Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Cosi' fan Tutte in the Mirror: Eternal truths on being human

This essay was written for the August 2015 performance of Mozart's sublime operatic masterpiece, Cosi' fan tutte, by Connecticut Lyric Opera.

Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)
Detail from the posthumous 1819 oil
by Barbara Kraft
Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna

   For many music lovers, the three operas that Wolfgang Mozart birthed with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte represent the apotheosis of the genre. These three sublime works - Le nozze di Figaro ("The Marriage of Figaro" – Vienna, 1786), Don Giovanni ("Don Juan" – Prague, 1787), and Cosi fan tutte " All women behave this way" - Vienna 1790) - contain within them the myriad and kaleidoscopic dimensions of human emotion, magnificently presented in exquisite music and brilliant song: love, jealousy, hatred, vengeance, disguise, infidelity, deception, betrayal, disdain, abandonment, hope, joy and redemption. It turns out that Cosi', long considered the “ugly duckling” of this hegemonic triad, actually contains the deepest truths, truths about who we are as humans  and of what "stuff" we are made.

Is Cosi' simply a comedy, nothing more than an uproarious farce? Or, is it at its core a tragedy, a morality tale of deep meaning and profound import?

There is ample evidence in Cosi's arias and the recitatives that it is comedic.  Mozart and Da Ponte adored puns and jokes (and don’t all geniuses retain those child-like qualities of fun and joy?).  One of the opera's main characters, the elderly Don Alfonso, a man wise in the ways of life and love, is hysterically funny in his pronouncements and predictions, even as he is spot-on.  Mozart and Da Ponte often used comedy to unmask dark truths. One has only to conjure Nozze, where the aristocracy is forced to look into their own hypocritical mirrors, or think of Don Giovanni – billed as a dramma giocosoas it is entitled by its creators – a “light-hearted melodrama” indeed, where subterranean urges lead to devastating consequences. 

Cosi' is a Janus-faced masterpiece. Behind its mask of mirth lurks the darkest and most complex of Mozart’s operas. The musicologist Edward Said has written that “we need to look at Cosi' as an opera whose strange lightheartedness hides, or at least underplays, an inner system that is quite severe and amoral in its workings.”  (1) 

Parsing the Italian reveals the deeper truth about the opera’s deceptively and disingenuously simple title, Cosi' fan tutte. The adverb Cosi' means "like this' or "this way." The verb "fan is a short form of the verb "fanno"  ("fare" = “to do,” “to behave” or “to act.")

In Italian, just like the Latin from which it derives, the endings of nouns and pronouns define that word's gender. Thus, the "e" ending of the pronoun "tutte" means that it is a feminine term. Thus, "tutte" translates as "all women."  If Mozart and da Ponte wanted to implicate men, or everyone, they would have used the pronoun "tutti" where the “i” ending implies a masculine subject, and which would translate as "all men." 

But, they didn’t.  They chose "tutte" on purpose. The title, Cosi' fan tutte (" Tutte fanno cosi' ") translates as "All women do this," or "All women act this way" or "All women behave this way." I didn’t say, "Women behaving badly," but wasn't that a TV show airing on Bravo? 

Hmmmmm.  But Wait ! 

Despite the title, aren’t the men behaving just as badly as the women? Of course they are. The subtitle given by Mozart and Da Ponte to Cosi' is "La scuola degli amanti," or, "The school for lovers."  Indeed, everybody "goes to school" in this opera, and many lessons are learned. 

In the first act, the viewer enters, not yet with discomfiture, this not-so-preposterous world, and finds Guglielmo and Ferrando declaiming love for their respective sweethearts, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who are visiting sunny Napoli (Naples, Italy) from their grey-skied hometown of Ferrara, in the foggy Po river valley south of Venice. We soon hear Fiordiligi cooing her undying love for Guglielmo, and Dorabella announcing with equal fervor her desire for Ferrando.

“Not so fast!” asserts Don Alfonso. He makes a bet with the two men that women, even their women are eternally fickle (prefiguring by sixty years Verdi’s Rigoletto aria, La donna e' mobile qual piuma il vento ("A woman is as flightly as a feather in the wind").

Through a hilarious plot line (this is an opera, after all), the men conspire with Don Alfonso to be called away to war, returning as “Albanian” soldiers (a proxy  for "foreigners" at that time even though Tirana is only about 150 miles from Bari, about the distance from New York to Hartford), in an attempt to trick their beloveds into changing their amorous allegiances. 

As Ferrando and Guglielmo board ship to depart, there arises one of the most sublime moments in all of opera, the beating heart of Cosi,' the terzetto Soave sia il vento ("May the wind be gentle").  This moment is one of great pathos (if we are to believe the characters for the moment) as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and Don Alfonso supporting them with imposing gravitas, hope for a gentle wind and a calm sea as they watch their lovers sail away. 

However, the last line of Soave is the giveaway. It ends with the words "ai nostri desir" or "to our desires." Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso are asking the gods to respond to their own desires (not those of Ferrando and Guglielmo, otherwise they would have sung "ai vostri desir") !

Identities switch, and emotions and loyalties are challenged. Fiordiligi’s grand aria, "Come scoglio" ("Like a rock"), undersocres her unwavering steadfastness to Guglielmo, a bond which is later broken, as she falls for Ferrando. Dorabella then succumbs to Guglielmo’s wiles, with her Act III aria, "E' amore un ladroncello" ("Love is a little thief"), coyly playing on this theme.

Did the couples really switch up?  How could that have happened? 

In the traditional ending, the one implied in Da Ponte's libretto, and arranged only as a result of the machinations of Despina, a notary and a magician of magnetic personality (“magnetic” literally and figuratively, as Franz Anton Mesmer, mesmerism and the science of magnetism were all the rage back then). Faux-marriage documents are signed and then shredded, false identities are figured out, and everyone goes back to loving (and presumably being faithful to) the parties they presumably loved at the beginning of this operatic canard. All is well, infidelity is gloriously quashed. Truth, Fidelity and Love reign supreme. This Day of Folly has duly run its course. The women, and the men, learn a stern lesson, and life can now go forward, unblemished by this tawdry interlude.

Whew!  We almost had a scandalous and amoral story on our hands, didn’t we?

Or did we?

As Roger Brunyate explains (in a production at the Peabody  Conservatory),  "Ultimately there is no way of playing the characters in Cosi' as real people without moving them into territory that is morally questionable. As soon as one woman guesses who is behind the disguise, but does not let on, she betrays not only her fiancĂ© but also her sister. If one man pulls back from a possible seduction out of concern for the woman or for his friend, while his friend has no such compunctions, there is betrayal there too. The opera’s title may literally mean “all women do that” but the men are as much to blame. Cosi' begins as a farce, but Mozart’s opera, when brought to either of its conclusions, poses moral questions which are just as relevant today as they were over two hundred years ago, and even more disturbing.” (2)

We desire to experience verite' in our art forms today. If the characters in Cosi' are played out as real people, things get uncomfortable and sticky. There is a constant tension in Cosi,' a yin and yang between staying faithful to the libretto and historical accuracy and confronting the eternal emotional truths that are revealed, as these initially archetypal characters in the first act become real, live, flawed, flesh-and-blood mortals by the end of the second. 

David Shefsiek, in his program notes to Opera Victoria's production, asserts that in Cosi'  "we travel in a metaphorical sense from a work written a few decades earlier, Voltaire’s Candide  and its “best of all possible worlds,” to another play from the Enlightenment, the veiled and dark underbelly of sexuality examined in Neveu’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

“Reason is not the exclusion of emotion in the human condition, and we shall ignore it at our peril." Shefsiek goes on to say that  "critics who question Cosi's realism are missing the point. It is not intended to be realistic. The theatrical glory of Cosi' is in watching, and listening to the transformation of the characters…. It is fascinating that while more than two hundred years have passed since the premiere of Cosi' its questions of love, fidelity and human relationships are as pertinent today as ever before”  (3)

So, where does that leave you, dear audience?  You be the judge. Let Cosi' be not only the mirror that blindingly reflects all the protagonists’ many flaws, let Cosi' also serve as a barometer of your own strength of character, your own frailties, feelings, hopes, desires, yearnings and realities, your own "woulda-shoulda-coulda". 
After all, in the end, we are all human, and that’s just as it should be.


1. Said, E.W. Cosi' fan tutte at the limits, On Late Style, Bloomsbury, London, 2006.

2. Brunyate, R., Cosi' fan tutte, program notes. Opera at Peabody. Peabody Conservatory, 2002.

3. Shefsiek, Cosi' fan tutte, program notes. Pacific Opera Victoria, 2010.

@ 2013 - 2017.  Vincent P. de Luise MD,  A Musical Vision.