By James Kincaid
Twist it how you will, Così fan tutte is a squirm-inducing opera. It’s been suggested that one is best served by blocking out the lyrics, blinding oneself to the supertitles. Short of that, we seem to be faced with a bitter fable that asks us to regard as comically satisfying a set of humiliations and betrayals, set up to illustrate the universal truth that women are faithless and stupid.
So challenging is Così fan tutte [Women Are Like That] that, after some initial success, it all but disappeared from opera houses for 200 years. American opera houses were the most resistant, avoiding this collaboration of Mozart and Da Ponte until 1927. Mozart’s first biographer, Niemetschek, called it “a trashy text.” Later composers were even harsher: Beethoven called it “immoral” and Wagner dismissed it as “unworthy.”
How do we understand such fury? One way is to mount our usual high horse: those Romantics and Victorians were unable to understand the opera as we do. Claiming to be more sophisticated and insightful than a whole century is a dangerous game to play, but it may be a game worth playing, for all that. The 19th century was not very well attuned to comedy of any sort, much less the worldly, pragmatic comedy that Così fan tutte sets out. Reacting as the century did to the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment, they pressed idealistic figurings of human capacity as far as they could be stretched. An opera which ridicules such idealism could not sit well with an age so hell-bent on perfection, and this opera may be more attractive to us battered 21st-century sorts when it is urging us to take the world as we find it, live in it, fluff up our own pillows and make others comfortable too.
This atmosphere of easy tolerance can be emphasized in some productions, especially if Don Alfonso is made more avuncular and whimsical than cynical when he pointedly swears not “by heaven” but “by earth.” It is “earth” which rules here in Così, a warm ac-ceptance of things and a willingness not to calculate too closely others’ wrongs. In that vein, it makes us think of golden comedies of accommodation, of Shakespeare’s romances, of Groucho and Mae West. It’s not a small thing when such glorious music allows us to laugh at our limitations, flightiness, and deep frailty.
Yes, but the flightiness, frailty, the ready capacity to betray, the mindless selfishness we may possibly be cajoled into welcoming into our hearts is, in Così, pretty much confined to women. “Tutte” is feminine, after all, and to be “like that” means, apparently, to be capable to vowing eternal love to one person in the morning and to another in the after-noon.
How do we escape the feeling that we are wallowing in the darkest side of the Enlightenment, that Age of Reason which almost always denied that faculty to women? This dark misogyny amounted sometimes almost to sadism, as in the fierce comments of Diderot and Voltaire and the milder but no less certain ones of Thomas Jefferson and, memorably, Benjamin Franklin, who wrote “When women cease to be handsome they study to be good.” As Così concludes, the women are unmasked, humiliated and left to pick up what crumbs they can.
And what is left at the end? We may not even know who marries whom. It is here, in this strangely poised, open ending that we may find a way out of our dilemma, explain to ourselves the great pleasure we have experienced in Così fan tutte. After all, the men have been instigators in the betrayal and have found it as easy as the women to change partners. Does it, then, matter if the final couplings are the original ones or the alliances that spring up (and seem somewhat deeper) with “the Albanians”? Recent productions have made different choices about the marriage pairings, and some have been content to have all four young people laughingly part with no hard feelings, but also no commitments, no marriages, no idealistic pledges to feel tomorrow what we think we feel today.
That may be cynical or it may be liberating: Così fan all of us.
James Kincaid is Aerol Arnold Professor in the Department of English at the University of Southern California.