Overlooked Opera: Così fan tutte

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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.