And how many children did Lady Macbeth have? The documentary record on imaginary people is never complete, and where facts are wanting, speculation is no vice. We know that Octavian delivers the silver rose at seventeen and two months. We know that Shakespeare's Juliet is two weeks and a few days shy of her fourteenth birthday. But Othello is "declined into the vale of years -- yet that's not much," which translates to what number, exactly? In the eyes of a Victorian aesthete, Mona Lisa was "older than the rocks among which she sits."
And Despina? When Jonathan Miller was staging Così Fan Tutte for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 1982, he thought he had found the answer. Fiordiligi and Dorabella's chambermaid is not at all the saucy young soubrette of tradition, he insisted, but a bitter cynic who has been around the block. Plenty of other directors since have shown her in the same jaundiced light; so much so that Cecilia Bartoli, whose Despina arrives at the Metropolitan Opera this season after triumphs at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, has been moved to remark that she sees the character as much younger than most people think.
What facts can we assemble about Despina's age? First, it helps to remember that Così, which looks like a period piece today, was in 1790 an up-to-the-minute mirror of manners, based on current Viennese gossip implicating two young officers in the service of the emperor and their embarrassed fiancées. Without deliberate signals to the contrary, the contemporary, essentially realistic context would have cued audiences to read the apparent age of the performers as the age of their characters. Given the opportunity, Mozart evidently took delight in casting performers of exactly the right years. Nannina Gottlieb, who grew up in the theater and began performing at the tender age of five, created Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro at twelve, the age Beaumarchais specifies in his play. (Five years later, she was Mozart's first Pamina.)
As for the original Despina, she was Dorothea Bussani (née Sardi), born in 1763. By the time of the Così premiere, she was twenty-six or twenty-seven, two or three years younger than Cecilia Bartoli is today. Four years before, Bussani had made her stage debut as Cherubino in the original cast of Figaro (1786). For a slender, smooth-cheeked actress of twenty-two or twenty-three, passing as an adolescent male is no great trick. Four years later, Bussani might still have looked younger than her age -- candlelight is forgiving.
On the other hand, only two short years after Così, Bussani turned up in Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio Segreto, creating the role of Fidalma, an elderly widow with eyes for the jeune premier, thus epitomizing the stock figure Germans call "die komische Alte" -- a funny (or rather a silly) old lady. But who is to say that Cimarosa cast Bussani to type? The assignment could have been exceptional, premature or a tribute to her skills as a comedienne. She appeared in London around 1809 or 1810, but as Christopher Raeburn points out in his entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, an observer found her to be a singer with "plenty of voice, but whose person and age were not calculated to fascinate an English audience." After that, history loses sight of her.
What sort of performer was Bussani? Raeburn notes that the account in Da Ponte's memoirs does her no favors: "Though awkward and of little merit, by dint of grimaces and clowning and perhaps by means even more theatrical, she built up a large following among cooks, grooms, servants, lackeys and wigmakers, and in consequence was considered a gem." On the other hand, a contemporary wrote of Bussani that "he had never heard such beautiful and charming chest voice nor one used with such humor and so mischievously." These qualities left their mark on Così's score, notably on Despina's cameos in disguise, each penned in its own style -- the fussy pedant of a physician in Act I suddenly capable of majesty ("Questo è quel pezzo di calamità: pietra mesmerica!"), and the notary in Act II rattling off legalese in comically monotonous "clara voce" singsong that Mozart marked to be sung "through the nose." If Bussani's brand of theatricality annoyed Da Ponte, as perhaps in Figaro it did, he turned it to advantage here.
The opera itself tells us more about Despina's age. Obviously, she is younger than the opera's gray-haired philosopher -- a lot younger, as she rudely reminds him. "A una fanciulla un vecchio come lei non può far nulla," Despina scoffs when Don Alfonso comes to enlist her in his scheme, promising to do her a good turn: a geezer like you is no good to a young girl. What Da Ponte wrote was in fact a little different: "Non n'ho bisogno. Un uomo come lei non può far nulla" (This good turn of yours -- I don't need it. A man like you can't do a thing). Mozart, who never hesitated to give a librettist's lines an extra twist, did so here. (Perhaps with deliberate malice. The theater manager, Francesco Bussani, who played Don Alfonso, was in real life Dorothea's husband, twenty years her senior.)
Either way, Despina's waspish comeback suggests that what she cares about in a man is his manhood. In fact, what turns her on is money. Don Alfonso's proposition to gain his "Albanian" buddies access to the sisters from Ferrara suits Despina well enough, so long as he expects no sexual favors from her. Not that she is blind to the advantages other women see in a man's youth and beauty. Thus, right away, she wants to know: these men outside the door -- what are they like? "Son giovani? Son belli? E, sopra tutto, hanno una buona borsa i vostri concurrenti?" (These candidates of yours ... Are they young? Are they handsome? And above all, is their purse well-filled?) When the disguised Guglielmo points to his fine whiskers and those of his friend as outward proof of virility ("trionfi degli uomini, pennacchi d'amor" -- the trophies of men, the pennants of love), the point is not lost on Despina. She alludes to it later: "Son ricchi, i due messieurs mustacchi?" (Are they rich, these two Mr. Mustachios?). Once again, however, her eye is still principally on the gold. As the song says, girls just want to have fun.
From the first, Despina's gospel for Fiordiligi and Dorabella is to treat men the same selfish way that men treat women. Use them for enjoyment. Treat love as a trifle, "en bagatelle." For what is love? Here is Despina's definition:
Piacer, comodo, gusto, gioia, divertimento, passatempo, allegria: non è più amore se incomodo diventa, se invece di piacer nuoce e tormenta.
(Pleasure, convenience, delight, enjoyment, distraction, a pastime, a merriment. It's no longer love if it becomes a nuisance, if instead of pleasure it hurts and tortures you.)
But she displays no inclination to follow her own advice. If love ever interested Despina personally at all, she by now prefers to watch from the sidelines, pulling the strings and counting her money. Have your boys do as I say, she promises Don Alfonso, and "Pria di domani i vostri amici canteran vittoria ed essi avranno il gusto ed io la gloria": before tomorrow your friends will be celebrating victory. Theirs will be the pleasure and mine the glory.
Why glory? Because her other passion, apart from money, is control. Despina panders without scruples, glad to bend her mistresses to the young bucks' lust and incidentally their own. In literature, women who perform such services are often old and, like as not, terrifying -- retired gamesters arranging the matches they no longer care to play. In life, other younger women have been known to mix business and pleasure. Remember Sidney Biddle Barrows? Heidi Fleiss?
Despina professes to have led a thousand men by the nose -- a transparent euphemism, as Freud could tell you. Where would she have found the time? Not that a nimble chambermaid is altogether deprived of opportunity. What, Despina demands to know of her mistresses, is to prevent one of her station from juggling two lovers? As she goes on to declare in her second aria, any fifteen- year-old should know how to get her way with men. What fifteen-year-old female would disagree? But is Despina any older? Though her tongue is quick and her mind is nimble, the wisdom she spouts is of the sort any girl might learn at her mother's knee.
In the recitative leading up to her first aria, Despina scoffs that not even a child would buy Fiordiligi and Dorabella's old-fashioned, highfalutin notions anymore. The first few lines of the aria itself continue in the same vein. But then the time signature changes from a choppy parlando two-four to a lilting six-eight, and Despina's text changes from what sounds like naturalistic speech to something quite different: "Di pasta simile son tutti quanti," she declares: all men are made from the same dough. (Translation back into Italian: "Così fan tutti.") And on she goes, rattling off trite similes for men's inconstancy, drawing the practical feminine conclusion. Between tune and lyric, this part of the aria sounds remarkably like a pop canzonetta, chockablock with ideas that (while true) add nothing new to the sentimental history of the sexes.
Despina's worldly wisdom is less precocious than it is green. It is no shield against the seasoned cynicism of Don Alfonso, who clues her in just far enough to play her for a fool. Supposing herself in charge, Despina becomes the old man's unwitting tool. Like his other victims, Despina in the end sees her errors, and like her mistresses, she is ashamed. Mozart throws no musical spotlight on the moment, but Da Ponte's text strikes a touching note, at the same time defiant and a little meek:
Io non so se veglio o sogno, mi confondo e mi vergogno: Manco mal, se a me l'han fatta,
ch'a molt' altri anch'io la fo.
(Am I sleeping? Am I dreaming? I'm flabbergasted and ashamed. At least, if I've been snookered,
I've done the same to many more.)
Everybody's somebody's fool. That this is news to Despina may be the strongest evidence we have that she is a rather young person. She is too bright not to learn from experience.
How old is Despina? Like the ages of real people, the ages of imaginary ones mean everything and nothing. Insight may strike at any time. Years matter, but other things matter, too. Yet in a strange way, Despina's final discomfiture confirms our first impression of her -- furiously whipping hot chocolate, railing on social injustice like a junior Figaro, until she works up the steam to steal a sip. What rebellion! A hundred zecchini to nothing, she has never been so bold before.