Confronting the void (really) in Cosi Fan Tutte

Cosi Fan Tutte at the Lyric Opera, 2018By luck I was offered a ticket to the Lyric Opera’s current run of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte [Thus Do All Women], one of Mozart’s last operas. I confess that beyond that I knew nothing going in; I did not even read the synopsis before the curtain rose, and so I had the rare privilege of seeing a very famous work not knowing how it was going to turn out.

The first act is comical, not to say absurd. Two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, brag about the fidelity of their fiances; their “older, wiser” companion Don Alfonso says he knows women better than they; they challenge him, offended, and he accepts their challenge, devising a test of their beloveds’ honor and offering to pay up if the women pass.

We next see the women, Dorabella and Fioridiligi, bragging about their lovers’ nobility, before Don Alfonso enters and announces that the men have been called off to war. The women mope around histrionically while their maid slyly encourages them to take advantage of the opportunity. The men then reappear in disguise (with beards) as Albanian sailors to woo the distraught women (each woos the other’s fiance)–this is the test. The women are gradually moved from utter disinterest to principled resistance to temptation and finally seduction.  (“Pity” and “compassion” play a large role–the women appear to be moved from their initial indifference by the men’s suffering, first when the suitors pretend to drink arsenic and then when they claim their heartbrokenness at being rebuffed–but is the compassion genuine, or just an excuse for the women to follow their erotic whims?)

In this production at least, the men behave with such silliness–prancing around, flexing their muscles, batting their eyelashes and making immediate and outrageous proclamations of love–that the women’s attraction to them is even less plausible than the fact that they would be fooled by the disguises. I could have imagined the scenes being played straighter, with less slapstick, and consequently evoking real emotion–but the much more serious second act made me think that perhaps the absurdity of the first act was appropriate and effective. Having never seen the opera before, I expected some sort of comic but affirmative resolution, a clearing up of the misunderstanding–perhaps the men’s test would reveal that the initial match was wrong and each partner was really meant for the other, and they would live happily ever after.

Instead, the men are aghast at the failure of their lovers’ fidelity, the plot is revealed and the women are distraught, they all consent to Don Alfonso’s insistence that the ‘solution’ is for them to get married (to their original partners), but unhappily, it seems, and he cynically pronounces that the moral of the story is to trust in “reason” rather than love, where “reason” is a cold-eyed view of human beings as mechanistically subject to sexual desire, all higher ideals being but illusion. I found this line, and in particular the appearance of the word “reason” in the supratitles, breathtaking–it was as if suddenly the whole farce became horribly serious–this is what human beings are really like, this is what it means to recognize the way “reality” is.

What is perhaps most bemusing is that, throughout, the music is delightful, beautiful, often even transcendent, and I discovered that the ambiguity of the relationship between the exalted music and the sordid plot is a central issue in commentaries on the opera. In discussing this relation with my companion after the performance, two possibilities emerged: on the one hand, that the music affirmed some transcendent good beyond the silliness, depravity, and insubstantiality of the characters and their machinations–a higher and ideal order in which occasionally the characters took part despite themselves, though always plummeting back to earth. Or on the other, that the radical disjunction between music and plot simply emphasized Don Alfonso’s point–that our ideals are just pretty, fluting notes floating in the air and dying into silence, without any persistence or true reality.

As a general rule of interpretation, I assume that when two compelling possibilities present themselves, the ambiguity must be part of the point, and I believe that is the case with Cosi Fan Tutte. However overdrawn and stylized, the all-too-easy breakdown of the characters’ professed love for one another and the concomitant breakdown of their very identities (as Edward Said points out in his discussion of the opera in On Late Style) is depressingly convincing; there is nothing one can point to in refutation of Don Alfonso. And yet the music lingers.

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