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What’s in a name?

3 AUG 2011

by lettowsky  12:06 h;
published in: Opera, General

Alek Shrader (c) Peter Schaaf
Sorry to have left you for so long! We’ve arrived at the oft-dreaded production week – that’s the week before a show opens, where we have lots of rehearsals in costume, with lights, with orchestra, culminating in the final dress rehearsal (or Generalprobe, auf Deutsch). Don’t worry, nobody’s dreading anything. In fact, the more we run the show, the more we tune our characters (yes, that was a musical pun).

As a little psychological experiment, I asked each singer to describe briefly the other characters, in this production or traditional concepts, and here are their responses (in order of vocal appearance, mind you – I’m not playing favorites by listing the tenor first):

Ferrando is a true, sweet, young puppet, and similar to Seymour from Little Shop of Horrors.

Guglielmo is a cool, down-to-earth, tricky player, yet also a puppet.

Don Alfonso is a meddling, wise, trickster uncle figure akin to Yoda (but taller).

Fiordiligi is a scared, honest, secure yet vulnerable Penelope Pitstop-type.

Dorabella is a loud, funny, passionate, tricky Tasmanian she-Devil.

Despina is a savvy, experienced, fed-up Morticia Addams.

Now let me go out on limb and try to get inside the mind of famous American and librettist of Così fan tutte Lorenzo Da Ponte (yup, he was an American, eventually). This is entirely speculation and has only coincidental (if any) bearing on the concept or performances in this production. Just take it as food for thought – low calorie and high fiber. It was not uncommon for names of characters to reflect their personality in some way … Let’s break out Wikipedia and Google Translate because I’m about to get creative (ie, make stuff up):

Ferrando: the Italian word ferro can be used to mean “sword” but it also means “iron” – a strong, masculine metal (specifically masculine because it is traditionally represented by the symbol of Mars). This word combined with the –ando ending makes it a verb in its gerund form (in English gerunds end in –ing). So, Ferrando could be doing something like getting stronger, being forged, or becoming a man. He certainly learns a hard lesson about friendship, love, and honesty by the end of the opera. Bonus info that I wasn’t sure how to incorporate: Ferrante is a region of Italy that may have given birth to the name, but also has an Old Italian meaning of gray.

Guglielmo: This name actually has Germanic origins as Wilhelm, which translates as “will/desire + helmet”… I can use the desire part, but for helmet I need more coffee to think about it. However, guglio, in Italian, means spire or pinnacle – the highest point – (and guglie means several of them). Perhaps Guglielmo is therefore the pinnacle of men, he who can do no wrong, the guy women want and men want to be like. After all, who can resist a Guglielmo?

Don Alfonso: Eh, I’ll save him for last.

Fiordiligi: Broken down literally, her name is fior di ligi, or “flower of loyalties” which makes some correlation to my following imaginings, and certainly reflects the core of the character. IF ONLY this were the Italian version of fleur-de-lis, literally the lily flower. Traditionally, this symbol can represent a bunch of good things, among which are nobility, wisdom, and even virginity. Depending on your opinion of just how much has gone on prior to the opera, you may completely disagree with this, but just for the sake of this blog: what if the above mentioned virginity has been taken by an irresistible *pinnacle* of a man? It might make a very compelling argument to remain true to that person no matter what, and takes nearly two full acts for the tenor to win her over. Unfortunately, unless you want to make leaps and shaky translations like I have, fiordaliso is the closest we’re going to get, which, as we know, is not the actual name. Now, the English translation of this Italian flower can be the lily, but it usually means the cornflower, which is blue… which leads me to the Romantic period in literature (specifically the German Romantics, who happened to be in full effect as this opera was being created), who used the idea of a blue flower (Blaue Blume) to represent “desire, love and the metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable” (couldn’t have said it better myself – I got that straight from Wikipedia). If you buy all that, the tough question becomes whether Fiordiligi is guided by the things this flower represents, or if she is a physical manifestation of these ideas to the other characters, or both. Does she seek true love (does she convince herself she has found it?) or are the men drawn to her by their own seemingly unattainable desire? Whoa. I’m confusing myself now.

Dorabella: If we break up her name in Italian, d’ora could (heavy on the “could”) mean “of feminine gold”, or maybe even “to gild” (in verb form dora). It could also mean (with a stretch) “of this moment, right now”, but if we go to Greek roots it translates as “gift”, and bella in Italian (no doubt) means “pretty”. So, all together this might indicate a woman who responds in the moment, values or perhaps is herself gold/gilded/treasure, and is without question good-looking. Dramatic first aria, anybody? Quick to choose which new lover she wants? Her emotions are easy to read – as if they are shining, perhaps (wink wink) – and they come very quickly.

Despina: Ok, Italian doesn’t help much, but Spanish does (and we all know the Romantic languages all came from Latin anyway). An espina is a spine or thorn or something that could pierce or prick, so d’espina might might might literally mean “of thorns” or maybe that she’s had experience with “thorns” (if you know what I mean, pardon my French…). She certainly seems to have some advice to offer about men, particularly soldiers…

Don Alfonso, indicated in the score as “an elderly philosopher”: This name is probably of Germanic origin and means noble and ready for battle (which is good because he starts the opera by picking a fight). But really… I got nothing. I was hoping some light would shine and I’d have the answer to my whole name theory, but… I’m grasping at straws here. Let’s start with the easy one, his title Don. He’s of the upper class, or at least of some elevated status. I tend to think he’s got money, based on the way he throws it around, but the whole “Don” thing could be honorific (or even sarcastic, depending on how you want to go). Now… my biggest stretch yet. We leave Italian again, this time for French (which was the language of the court, back in the day); foncer is a verb which can mean “to make darker”, and Fonse can be a shortening of the French form of the name (Alphonso). After some lingual liberties, Alfonso could be taken to mean “to the darkening” or “to darken”… That philosophy about the entirety of women is a bit dark, when you think about it. I know it’s a stretch. Told ya. Special thanks to Francesco Corti (our magnifique continuo player/diction maestro) for the definition of foncer.

On a side note, the sisters are said to be from Ferrara, but I chose not to explore that information at this time (which happens to be bed-time). However, there are a few name similarities, including Guglielmo II of Adelardi and Duke Alfonso d’Este (who was eventually married to the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, which might have an impact on one’s philosophy of ladies and love… I’m just saying).

And with that, I leave you. I’m a firm believer that if you look hard enough you can find evidence to support pretty much anything, but this was just a bit of fun. I can promise less random musing and more cold hard facts in the future (or at least a larger portion of facts), but until then I bid you good day, und tschüss!

Alek Shrader