By Bob Bernard
“Fidelity in women is like the Arabian Phoenix: Everyone says it exists, but no one knows where.”
--- Mozart Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte
“Mozart's Cosi fan tutte is not only about seduction – it is seduction. The audience is beguiled into hours of improbable drama, lured towards a troubling ending by music of such beauty that will completely disarm you.”
The above observation from Peter McCallum of the Sydney Opera House summarizes both the theme and the intent of this entertaining (and disturbing) work. The basic story idea of Cosi: a pair of men test the fidelity of their respective fiancées by, first, disguising themselves, and then wooing the other fellow’s woman, has links to the ancient Greeks but, most particularly, to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its sometimes-confused quartet of lovers: Demetrius, Lysander, Helena, and Hermia.
Commissioned by Mozart’s patron, Joseph II, only five performances were held before Joseph died, and Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, didn’t favor operas with any kind of a buffo flavor. So librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte was fired as Court Poet, thus ending this burst of shared operatic creativity (with Mozart) that had produced Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Cosi fan tutte in 1789.
If performed well, this opera should make us feel uncomfortable because --- unlike Figaro and Giovanni --- it is not about “them”--- not about the philandering Count Almaviva in Figaro and not about the serial shagger in Giovanni --- but rather about us. And the more it is performed in modern dress, the stronger the impact.
Mozart’s great and ambiguous opera offers serious research into the resiliencies and frailties of the human heart: two pairs of lovers are induced to exchange partners through deceptions conceived by a fifth party. As Philip Hensher of the Manchester Guardian put it: “No lab experiment could be more unreasonably controlled.” Indeed, the flimsiness of the subterfuges and their success suspend disbelief and approach the surreal. The messy humanity beneath them, however, is painfully real.
For much of the 19th century, elite opera goers found Cosi to be morally ugly. Victorians deplored its “deceitful” behavior. However, with time, things change. In his third-to-last play in 1930, The Breadwinner, English playwright W. Somerset Maugham had stockbroker Charles Battle offer this disturbing historical note: “You know, of course, that the Tasmanians, who never committed adultery, are now extinct.” And in his 1973 novel, Time Enough For Love, Robert Heinlein had his protagonist Lazarus Long offer the notion that “Everybody lies about sex,” a thought that was picked up by a majority of U.S. Senators in 1998, rationalizing that it was OK to lie about sex, even while under oath.
This opera is excruciatingly autobiographical. While in Vienna, Mozart fell in love with his landlady’s daughter Aloysia Webber, but was forbidden to marry her by her mother. Instead, of course, he was given consent and married Aloysia’s sister Constanza. In the late first act aria: "Un'aura amorosa" — "A loving breath," Mozart speaks to us through the voice of Ferrando with a heart-rending yearning for love.
The second act begins in the jocular vein of a musical comedy and proceeds in a downward spiral as the plot transitions from game to reality. First, there is Despina’s big scene. Despina, a woman of the world, has been around the block a few times and has much wisdom regarding men to share with the sisters. Here are a few of her gems:
• So you’re out of men, so what! Do as the Army: start recruiting!
• You can do without love, but not without lovers.
• There are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it.
• One’s worth as much as another, because none of them is worth a thing!
• They’re all made of the same stuff: false glances, deceitful voices, treacherous caresses. And these are their outstanding qualities!
Ultimately, all pretenses are stripped away with the six principals singing that the wisdom now acquired will assure wise persons of a peaceful future: “Bella calma troverà” (in Italian), reiteratively sung, only it is not a celebration of peace but rather quickly becomes a screaming plea for peace of mind. The music (not necessarily the words) always tells the truth, and these are not happy individuals, but rather desperate, despairing people, people who now think they’ve made the wrong choice for a life partner.
Cosi fan tutte is the most intimate, personal, and interior musical work that has ever been written about the way men and women deal with one another.
For us who have ever experienced relationship issues that have caused quiet resignation, persistent regret, or even severe emotional distress, may we, with the wisdom accrued with time: “Bella calma troverà” ... "May we - each of us - now have a beautiful peace."