think this entitled Count who feels that he can sleep with the servants, and that he owns and possesses basically all the women in his orbit is an example of that. But we threaten our relationships by putting monogamy at the heart of them.
ELLISON: So this aria begins with an accompanied, recitative. Recitative in an opera serves the same function that you see like in a Shakespeare play where you see both prose and poetry. And the prose is what advances the action. It's plain speech and it gives you plot information. And then the poetry -- “To be or not to be,” or whatever that is -- is where the characters stop and give us their emotional reaction to what's just gone on in the recitative, or in the prose. And that's what an aria is.
PHILLIPS: She's pivoting from one emotion to another. She's feeling vulnerable. She's feeling jealous. She's feeling rageful. She's feeling sad...She’s feeling so many emotions.
ELLISON: First, she just simply says, “Well, Susanna is not here yet. I’m anxious to know how the Count received the proposal.” And then there's this little accompaniment figure, this little punctuation by the orchestra, and she goes, “This whole plot makes me very nervous, especially with a husband who’s so jealous.”
After that, there's another change of thought. She says, but you know, what harm could it do to just change clothes with Susanna? And then there's a much more thoughtful little orchestral riff -- badee, badah -- and that's when she says, “Oh heavens, I've been reduced to this level by my cruel husband who treats me so badly and is unfaithful...jealousy and disdain. First, he loved me, and then offended me. And now he betrays me.” And when she says, “tradita,” betrayal, the accompaniment goes into A minor, which is this extremely poignant, sad key.
PHILLIPS: It hits her that she's had to ask a servant for help in getting her husband back. And that is painful.
SAVAGE: You know, it's hard to get good numbers on how common infidelity is in committed long-term monogamous relationships because it's not something that people are going to answer truthfully if, you know, a pollster calls them, but the range is something like 30 to 60% of all committed monogamous relationships -- there's infidelity on one side or the other side at some point over the years.
If you're in a long-term, committed relationship and your expectation is fidelity, and you're with somebody who's incapable of being faithful, well you're going to be devastated again and again and again and again. If you can adjust your expectations -- if you no longer expect that this person who's already proven they're incapable of being faithful isn’t going to be able to do that -- perhaps you won't be as devastated as often.
ELLISON: The last line of the recitative becomes very, very grand. And then it goes right into the aria from this intensely melancholy key of A minor into this very pure key of C major. It makes it feel like her sadness is sort of distilled. It's so understated that it's sort of extra poignant when she sings,“where are the beautiful moments of sweetness” that she remembers from early in her marriage?
PHILLIPS: She begins the aria with a real question -- what happened here? What's going on? This is not what I had in mind, this is not what we used to have.
ELLISON: And then she goes on to say, “where have those vows gone from his lying lips?” And that takes on a different harmonic color. You get this very bittersweet feeling.
PHILLIPS: It's easy to forget, but at this time she didn't have any options. There's not a divorce option, there's not a split and be happy with each other and friends for the rest of your life kind of thing. And I think rather than, you know, being in a situation where she's just kind of making the best of whatever, I think she's a person that wants to make their relationship happy.
ELLISON: When she starts “Dove sono,” it's accompanied by a solo oboe, which is sort of a signifier of poignance or nostalgia. And a very modest background of low strings. So it's a very understated kind of an accompaniment. to the Countess’s very long legato lines they're just these elegant phrases that have to be exquisitely shaped and just without blemish.
PHILLIPS: Yes. So these are very challenging vocal lines to sing. They are long, they are in a part of the voice that takes extra support, and underneath you are strings that are just playing kind of an “oompah” -- this very quiet pulse underneath you, and you're the one carrying the line. And then once you start and you have to just be ready technically, go there emotionally and finish, really finish through every last word, every last note, and every last beat of this very challenging piece.
SAVAGE: People are more comfortable when a couple separates in the wake of an infidelity. The reality is that more than half of all couples when they confront an infidelity wind up staying together. And sometimes the relationship limps along, damaged, and wounded. But often the disclosure of an infidelity prompts both partners to be honest with each other about what wasn't making them happy, honest with each other in a new and radical way that improves the relationship. You know, no one wants to have a near-death experience, but sometimes having a near-death experience makes you appreciate life in a new way. And the revelation of an affair is sort of a relationship near-death experience. If you can come out on the other side of that, if forgiveness can be asked for sincerely and granted, the relationship can improve.
ELLISON: One of the really beautiful things about this aria is that it starts out, of course, in a very simple, major key -- C major. And then it goes into G major, which is very common during this period, but that all throughout, Mozart keeps shifting back and forth into the parallel minor keys. They're like shifting weather fronts. They're like clouds coming in to momentarily block the sun because the Countess’s mood throughout this is so mercurial.
PHILLIPS: And all of a sudden you get up to a G and it's like the little sunlight comes in when she's thinking about the memory of him. And then you go back to this kind of C major moment. So, I think that's brilliant.
ELLISON: So it comes back to the original theme, but there are some differences. There's a difference in the accompaniment -- very, very subtly. You can't sing it exactly the same way you did before because you've gone on a little emotional trip. So I think a thoughtful singer will bring a different tonal quality to that repetition of “Dove sono.”
PHILLIPS: And all of a sudden the question is not, you know, “What happened here? What can, you know, what's going on?” It's more of, “What happened? It's much deeper. I feel on the verge of tears just talking about that feeling of complete helplessness and fragility and still... hope.”
SAVAGE: I think we can all relate to wanting to be wanted at the same intensity by the person we want. And that's not always something that we get. We're not always wanted in the same way, or the want ebbs and flows. And learning to live with that ambiguity, but also that pain... it's a part of all romantic relationships. You're not always on the same page, but if you're there for each other enough and want each other enough, the relationship can survive and thrive.
PHILLIPS: So she's saying, “Where are the vows that he made to me, this lying son of a bitch?” Can I say that on the podcast?
ELLISON: And, she’s sort of hanging there on this fermata...
PHILLIPS: It's almost like this is hanging in the air, these lying lips.
ELLISON: And instead of kind of making a proper ending, it goes into a new section, the allegro.
PHILLIPS: The music all of a sudden starts to get kicky. It starts to have these dotted 16th notes and 32nd notes that make it feel more jagged and takes you up higher. She says, “Ah. Wait a minute, I can do this. If I can stay constant and I can be the one that's here and loving, I can fix this. He can come back to me.” And she all of a sudden in her head feels like she has a path forward.
SAVAGE: That's always my advice for couples who say the spark has died or that the sex isn’t as passionate, the desire isn't there, is to find ways to bring back the fear. You know, when you first got together, you didn't know this person, and the relationship was this new and scary thing and kind of a risk. You were making yourself vulnerable to this person in a way that really made you feel alive and sent adrenaline flying through your body and send blood to all the right parts of your body. Once you're longterm and committed, the relationship doesn't have quite that impact. But you can engineer that by taking risks together, and that can be as simple as, you know, don't have sex in your bed in the same place at the same time. Go have sex in a car, parked somewhere in public, have sex at the office, have sex in the kitchen. Role play and dress up adventures, games, hijinks absolutely can help revive that spark, and to really fight the inertia that drags us toward taking each other for granted.
ELLISON: Then what happens in the allegro is there is a decision. She says, “maybe we can get back to where we were in this marriage.” So the character of the music changes completely. And we're back in C major again, but in a very, very different way -- the music is more florid.
PHILLIPS: When she's talking about constancy and fidelity and love, she's doing this constant vocal line. It never ends. Your breath never ends, all the notes are really close together and it's this constant flow of melody. And then as she's talking about change and new life and, you know, moving forward, it begins to leap, and the rhythms begin to get more adventurous and it changes, dramatically.
ELLISON: When she talks about changing her relationship, “Di cangiar l'ingrato cor!” -- to change his ungrateful heart -- she keeps popping up to this sustained high A which is the highest note in the piece. She literally bounces up to the hope.
PHILLIPS: Up to this point, you haven't had any really long held high notes. That's where they come because that's where the change will happen, making him realize that he's totally messed up. And being constant in her love for him, that's how it will change, and that's how they will come back together.
ELLISON: It shows us that she doesn't just wallow in the sadness, but that she has this hope, and the hope is propelling her to take action.
SAVAGE: But in this opera, you know, this guy is a cad, and he cheats on his relatively new wife. He treats women as objects and possessions, and he is exposed and humiliated and begs for forgiveness. You know, let's see where this couple's at three years from now. I can't imagine that this man, just because he was called out and, and could sing the right words in a beautiful way and ask his wife or forgiveness, really changed his ways. People who are incapable of honoring a monogamous commitment and demonstrate that early on, rarely become capable of honoring a monogamous commitment later on just because they got caught.
ELLISON: The Countess’s conviction that her relationship with her husband can change for the better is not delusion or desperation. It's a deep belief in who she knows him to be deep down, in the person she fell in love with before she knew he was the Count. And it shows us a beautiful quality about her own character, which is hope.
PHILLIPS: You can't expect to change anyone. No. But maybe, maybe she's just recognizing who he is and deciding to move forward. I don't know. I mean, you get to the end of the opera and he asks her for forgiveness. And the eternal question is, does she forgive him?I don't know. I don't have the answer, but I am really loving exploring it.
SAVAGE: I've been with Terry, my, my husband for 25 years, and the thing I've learned being in a relationship for a quarter of a century is that a relationship can’t survive without profound forgiveness in the wake of profound betrayals. You know, people ask me how we've managed to stay together all these years, and one of the things I like to say is we just keep not breaking up, because we value each other and we value the relationship itself -- which almost exists independent of each other, or is greater than the sum of its imperfect parts -- so much that we have each been willing to move past betrayals and get to a place of forgiveness and joy again.
PHILLIPS: I personally feel that love takes many forms, and sometimes it's fidelity, sometimes it's peace. Sometimes it's laughter. Sometimes it's letting things go, moving forward. Sometimes it's showing up. I don't know, but I think practicing kindness in those difficult times is really the most important thing, because I think that's the hardest thing to do.
END OF DECODE
GIDDENS: That was soprano Susanna Phillips, dramaturg Cori Ellison, and relationship and sex advice columnist Dan Savage decoding “dove sono” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Alright, come on back after the break to hear Susanna Phillips sing it for you.
GIDDENS: Now here’s soprano Susanna Phillips singing “dove sono” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, on stage at the Metropolitan Opera.
[Susanna Phillips sings “Dove sono”]
GIDDENS: Yep, pretty much one of my favorites, “Dove sono” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Thanks for joining me for another episode of Aria Code! If you’re enjoying the show, head on over to Apple podcasts to leave a rating or a review. We love hearing from you, and it really helps us out.
And hey, if you’re interested in going a little deeper on cheating and infidelity (and hey, who isn’t, come on…), our friends at the podcast Death, Sex, and Money have a whole episode about it! You’ll hear from men and women who’ve cheated AND been cheated on, and how it made some of them more honest in their relationships. Subscribe to Death, Sex, and Money wherever you get your podcasts.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Emily Lang is our associate producer, Brendan Francis Newnam and Helena DeGroot of Public Address Media are our editors, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik, and original music by Hannis Brown. I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time!
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.