169. Così fan tutte (Mozart)

COSÌ FAN TUTTE, OSSIA LA SCUOLA DEGLI AMANTI

  • Opera buffa in 2 acts
  • Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte
  • First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 26 January 1790

CHARACTERS: FIORDILIGI (soprano) and DORABELLA (soprano), sisters from Ferrara, living in Naples; GUGLIELMO (bass), lover of Fiordiligi, a soldier; FERRANDO (tenor), lover of Dorabella, a soldier; DESPINA (soprano), a maid; DON ALFONSO (bass), an old philosopher

SETTING: Naples, 18th century


Are romance and emotions very important to you? If yes, you might enjoy Così fan tutte; if not, you’ll likely find it rather tedious.

As I do, I admit. When I was eight, a friend reminded me recently, I wrote a letter to my class. Tristan und Isolde was nothing compared to the third grade. Boys and girls declared undying love in the morning, broke up at lunchtime, and spent the afternoon sobbing. The classroom was a battleground of shattered hearts, wounded feelings, and wrecked friendships. I urged my classmates not to torture themselves; they were children, and they should enjoy childhood while they could; and there was plenty of time for love when they were more mature.

That may explain why I find the most sympathetic character in this School for Lovers is Don Alfonso, the shrewd old philosopher who tries to teach four young lovers wisdom (or at least common sense and proportion). They badly need it. The men are jealous misogynists, and the women are ninnies.

Ferrando and Guglielmo think their girlfriends Fiordiligi and Dorabella are goddesses and phoenixes – anything but flesh and blood women. The soldiers claim the sisters (unlike other women) are incapable of cheating on them. Their reasons are ridiculous: they are beautiful so they must be virtuous; “long acquaintance, noble background, elevated mentality, compatibility of temperament, selflessness”… They place the women on pedestals – while their older friend reminds them that – like all of us – they have flesh, bones, skin, they eat … and, of course, they have sexual appetites.

The objects of their love are equally naïve. Fiordiligi and Dorabella expect faithfulness in men – in soldiers, as their crafty maid Despina tells them. (What happens in war, stays in war.) They moon over lockets, and are seemingly distraught when their lovers depart. But are their emotions sincere, or do they merely act what they think they should feel? They indulge those emotions. They demand knives and poisons to kill themselves; they order the windows closed, and declare that they hate light and themselves. They express their feelings in opera seria numbers – ‘Smanie implacabili’ and ‘Come scoglio’, a Metastasian metaphor aria – that are stereotyped representations of emotions (affects).

The men return disguised as Albanians; each youngster falls in love with the ‘wrong’ person; their jealousy, confusion, and shame increase; and the philosopher reveals his deception, claiming his “deceit was undeceiving for the lovers, who will be wiser now”. The opera ends with the moral that rational optimism is a wiser approach to life than emotions, infatuations, and illusions.

Unfortunately, it takes more than three hours to make this self-evident point: at least an hour too many. Cosi fan tutte is slight, protracted, and has too little content to justify its length. Salieri – a finer musical dramatist – was first commissioned to write the work, but abandoned the score. Probably wisely. (The sub-title, incidentally, nods to his Scuola de’ gelosi.)

Nor is the music Mozart at his best; it’s elegant but largely unmemorable. The strong pieces in the score are the overture; in Act I: the famous trio ‘Soave sia il vento’, the sextet, and the finale stretta ‘Dammi un bacio, o mio tesoro’; and in Act II: Fiordiligi’s aria ‘Per pietà, ben mio perdona’.

The work was not a success: it was performed five times in its initial run (interrupted by Joseph II’s death), four more times that year, and never given again during Mozart’s lifetime. “People were universally amazed that this great genius could condescend to waste his heavenly sweet melodies on such a miserable and clumsy text,” Mozart’s early biographer Franz Xaver Nĕmetschek said.

Nineteenth century critics detested the work. Beethoven objected to its immorality, while Wagner rejoiced that it was not possible for Mozart to invent music for Così fan tutte like Figaro’s: “How shamefully it would have desecrated Music!” Even in more sophisticated France, the music was fitted to other libretti: Le laboureur chinois (1807) or an adaptation of Love’s Labours Lost (1862).

The work did not gain favour until the early 20th century, when it was championed by Richard Strauss, who thought it the greatest opera ever composed. Today it is the eleventh most performed opera in the world, with 4309 performances between 2004 and 2018.

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