Overlooked Opera: Così fan tutte

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 - 03:00 PM

Cosi fan tutte with Luca Pisaroni (Guglielmo), Martina Janková (Despina), Marie-Claude Chappuis (Dorabella), Gerald Finley (Don Alfonso), Malin Hartelius (Fiordiligi), Martin Mitterrutzner Cosi fan tutte at Salzburg Festival with Luca Pisaroni, Martina Janková, Marie-Claude Chappuis, Gerald Finley, Malin Hartelius, Martin Mitterrutzner (© Michael Pöhn)

Back in July, I wrote the first of what I said would be an occasional series called Overlooked Operas. Readers seemed to agree that Weber’s Der Freischütz has been undervalued, especially in the United States. I suspect there will not be similar consensus for today’s Overlooked Opera, Mozart’s Così fan tutte.

"Così fan tutte," I can hear you shriek, “how is that an overlooked opera?” To which I would answer that “overlooked” is a word with shades of meaning. It can mean “ignored” or “forgotten,” but also can suggest something whose merit is not given its due. That is the case here.

I think Così (1790) is the victim of being neither here nor there in the public and professional perception of Mozart’s works. The composer’s two previous collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte are hard acts to follow. Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) is often thought of as the first work in the standard operatic repertory that continues until Puccini’s Turandot (1924). Le Nozze di Figaro is brilliant comedy with beautiful music and is often said to have played a role in the political upheaval that spread through Europe in its wake.

Don Giovanni (1787) is thought by many people to be the best opera ever written, and there are certainly days when I agree with that. It is a cosmic miracle concerning issues great and small and is arguably one of the most difficult operas to stage and perform. But it is one of the rare works of art, along with Hamlet, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and a few others, that are universally revered yet never fully understood. How can one follow that with an opera about two sisters who are duped into taking each other's boyfriend?

It did not help that da Ponte himself referred to Così as "the drama that holds third place among the sisters born of that most celebrated father of harmony." I looked in the Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia (Cambridge’s composer encyclopedias are catnip for music lovers) and discovered that da Ponte thought of this opera by the name – La Scuola degli Amanti (The School for Lovers) that ultimately became its subtitle. 

The librettist was not pleased when Mozart imposed a new title on the opera. Così fan tutte is often translated as "Women are all the same" but a more literal translation is “This is how all women do things” or perhaps “This is how all women are.” The lack of specificity in the title can prove frustrating to people who insist that everything be comprehensible and cut-and-dried. The ambiguity (a characteristic found in Don Giovanni) makes this opera more complex and more intriguing.

According to the Cambridge encyclopedia, the title came from a line in Le Nozze di Figaro: “Count Almaviva’s discovery of Cherubino hiding in Susanna’s room causes Basilio to comment: ‘Così fan tutte le belle/Non c’è alcuna novità’ or ‘All the beauties do it/There’s nothing new in that.’” 

When directed and played as a sex farce of mistaken identities, Così remains superficial. But as an exploration of the quicksilver changes of the human heart, it makes the two previous da Ponte operas seem naive by comparison. If every heart harbors a mystery (to paraphrase a lyric from Verdi’s Ernani), what happens in Così fan tutte is that it is Mozart in his music, much more than da Ponte in his words, who plumbs the depths of the mystery in each of the six characters in the opera.

It takes a superb conductor to grasp this and a worldly stage director to also discover these mysteries in the music. Both of them must find ways to help the cast members use their own sensibilities to connect with these mysteries and then perform the opera without indicating emotions before they should be revealed. This is extremely challenging but richly rewarding on the rare occasions when everything works. 

Matthew Polenzani, Susanna Phillips, Isabel Leonard and Rodion Pogossov in the Met's 'Così fan tutte' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

The opera has another element that makes it more challenging and rewarding than the previous two da Ponte works: The stage director has many ways to interpret the ending. At the start of the opera, soprano Fiordiligi is dating baritone Guglielmo. Her sister, mezzo-soprano Dorabella, is dating tenor Ferrando. At the instigation of a cynical older man, Don Alfonso, and with assistance of the sisters' maid Despina, the two young men return in disguise and pursue the other’s girlfriend. Dorabella falls first while Fiordiligi maintains a resistance to Ferrando's wooing. Ultimately, Fiordiligi and Ferrando are caught by surprise as they discover the genuine intensity of feeling (as opposed to raw lust) that they have for one another.

In most of the 170 years that followed the opera’s premiere, the four young people returned to their original partners and, supposedly, all ends happily. With more psychological study and the evolving status of women, by the 1960s, some directors staged the opera so that the couples switched partners at the end and all ended happily (we are asked to assume). 

In recent years, I have seen productions in which the four characters stand alone at the end, dazed and confused by what they have experienced. This seemed logical until I saw the revelatory ending in Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s new production at the Salzburg Festival last summer. As the opera concluded, Fiordiligi and Ferrando had found soulmates in one another. Dorabella wanted to be with Guglielmo but he was not interested. With his preening male ego, he delighted in the fact that he was able to seduce his friend’s girlfriend while watching his own girlfriend remain faithful. When Fiordiligi opted for Ferrando, Guglielmo became enraged with jealousy and rejected Dorabella (about whom he never really cared) and stormed away. The message here was that all women do not behave that way but lots of men do.

Another reason I think Così should be held in higher regard is that when James Levine made his very-welcome return to the orchestra pit at the Met on September 24, this is the opera he chose. The other works he conducts this season are two operas he is closely associated with: Falstaff, in Robert Carsen’s wonderful production that receives its Met premiere on December 6, and Wozzeck, which Levine has led more than 40 times at the Met yet still finds depth and new meaning in this masterpiece each time he returns to it. If James Levine thinks so highly of Così fan tutte to put it with two of his very favorites, that is good enough for me.


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Comments [11]

Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard WAGNERMusic Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Whatever music Maestro James Levine conducts, he enlivens the festivities with bringing forth the salient music lines and the spirit of the work. Singers appreciate his integrity, his concern for their delivering the best they know how. He is a real treasure and should be a model for all maestri. Great to have you back Maestro Levine !

Apr. 26 2014 04:39 PM
Didier from St Augustine Florida

The beauty of all Mozart operas is that one does not need to know the story to enjoy the extraordinary music and singing
Cosi Fan Tutte is a sublime work! Karl Bohm 1962 the best recording
Mozart was the greatest opera composer along with Fidelio'Beethoven and Weber's Der Freichush

Feb. 12 2014 03:40 PM
Fred Plotkin from Paris, France

Thanks, commenters, for your input. As I predicted, this opera is quite divisive and elicits all kinds of reactions. That is good. As it happens, I am in Paris doing some reporting for this column. Came back from a good I Puritani with a talented young Italian soprano named Maria Agresta. Turned on French TV and there is a Cosi fan tutte in a modern setting. I am not sure if it is a French production. I can tell you that when Fiordiligi is not singing or engaged in the action she sits and reads Anna Karenina. Responses to three commenters: To Jerry from NYC: I like your analysis. I think ambiguity is the key to many great works of art, including Don Giovanni and Cosi. I always wonder why people don't revile Don G as a character. Much more evil and cruel that any of the three men in Cosi. To Charles F. in Virginia: your important point really is not about Cosi but I want to make one observation: it is essential for opera companies and all arts organizations to expand beyond the comfortable to that which is more challenging and also worthy. That said, I think it is incumbent on arts organizations to decide carefully what they need in their coffers each year to stay in the black and then budget with the notion that you want to get a high percentage of sales for the Aidas, Traviatas and Toscas and then aim to get 50% for the Wozzecks, and only expect that income. If Wozzeck sells 60%, it is found money that is welcome but not expected nor counted on as the company looks to the fiscal year's tallying. And Concetta: no need to wonder why you like La Clemenza di Tito. It is a fabulous opera that I often enjoy as much as Don G. One of the reasons I came to Paris now is to see a performance of it (they call it La Clemence de Titus) at the Opera Garnier

Nov. 30 2013 07:58 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Agree with John from Greenwich Village. Other than Soave sia il vento, could never finish listening to this opera, even with the score to read along. Not a very nice look at women. Really that stupid? Thank God we have Figaro, The Don, Abduction and for some reason, I like the Clemenza di Tito.
Best wishes to all

Nov. 30 2013 03:33 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

This is one of the operas would not take with me were I ever to be exiled somewhere.

Nov. 30 2013 08:45 AM
George Jochnowitz from New York

The duet sung by Guglielmo and Dorabella, "Il core vi dono," is one of the most convincing love duets in opera. After the switch takes place, each of the characters has found true love.

Nov. 29 2013 02:59 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

What makes the story less acceptable to me is the fact that there's an "agent provocateur" in the person of Don Alfonso. Without him, I don't think the pairs would have ever thought of a swap, and hence no opera. I think if it were a singspiel, there would be much less ambiguity because the characters would speak for themselves and thus put all the ridiculous directorial "concepts" to rest. I love hearing the Overture, No. 10, "Soave sia il vento" --- which I think is absolutely sublime --- and No. 17, Un' aura amorosa". I can do without ever hearing or seeing the rest of it again very easily. I can't do without Figaro, Don Giovanni, Seraglio, The Magic Flute and Idomeneo.

Nov. 29 2013 10:35 AM
Jerry from New York City

Directors feel free to create their own fantasy constructions--if Mr. Plotkin prefers to have both women characterized as sincerely in love with two different lovers one after the other, but one of the men is merely a shallow seducer and a soreheaded loser, it's alright, so long as one remembers that none of this is in the music or the libretto. One might also conceivably have the two girls winking at each other as they "see through" the disguises of their original boyfriends and go along with the joke--wink, wink, nudge, nudge--none of that would be in the plot either. Or you may invent any other permutations you wish.
I like "Cosi" very much. The music is superb. As for the plot,the ending(as written) comes as a surprise at first, but eventually it becomes clear: human beings are often incredibly shallow, self-deluded creatures. The sincerity of the feeling expressed in the arias makes the situation not only poignant, but more ironically absurd. If "women are like that," what can we say of the vain and vacillating men who love them, woo them and marry them? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, as well. Those men of the enlightenment, Mozart and Da Ponte, had had their brushes with life, love and matrimony, and they leave us with a pill that would make us gag unless it be downed with a dose of philosophic laughter.

Nov. 28 2013 09:03 PM
Charles Fischbein from Front Royal, Va.

Fred, Wozzeck may be good enough for Mr. Levine and you, but one look at box office sales will show with the exception of the March 22 Saturday matinee it is thus far not selling anywhere close to 50% of the house. Until Mr. Gelb and Mr. Levine select operas that the public will be willing to pay to see, not ones oriented to a small segment of the opera going public, the Met will continue to suffer declines at the box office, which it can ill afford to do.
Maybe you Fred, can conjure up a few thousand of your 'friends' to show up for Wozzeck and bring the sales close to this years 65%.of house capacity. God Speed, Charles Fischbein

Nov. 28 2013 11:39 AM
Leslie from Belfast, Maine

I have seen many Cosi performances. I had trouble staying awake, and had more than one nap. I went to Cosi in October because Jimmy was conducting and the cast. What I saw that night was a revelation! The cast joyful in it's work with Jimmy, and the music alive and gorgeous all the way through. I cannot wait patiently to see it again at the end of the season.

What a surprise to me.

Nov. 28 2013 12:43 AM
John Yohalem from Greenwich Village

Cosi has certainly remained the da Ponte opera I love least. I find it very difficult to take the sisters or their suitors seriously -- as seriously as I take (as Mozart persuades me to take) Susanna, the Countess, Figaro, Donna Elvira, even Donna Anna and Don Ottavio. The enthusiasm of the boys for the practical joke that is sure to end in heartbreak for someone is distinctly repellent. Also: The arias hold up the action.

I once saw the Met's Young Artists Program perform the opera without the arias. Just the ensembles. They were acting to a fare-thee-well, too. It went gangbusters! It was thrilling! The action was intense, the characters intensified. Everything worked. The arias, especially in Act II, seem to me artificially inserted because the convenienze required them. Plot and character do not require them, and they tire me out. On DVDs, I tend to fast-forward through Act II scenes 2 and 3. Let's get to the "wedding" and the fun part.

The lack of humanity in the libretto, in the characters, keeps Cosi on my back list. My favorite Mozart operas these days, the ones I happily return to, are Le Nozze, Seraglio and Idomeneo.

But this is not a final list. I've never seen Ascanio in Alba or La finta semplice on stage. That would be necessary before I make my final call.

Nov. 27 2013 06:12 PM

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