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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, May 9, 2014


COSI FAN TUTTE is the final Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration/masterpiece. I had the pleasure of hearing/seeing it recently at the Met at the Movies series.  “So do they all” is a loose translation of the title, an opera which has been variously described as a battle of sexes and/or as a libel upon the fidelity of women. 
A brief outline of the story is as follows: an elderly cynic, Don Alfonso, bets his two idealistic, romantic young friends that their ladies will betray them at the first opportunity, and he arranges a 24 hour masquerade in order to demonstrate this. The young men pretend to have been summoned for military service and then take their leave amid tearful scenes. Then, costumed with wigs and moustaches and odd eastern garments, they re-appear, pretending to be old friends of Don Alfonso, in town for a visit. The “foreigners” claim to have fallen for the ladies at first sight and press their suit by all sorts of extravagant means. After much grandstanding, emotional blackmail and many comic situations, the ladies capitulate and agree to marry the “foreigners”. (An added complication here is that the ladies have, more or less by accident,  switched partners.) When the truth is revealed, Alfonso wins his bet and the couples are left “sadder and wiser”.

At every intermission during performance, the singers discussed the lack of "political correctness" in the text.  I had hopes for greater insight from the artists, but the only explanations offered were of the apologetic variety, mostly in regard to “historical context”. While this is, to some extent, true—after all, 18th Century “sexual morality” i.e. the double standard combined with a lot of woman bashing--I believe there’s more depth to COSI, then and now, than initially meets the eye.

I studied all of Mozart’s operas as I worked on “Mozart’s Wife”.  COSI seemed, after some research, to have biographical elements. Mozart and Constanze were close friends with Jacob Lange, an actor, and his wife Aloysia, a prima donna, who also happened to be Constanze’s older sister. In fact, Mozart had wooed Aloysia, but when she eloped with the then more successful and famous Lange, he’d settled for Constanze.  This in part mirrors the situation in the opera, where Fiordiligi and Dorabella are sisters.
Did Mozart see himself as the gentle, plain Fernando, and Lange as the dashing, witty, self-regarding Guglielmo? When, in the course of the deception, the couples switch partners, we have a classic foursome—along with all the inherent problems and conflicting loyalties of such an arrangement.

  As I structured my novel around known events, what is known about Mozart's circumstances while he created these operas offered me insight. There is one character in Cosi I haven’t yet mentioned, the maid, Despina, who is an 18th Century archetype, a clever, scheming servant. Mozart clearly demonstrates great affection for and understanding of servants in all his operas, perhaps because his own status and ability to make a living rested upon the whims of the rich. He knew what it was like to be at the mercy of privileged, arrogant, and worst of all, mediocre, men.

In COSI the men “prove” that women are unfaithful—and certainly they are, after much trickery and manipulation.  Both sides in the battle of sexes are presented, even if the mouthpiece for pro-woman view, Despina, is “low” character.  Contrast:

Women’s faithfulness is like the Arabian phoenix,

Everybody says it exists, but no one knows where it is… (Don Alfonso, the cynic)

Gorgeous Danielle di Niese as Despina

So you really hold out hopes that men and soldiers can be faithful? (she laughs)

Every one of them is made from the same old stuff…those crocodile tears, those deceitful words,

Those charming lies…all they want from us is to take their pleasure;

and then they despise us, and deny their affection.

You might as well ask a barbarian for mercy… (Despina)


In the end, Don Alfonso says that the men might as well marry their girls, because they won’t find others who are different. This is, of course, is the 18th Century Party line, which, to modern women, strongly smacks of male projection. But I think that Mozart makes it quite clear that our emotional lives, whether we are male or female, are far more difficult, with many more nuances, than anything imagined by more orthodox thinkers. As Ferrando sings:


Betrayed and scorned by her treacherous heart,

This soul of mine still adores her,

And hears only the voice of love… (Fernando)


That you can be hurt by your sweetheart, and still be madly in love is not an unusual occurrence. Mozart had been dealing with the consequences of infidelity—his, certainly, and, by this time, perhaps, with Constanze’s.  COSI's  operatic characters have  so much individuality and emotional depth, but the problems Don Alfonso creates are left unresolved.
In my opinion--and that of others over the centuries--what the couples are truly left with is an emotional mess, the outcome of which is never explored. This is an opera which could definitely use a sequel! Do the original couples reunite? Do they keep their new partners, to whom they may actually be better suited? Or, after this debacle, do they all just throw up their hands and swear off the opposite sex forever?
As one commentator noted, what about the men’s behavior? Masculine ego, a handy cover for insecurity, is as much at fault as the women’s fear of abandonment and desire for affection.  And the men, lest we forget, have all the power in a time where being someone's wife was woman's only "career" choice.

What of Don Alfonso? Does he enjoy raining on the parade of his youthful friends?  And is he a “friend”, after all, or a magus who delights in stirring up trouble? There were contemporary rumors that COSI's plot was based upon an actual and recent Viennese scandal.  If we're going to talk about "historical context", we shouldn't forget that this is the same period in which the enduringly cruel Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written.



Grappling with COSI for MOZART'S WIFE, I came up with an interchange between Stanzi and Wolfgang:

...When I remarked that Cosi was exactly the kind of nasty thing men liked to believe about women, Mozart raised a sandy eyebrow.

“You don’t think I’m like that, do you?” I persisted. For the hundredth time, I wondered if he knew about Christoph.

Mozart considered me, chin in hand. “Well, would you be able to remain virtuous if I were away on a long journey and some handsome fellow was nicely kissing the back of your neck, saying that he loved, no, adored you? That he might die if he couldn’t have you? Especially if he was handsome and a good dancer, a man who quickly learned all your little…penchants?” He accompanied this by running his fingers along the back of my neck in a way he knew I particularly liked.

It took some effort, but I managed to say, “It’s an immoral story. Nice women don’t act like that.”

At first, he didn’t answer; he just kept stroking. When I finally gave in and relaxed against him, he whispered in my ear, “Are you quite sure you’re made of such strong stuff? Something like this actually happened during the last little war. DaPonte says he knows the people involved.”

“Oh, DaPonte!” I was disbelieving, but Wolfgang didn’t defend Lorenzo. It was as if his mind was elsewhere, for he stopped his stroking and sighed.

“The real point is that they all forgive each other, that love does conquer all, in spite of the women’s weakness for romance and the men’s stupid pride. Ah, Stanzerl, don’t you see? The men are actually far worse than the women. The idiots never think for a moment when they make their bet. They frighten their poor girls and then deceive them. It’s really their pride, their inexperience, their arrogance, that almost causes the breaking of four hearts. Don’t you think the men learned a lesson, too?”



Bonabel illustration from Mozart Auf Der Reise Prague

~~Juliet Waldron
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1 comment:

  1. You are so skilled at bringing the subtleties of life to light - in your essays as well as your fiction! While the blaming and name-calling has been going on for centuries, men and women are more alike than different, I think. If we demonize the opposition, we don't have to examine our own hearts.