Anticipating Atlanta Opera’s production of Cosi fan tutte.
In the program notes introducing his new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte for the Dresden State Opera in 1983, producer Joachim Herz made this striking statement: “First things first: Cosi fan tutte does not take place today. It is a period piece from the past, and it reflects, in the most delightful way possible, an epidemic of the time: sentimentalism”. He goes on to argue that our ideals are conventions seldom rooted in human nature, and at times incompatible with it. As with all things relating to this work, the simplicity of this thought leads to complex repercussions, just as the deceptively simple events in the opera may lead the listener to question how our conventional moral code shapes our very idea of what “love” is supposed to be.
“Cosi Fan Tutte, o sia La Scuola degli Amanti” (All women are like that, or The school of lovers) is known to the lover of Mozart’s operas as the third and last collaboration between the composer and his brilliant librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. Unlike the majority works in Mozart’s canon, there is virtually no documentation of how the opera came to be. For years, it was stated as fact that Emperor Joseph II commissioned the work and that he even suggested its subject remembering an incident that had taken place in Vienna between two soldiers and their lovers. Recent evidence points to the contrary, as Leopold was seriously ill during the period when the opera was written, making the commission of a piece he wouldn’t be able to attend an unlikely event. In addition, there exist no mention of theater activities in the daily record of the emperor’s letters between the years 1789 and 1790, the year of the opera’s premiere. On their part, some have credited Lorenzo Da Ponte himself as having invented the situations in the libretto.
Unfortunately, a close review of Mozart’s correspondence reveal no mention of the work’s genesis, and the only mentions of the opera are found in letters written to his friend and frequent lender Johann Michael von Puchberg, but only as passing references amidst request for monetary assistance. For all intents and purposes, the origins of Cosi fan tutte, and some of the musical and dramatic choices made in the score, remain a mystery.
The events of the opera take place in 18th century Naples. Don Alfonso, an older cynic, upsets two younger soldiers (Ferrando and Guglielmo) by questioning the virtue of their girlfriends, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella. To avoid the inevitable physical altercation, Don Alfonso convinces the soldiers to engage in a wager that he insists will prove his point. If the young men do exactly as he says, he will prove that their girlfriends can be led astray within 24 hours. As the scene changes, we encounter the ladies admiring their boyfriends’ portraits and predicting marriage proposals (I myself do this everyday). Don Alfonso disrupts their wistful mood by bringing news that their boyfriends have been called into battle and must depart immediately. Distraught, the lovers bid tearful farewells, and the women watch in sorrow as the men’s ship leaves Naples towards an uncertain fate. After the sisters leave, Don Alfonso enlists the help of their maid Despina, who not only shares his cynical world view but also his general distrust of members of the opposite sex. Under the guise of trying to cheer up the sisters, Don Alfonso convinces Despina to help him introduce a fresh set of suitors to the household. Re-enter Guglielmo and Ferrando, but this time heavily disguised as Albanians. Dorabella and Fiordiligi are outraged by the presence of these colorful strangers in their household, and when the men express their romantic aspirations towards the women, this outrage escalates to fury. For now…
What strikes the most about Cosi fan tutte, apart from its opulent orchestration, is the sheer amount of music Mozart employed to describe the characters’ emotional states. Take for instance the separation between the lovers in act one. This single event plays out before the public in no less than 4 separate musical numbers of varying musical and emotional complexity. First, the bad news are delivered to the sisters in a brief arioso by Don Alfonso. This is followed by two full-fledged quintets between the lovers and the old man. In the first one, “Sento o Dio, che questo piede”, the soldiers announce that they are leaving. Their step and words falter, while the women fall before them in sheer distress. The orchestra comments upon on the proceedings, and at times it even gives the singers their physical cues. There are knowing asides between the men as they admire their clever handy work:
The second quintet, “Di scrivermi ogni giorno,” is awe inspiring in its economic perfection. The women are resigned to see their lovers go, and musically speaking, try to stop, or at least slow down the clock on this last precious moment. As if we needed more evidence of his genius, Mozart allows Don Alfonso to express his cynical comic musings within the same melodic statement. It is nothing short of brilliant:
The separation scene comes to an end as the women join Don Alfonso in the famous trio “Soave sia il vento”. This tune was used heavily in the 1971 gay art house film, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” As the women watch the boat depart, they wish for calm winds and tranquil waves to safeguard the fate of their loved ones. As the voices rise, very much like the high winds, the orchestra paints the gentle waves requested by the singers, providing support to both voices and, literally, the boat. It is no surprise to me that at the early age of 12, a recording of this opera (the first I ever owned and fully heard) sparked the opera fever within me which continues to burn with incandescent splendor to this very day.
With the exception of Don Alfonso, all the characters are afforded two arias to fully project across the footlights as complete human beings. The most famous of these must be Fiordiligi’s act one bravura aria “Come scoglio.” Furious by the temerity of the newcomers, she firmly states the folly of their pursuit by proclaiming the unmovable nature of the sisters’ love for the soldiers. “Like a rock!” she announces in a manner fitting the grand manner of Metastasio, and in Mozart’s writing we get the impression that the lady is dead serious, if at least in convincing herself that what she is saying is fact. Mozart composed the role with Da Ponte’s mistress in mind, the soprano Adriana Ferraresi del Bene.
Truth be told, she was a singer that Mozart did not care for, and has been described by some contemporary accounts as an untalented singer. She was, however, famous for her proficiency in executing wide octave leaps such as the ones displayed in Fiordiligi’s music, and in the opening phrases there is a spectacular leap from a high B flat to middle B flat on the word “tempesta!” Fiordiligi then follows with a statement likening the strength of their resolve, but the orchestra switches to the allegro mode, and a buffo trumpet obbligato figure winks to the audience: The lady is just trying to convince herself. She closes her lecture with a request that the men respect the sisters’ position, and through the use of a sequence of staggering triplets, she demands that they give up their pursuit. The modern singer considering this role must sweat while studying these pages, and one can only assume that Mozart really hated la del Bene enough to write music designed to showcase her shortcomings. If a singer capable of masterfully conquering these challenges was considered untalented, then God save us all!
Cosi fan Tutte entered the operatic scene during a time of great political and social unrest. Mozart wrote the finishing touches on the work as the Bastille was stormed by revolutionary forces, and following his death, the opera was viewed as both musically complicated and unworthy of subject (post-revolutionary perceptions of womanhood were already quite idyllic). It survived the remainder of the 18th century and the duration of the following by the sheer strength of Mozart’s reputation, but in various translations and editions aimed at minimizing its more offensive content; at times falling prey to strange reinventions that we thankfully do not have to endure today. One eyebrow-raising 19th century production recast Don Alfonso as a magician, and magic rings turn the soldiers into different men. In the 20th century, the work began to attract critical reassessment and through the influence of such musical luminaries as Clemens Kraus, Richard Strauss and Karl Bohm, it was once again presented in its original form, and though presented as an alternative to the more obvious offerings in the Mozart canon (Die Zauberflote, Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro), it has held a permanent place in the international repertoire. Atlantans got their first taste of the opera in 1953, when the Metropolitan Opera tour presented the work at the Fox Theater in an English translation, with a cast that included Eleanor Steber, Blanche Thebom, and Brian Sullivan under the baton of Fritz Stiedry, and again in 1962 under the leadership of Joseph Rosenstock. When the tours came to an end in the late 70s, the Atlanta Opera came into the picture to fill the void. It presented a memorable run of the work in the summer of 2000 with Brenda Harris, Dolores Ziegler, Kitt Reuter-Foss, Mark Thomsen, Thomas Barrett and Philip Cokorinos, conducted by the company’s former artistic director, William Fred Scott. This Saturday, April 9, the company unveils a new production of the opera under the baton of Kazem Abdullah. The scheduled cast includes Keri Alkema, Jennifer Holloway, Matthew Plenk, Kiera Duffy, Jason Hardy and Phillip Addis.
To our post- modern society, Cosi fan tutte is a work of unrealistic artificiality yet unquestionable charm. It is due to the artificial aspects of our current reality, perhaps, that the message in the opera has increasingly struck a much more personal chord in recent years. No one, I believe, wakes up believing that he/she is a bad person. We drive to work praying that we will succeed and make a difference, only to see our virtuous ideals smashed to pieces by the routine dished forth by reality, and all plans to save the world, alas, fizzle out during those pointless 11 am meetings. And thus our hearts may follow: We unquestionably love our boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses and all deviations thereof, yet we find ourselves cyber-stalking that attractive facebook friend and obsessively loading all of our repressed impulses upon the â€œlikeâ€ button. Does this make us bad people, I wonder, who know not the meaning of love? Or rather that we naturally fail to marginalize love into the conceptualized version that our common morality has forced upon it? While this implies that our human ideals are not always supported by our human impulses, this should not make said ideals any less true, valid, or give proof that our nature is intrinsically wicked. Rather, I feel, it may be that we truly achieve virtue by pursuing a life of ideals, and thus become human when we falter from this path.
The Atlanta Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte runs through April 9, 12, 15 and 17. For tickets, please contact the ticket office at 404.881.8885 or visit www.atlantaopera.org for more information.