By Basil De Pinto
Of the three operas which Mozart made from librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte has always been the most problematic. It has neither the sheer musical grandeur of Don Giovanni nor the expansive humanity of The Marriage of Figaro. It shares their comic element — it alone is called an opera buffa — but until recently it has not rated highly in audience appreciation. Happily that has changed, and in our day not only music critics but the public at large have taken it to their hearts. And rightly so.
What bothered people in the past? Certainly not the music, which is typical of the fully mature Mozart. By the time Così appeared in 1790, the composer had finished his last three masterful symphonies and quantities of chamber music and concert arias. He was at the height of his powers with, among other masterpieces, The Magic Flute, La Clemenza di Tito and the Requiem still to come. But the libretto of Così aroused a good deal of Victorian prudery; infidelity in love and partner swapping raised self-righteous hackles in 19th century society. In our time, the title itself (translatable as “women are all alike”) sent out feminist alarums with the suggestion of the intrinsic flightiness of female emotion. Of course we can counter that with abundant evidence of the wanderlust of the male of the species.
Then there is the question of the theatrical form: can such matters be adequately treated by an opera buffa? We know well enough that descriptive tags in Mozart can be deceptive. Don Giovanni’s “dramma giocoso” tries to have it both ways; Figaro is just “an opera in four acts,” although it was well known that its source was Beaumarchais’ comedy of the same name. But in both cases there are serious undertones that do not merely supplement the comic aspects but are woven intrinsically into them. So in Così: the genre is plainly comedy, with a basically amusing plot and many hilarious moments. Add to that elements like Fiordiligi’s almost camp parody of opera seria in “Come scoglio” and there is no doubt that we are firmly planted in the Shakespearean world of “What fools these mortals be.”
But the real point of the story lies elsewhere. The central tenet of the opera is the need to discard illusion and embrace the reality of human weakness — not to extol it but to live with it courageously. When the opera begins, the two sets of lovers are absolutely convinced that nothing could mar the purity of devotion that unites them. Don Alfonso claims to think otherwise and challenges Ferrando and Guglielmo to test the claim of total fidelity. To prove that their ladies cannot be unfaithful, the two lovers engage in the nasty plot devised by Alfonso and Despina, and Fiordiligi and Dorabella eventually fall, if ever so briefly, into the trap laid for them.
So there is a purposeful ambiguity that founds and sustains the flow of events and the actions of the characters. The two men say that they believe in the firm commitment of their ladies, but they still agree to put them to the test. Are they as sure as they claim to be or is there a hidden uncertainty they cannot admit? We have to be alert not only to what is going on, but to what is suggested, what is concealed behind what is revealed. The initial wager is an apparently cynical claim by Alfonso that all women are easily misled, emotionally undependable. The two young men make no ideological disclaimers, they just insist that such a statement could never be true of the women they love. Already we may suspect that neither party to the claim is fully devoid of illusion: both Alfonso’s broad generalization and the indignant reply of the lovers are open to question. Basic knowledge of human nature would incline the listener to say, wait a minute — how about some balance here.
But that would stop the opera before it has hardly begun. Illusion has to be nourished on all sides, and cynicism must have its say. The outcome is so wonderful because both sides in the dispute will have to play out their designs, there will be dissatisfaction and disappointment all round, and the conclusion will refuse to tie up the whole thing in a neat package, but will force the recognition that reality is always the only if not the best thing we have.
This is quite a bit to chew on but it is not enough; it only touches the surface of the opera. The only way to plumb its depths is to immerse ourselves in Mozart’s scintillating and highly expressive music, which is the living soul of Così. The music is able to act as a hidden commentator on the action. When the surface shows a comic face, the music often tells us that something else is going on. An apparent calm may well disguise turmoil underneath. For Mozart has not simply alternated cleverness and frolicking with hidden gravity, but actually reveals two things at once, through both the voices and the orchestra.
Take the Act 1 quintet for the lovers and Alfonso, “Di scrivermi ogni giorno,” (Swear you’ll write me every day). The two couples about to part sing in meltingly lyric tones; the melody pulsates with romantic ardor as the singers attest to the unbreakable bond that unites them. This is music of deeply felt passion and it is easy to be swept up in its sweet sorrow. But along with it we hear Alfonso’s aside, “Io crepo se non rido” (we’d say, “I’m cracking up here”). He knows that the whole thing is a ruse of his invention. The orchestra betrays his self-satisfied cackle with short, tripping notes that contrast with the suave, lilting flow of the lovers’ music.
Mozart also knows how to provide contrast between the purely comic scenes and moments of contemplative calm. As the engine of the plot is accelerating and the two men are warming to their task, Ferrando pauses to sing “Un aura amorosa” (The breath of love will feed our souls), surely one of the composer’s most meltingly lyric tenor arias, rivaling if it does not surpass, the tenderness of Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” and Tamino’s portrait aria.
There is considerable contrast, too, between Fiordiligi’s high flown “Come scoglio” and her second act “Per pietà” in which she acknowledges her infidelity. Again there are big jumps from high to low, suggesting that the same basic character is in play, but the whole tone of the aria is one of a more gentle and placid frame of mind, an attempt to approach honest self-recognition.
To return to the central puzzle of the plot: will the ladies stand firm in their commitment to their lovers or will they be seduced by the disguise the men have put on to test them?
Ferrando and Guglielmo twice play on the soft hearts of Fiordiligi and Dorabella, claiming that they are so smitten with love that they are going to die if they are rejected. In the first act, poison (and a fake cure by the wily Despina) is the ploy, and in the second act the men need nothing more than the power of their amorous persuasion. Things begin to move very fast towards the end, so that the bounds of credibility are somewhat strained. First a phony marriage contract signed by the women; the return of Ferrando and Guglielmo sans disguises; horror of both couples at the breach of faith; and a hasty reconciliation followed by general rejoicing.
To tell the truth, the music at this point may be more of a hindrance than a help. As in any Mozart finale, the score is brilliant, sparkling and makes a total claim on the attention. But we have to ask, how do the couples finally pair off, as it was in the beginning or are they newly conformed? There seems to be no definitive answer. What’s really important is declared by Alfonso in his final words: I deceived you so that you would be undeceived, so that you will be “più saggi ormai” — wiser in the future. Wisdom, therefore, is the goal towards which the whole action of the opera is aimed.
This is a focal point in much of Mozart’s work for the stage. In that sublime moment at the end of Figaro when the Countess bends down to her faithless husband and pronounces her words of forgiveness, what do we see but an overflowing wisdom that comes from a truly magnanimous heart. The Magic Flute as a whole, but especially in Sarastro’s two great arias, is an expression of the search for the truth and goodness that constitute the highest human wisdom. In Così, the conventions of opera buffa veil but never obscure the central contention of the work, that illusion is the enemy of true happiness, and that love is worthless unless grounded in reality.
For all the fun there is to be enjoyed in this opera, we are never far from pain. The men, in tricking their loved ones, know that if they are successful, they face irreparable loss. The women, battling the lower angels of their nature, struggle with forces they know can overcome them. But the end of this struggle is the beginning of wisdom. What the couples want is total love, complete fidelity; they have to face the reality of human beings who cannot give them exactly what they want. Will the men collapse in despair, will the women die of shame — or will they listen to Despina who says at one point: “Così fan tutti” — men are just the same. Don’t look for a romantic ideal that doesn’t exist; everybody bears the same burden. We have to carry the load with and for one another.
Once again the famous question: do the couples rejoin their original partners or not? If we are all alike, what would be the point of switching partners? This is not to suggest a cold, calculating resignation, but a mature willingness to face our common weakness and support one another with love, the true love all concerned were looking for in the first place. Maturity comes from wisdom, which recognizes the basic flaws in our human makeup and the struggle we must constantly maintain to live with it.
The music of the finale crowns these sentiments without, even at the end, making definitive declarations — a good idea considering what has happened and the people involved. The women swear in the sweetest of tones to be faithful and the men promise vigorously not to test them again. And everybody joins in the concluding peroration: always look at the bright side of things and, in the sturdy tones of Enlightenment philosophy, let reason be your guide. The result, bella pace (lovely peace) will be your reward. The music for these words manages to convey both suavity and fierceness together, and the inevitably bright allegro brings things to a close.
Both Mozart and Da Ponte are supreme realists. They have clothed their vision of life and of human behavior in the bright colors of comedy. They know that to be at play, like the characters in this opera, is a deep human need and also a great achievement. After them came the flood of 19th-century romanticism, another high-water mark in the annals of art, but of another stripe; Beethoven and Wagner could never be called playful. They also dealt with love and its discontents, but in a very different way.
Mozart’s genius was his power to look at the serious, even tragic aspects of life and clothe them in the raiment of joy. If, as Auden says, “In the real world…no love is totally innocent,” Mozart’s reply is: even so, it is redeemed by sincere good will and the honesty of self-renewal. There is no ideal solution, only the joyful, peace-filled embrace of the real.
Basil De Pinto has written for the opera companies of Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth.