BACK to WattWork / The Words



Cosi fan Tutte

Let's Face It — We're All Like That

Who among us could pass the test imposed in Così fan tutte, the original “reality show”?

Translated loosely as They All Do It, or sometimes (invoking the strikingly andro-centric Enlightenment), Women Are Like That, the opera's title refers to an experiment in failed fidelity. The cynical Don Alfonso wagers two lovesick swains that he can persuade their girlfriends—who are sisters—to be unfaithful. Not content with that, Alfonso further suggests the sisters' charms are so interchangeable, their wits so dull, that all four lovers can be persuaded to fall for one another (in the seventies—the nineteen-seventies—it was called "swinging"). Ferrando and Guglielmo thereupon set out in high dudgeon to outdo the old philosopher.

As we settle in for an evening with
Così fan tutte, Don Alfonso has some listeners feeling contrarian right off the bat, his supercilious wager proposed with a sniff and a leer. The young men protest, and so do we—until we realize, queasily, that we have recently tuned in—along with a 9-point-whatever audience share—to the same cynical assumptions on reality television's Paradise Island—never mind the longer-lived The Bachelor, among many others.

Who are we kidding? The issues that had Enlightenment philosophes stroking their chins while the world "danced on the crust of a volcano" are the very troubles that roil beneath the surface of our own conventions, and we purpose to distract ourselves from them in much the same way. Evidently it's the nature of the beast.

Nature was, in fact, one of the big questions of the Enlightenment. Are we bound by our emotional nature in our behavior, or can we rationally discern what is right to do? Will our natural inclinations teach us our moral duty? Does duty to society morally outweigh our duty to our deepest selves? Must we fulfill our duty? Ought we honor emotion? What's a girl to do?

Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that reason renders us both rational and natural. Well, okay, but then what? That answer is near impossible to ferret out. For though we may be “noble in reason” (apologies to the Bard here), we are all but “infinite in faculties; in form and moving, volatile, though admirable; in apprehension, like gods….” In short, man is some “piece of work”.

Così fan tutte takes it all on. A self-respecting Rousseauian, Don Alfonso (suggested by some to mirror librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte himself) assumes responsibility for the young lovers' education, leading them to learn through experience what they could not be convinced of by reason, for lack of any sense memory of it.

Too often staged as trifling farce,
Così is an opera that benefits, if ever opera did, from a comprehensive back story. For Mozart fitted Così's many charms so neatly into its eighteenth century scaffolding that we can miss its deeper insights. And we miss much if we allow the folderol of this screwball comedy to meringue its mournful undercurrents. Così is neither as silly nor as sweet as it sometimes seems.

For one thing, real circumstances in the composer's life furnished many of the opera's particulars, and most of the undertow. Sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, for example (not to mention their predicament) may seem at first to be about as plausible as a couple of trilling Doublemint twins. But Mozart had found his own first love not in Constanze Weber, the rascally girl he eventually married, but in her older sister—the poised and level-headed Aloysia. Why shouldn't he set them to music? These days we willingly accept a parade of plug-in ingénues who maneuver us bouncily through our own diversions—in reality and in Reality TV—desperate for someone to wager on our best intentions. Mozart's been there, and done that.

The pairing of sibling foils recurs purposefully throughout Enlightenment literature (think Jane Austen's
Sense and Sensibility), embodying the century's competing dualities. And whether or not Mozart consciously modeled the imperious Fiordiligi and excitable Dorabella after the real-life Weber sisters, the suggestion that they were interchangeable as wife-worthy women is at least partly apt. Once wed, an Enlightenment couple's primary object would be to prosper society in its fundamental economic unit—the family. And this Mozart understood especially well, having passed his childhood as his father's cash cow, all over the European continent, and that much would be so, whomever he might marry.

The hasty (and bogus) call to arms with which Don Alfonso gets the boyfriends neatly out of the way may seem a lame contrivance—but it was an accurate approximation of its times. Europe under Emperor Joseph II was a jumble of small sovereignties, each with its own militia which could muster, engage, and be home for supper, in a routine round of perfunctory battles. When the sisters bid their boyfriends farewell, suspending time in the ravishing Act I trio "Soave sia il vento", with Don Alfonso in mordant ostinato, the parting is no less heartrending for being a ruse.

Presently the boyfriends reappear in mustachioed disguise as "Albanians" (or "Turks", speaking generically), ridiculous in manner and mien. Another dubious plot device—but for the fact that Joseph II had made himself both ludicrous and detested by waging "disastrous, futile and costly war against the Turks" in 1788. In these outlandish caricatures Mozart was weighing in on current events.

Surely we're expected to have a laugh when the sisters’ maid, Despina, appears in disguise as a magnet-wielding doctor? Again, yes and no. For though Despina may overreach in claiming "old Doctor Mesmer" as her professor, one Franz Anton Mesmer of Germany was indeed engaged in the continental frenzy to establish scientific proof of an animating life-force. Mesmer's unsubstantiated experiments "discovered" an invisible "fluid" he called "animal magnetism" which drew people together, in social and psycho-sexual attraction, and purported to prove a material cause behind man's social instincts. Why not? Isaac Newton had recast falling down as the science of gravity, not only plausible but wildly popular. Mesmer's work, in fact, generated a host of scabrous practitioners. One entrepreneurial Scotsman made a fortune on his magnetized mattress, the "Celestial Bed", which supposedly cured infertility, male and female—suggesting nothing so much as the legendary "Magic Fingers"— that electro-powered vibrating mattress with the quarter-operated, bedstead-mounted timer, of roadside motel fame. Apparently 'twas ever thus.

During Mozart's time, natural inquiry was beginning to formalize rules of theory and scientific proof, and many human enigmas, once the province of religion, would also be entrusted to science. Mozart himself owned a well-thumbed copy of Ebert's
Naturlehre, on the animation of inert matter. Eighteenth-century scientists, philosophers, and literary figures alike anticipated that under controlled circumstances human essence could be distilled, a secular morality prescribed, and social order secured. The arts became a metaphorical Petri dish where social experiments could be tried by scientific methods.

Così fan tutte, for example, extracts its characters from their natural habitat, giving them no particular context, personal, sexual, or social. All we’re told is that the sisters are “from Ferrara, living in Naples”. They are isolated for observation, as if under the biologist's microscope, the better to discover a definable human essence. Nowadays, the reality television phenom engages us in the same experiment—don't you feel it?

By the decade of Joseph II's reign, the Enlightenment had spiraled into bitter disillusion, most of all for Joseph himself. His personal response to society's failure to blossom in the bright noonday of liberalization was to sink into libertine indulgences, and his official response was to suspend many of the social advances he had tried to institute, including his experiment in vernacular German opera.

This was a boon for Mozart, who turned to the classically educated Lorenzo da Ponte for nuanced libretti in the Italian opera buffa style. Depending heavily upon the well-established superstructures of Italian theatrical tradition, in which his audience would have been fluent, Mozart was able to set deep currents of additional meaning coursing through
Così's music, sometimes even pulling against the characters' texts, making otherwise silly creatures extraordinarily empathic.

Così's laboratory of love is further bounded by classical unities of time and space, allowing Mozart to telescope the lovers' lessons (causing no end of moral outcry among 19th-century Romantics, and thus deep-sixing Così for a century), and by carefully contrived mathematical symmetries: a cast of three men and three women—two pairs of couples, with two arias each, two parallel schemers, in two balanced acts.

From commedia dell'arte, old European street theatre, come the familiar elder cynic, the coquettish servant, and the characters of Despina's disguises—the doctor and the notary. All these made instantaneous impressions upon audiences already schooled in their centuries-old significance. The "Albanians' " slapstick shenanigans complete the
commedia. So Mozart's audience would get the gist right away, leaving more of their attention for his all-important undercurrents.

A play of manners by eighteenth-century playwright Pierre Carlet de Marivaux is the immediate source for
Così's plot line, though da Ponte would have been aware of Ovid's similar tale of the lovers Cephalus and Procris. There the science of love is tested by Cephalus, who disguises himself to prove his girlfriend's fidelity. In Ovid's Metamorphoses, Procris acquires an enchanted spear from the huntress Diana, which she gives to Cephalus when they reconcile, and with which he somehow manages accidentally to kill her. Later variants, favored by the Enlightenment, allow Procris to live. But when Fiordiligi sings the ineffably sad aria "Per pietà", as she finally gives in—a capitulation more to her own sexual nature than to Sempronio's/ Ferrando's wooing—who can deny that something inside has died? And she can't hide. And she just can't fake it.

At the opera's end, when the jig is up, though some room for argument persists, the opera's own rules of symmetry oblige a return to the original pairings. Nothing will ever be the same again, of course, so changed are the lovers by what they now know from experience, which they could not have known before. Nor would love be satisfied were the couples to trade off. For the sisters have fallen not for each others' beaux, but for a couple of phony Turks, who won't be coming back.

Così 's world, it was still possible for a well-educated person to know all there was to know, about everything. Then science was in its infancy, within almost anyone's purview, carnival-popular, and willing to lend its reassuring symmetries to the chaotic ephemera of human lives and loves.

But, suggests Mozart scholar Nicholas Till, author of
Mozart and the Enlightenment, Così fan tutte asks whether any human being can survive scientific scrutiny, outside of a divine paradigm. "Could we really live so…without believing that our trials were truly trials…rather than simply accidents?" Così, writes Till, depicts "a purely material world" in which irony…and bravado "shield a diminished humanity, first cousin to the unpleasant trait of cynicism, that is so often the outcome of disappointed illusions."

What could be more contemporary? How much more so, now, ought we to heed the inexpressible in our nature—now when science is everywhere, and nothing, least of all "reality," is what it seems. And everything that affects us most deeply is still inexplicable.

— Kathleen Watt writes frequently on the arts.

© 2006, New York City Opera and K. E. WATT. All rights reserved.


BACK to WattWork / The Words