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Mozart’s Jewish Priest and Così fan Tutte


Who would want to be a librettist? The job’s badly paid. Your work is destined to be eclipsed by that of the composer. Even in the rehearsal room your name barely gets a mention. But when exploring Cosi Fan Tutte we cannot ignore the man, mockingly referred to in his lifetime as Mozart’s Jewish priest.


Lorenzo da Ponte led a spectacularly eventful life, although it began in the most unpromising of circumstances. The man who would become Mozart’s librettist was born in the ghetto of Ceneda, an unimportant hilltop town in the north of Italy. At the age of eleven he was still unable to read or write. His family converted to Catholicism to transform their fortunes and young Lorenzo eventually became a priest in Venice, then renowned as Europe’s capital of vice. There he befriended Casanova and earned a reputation as a serial womaniser. He was eventually put on trial for mala vita, or bad living. Forced to flee the city, he reinvented himself in Vienna as the world’s number-one librettist. But the death of his patron, Emperor Joseph II, shortly after the premiere of Così fan Tutte in 1790, brought this golden creative period to an end. Following a brief stay in London that ended in bankruptcy, Da Ponte moved to New York, where he worked as a grocer, bookseller and teacher while also helping to build the first opera house in the United States.


The final verses Da Ponte wrote for Così fan Tutte serve as the perfect summing-up of his topsy-turvy life. Following a hurried and uneasy reconciliation scene, the characters turn to the audience and prescribe a sense of humour and a rational mind to withstand the absurd games life plays on us. Da Ponte endured many crises in his lifetime; enough to break most men. But he trusted in his luck, never gave in to despair and never stopped laughing at the world around him.


Few operas embody the personality and outlook of their librettist in the way Così fan Tutte does. In this coming-of-age story, two young couples’ romantic dreams and sense of morality clash with the fundamental selfishness of human nature and the sexual instinct. Chaos ensues. Disguises, free sexual expression and cross-dressing have both a liberating and disorientating effect on these young people’s minds and bodies. The whole opera is a life-changing experiment in identity. Added into this disturbing mix is the anti-establishment maid, Despina. She rages against gender-based double standards and encourages the girls to freely explore their sexuality, even using magnetic stimulation in the whacky Act One finale. But this “School for Lovers” (the opera’s alternative title) is a brutal one and Act Two is full of pain as well as pleasure.


The libretto got Da Ponte into trouble back in 1790 and continues to today. The misogyny of the title is often highlighted, but the opera’s provocative character goes much deeper than that. Our contemporary values argue that human intimacy requires boundaries, caution and respect. Da Ponte would reply that human nature always has a dangerous, fickle side that we have to accept, or at least, attempt to understand. The ambivalence in so much of the text, its mix of playfulness, cynicism and suffering, is a shock to our modern sensibilities and today’s preoccupations with a more empathetic approach towards our mental health. Is it not also in our natures to dream of long, lasting relationships based on mutual trust and respect? The philosopher figure in Così fan Tutte, Don Alfonso, insists there are no guarantees. Therein lies the darkness and danger in the opera, as the young couples discover.


Da Ponte’s contemporary, the infamous Marquis de Sade, believed that sex is power. When it comes to making love there are no moral or social obligations; only our natural urges. Seduction inevitably involves pressure and submission. There is indeed something sadistic about this game that Don Alfonso plays on his young pupils. Some of the most romantic music in the opera is set to words of conquest and capitulation. On the other hand, the emotional interplay between these young people is full of genuine tenderness as well as underlying cruelty. In Act Two they grapple with the question: can they embrace freedom without responsibility? Nobody reaches the end of the opera with their conscience clear. The results of the opera’s experiment prove how we all have the potential to give joy and pleasure, hurt others and hurt oneself.


Even if they knew the opera’s tone and atmosphere would challenge audiences, the genius from Salzburg and the lapsed priest from Venice must have had confidence in their particular combination of talents. Da Ponte brought his trademark cheeky, sardonic touch to the dilemmas facing his characters and Mozart revelled in the playfulness of the Italian text. His music though adds an emotional depth that only he was capable of. He injects this cynical, pacey libretto with music of unexpected sadness and magical stillness. It’s as if one can sense in the orchestration the composer’s own empathetic presence while Da Ponte’s characters have their illusions destroyed forever. Behind all the sparkle and dynamism there is always lurking the shadow of the man who wrote the Kyrie in his Mass in C Minor, the Masonic Funeral Music and the Requiem.


Così fan Tutte defies classification. There is no clear division between the farcical and the serious. In one early quintet, four characters are sobbing while one is struggling not to burst into laughter. At the end, the wedding couples toast their future happiness, but one bridegroom, Guglielmo, wishes they were drinking poison.


Audiences tend to search for a single, clear authorial voice to follow, but this is an opera of contrasts. Deliberately or not, the ending lacks the satisfying finality of a morality play like Don Giovanni or the transcendent reconciliation scene that brings the curtain down on The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart’s wife was the first to allege that Così fan Tutte suffers from a tension between music and libretto, as if Mozart and Da Ponte were pulling in different directions. But perhaps the two were attempting something more complex and open-ended with this opera: a mixing of their two different temperaments and perspectives.


Mozart was a family man, who, in his own words, valued “the blessed happiness of a deep and true affection” over the “pleasure of a transient, capricious infatuation”. Da Ponte’s personal life, on the other hand, was extremely messy. During rehearsals for Così fan Tutte he was sleeping with the soprano singing Fiordiligi. His long series of stormy love affairs did come to an end two years later when he married Nancy Grahl, an English immigrant with German-Jewish roots. They lived together until her death almost forty years later. If a man as mistrustful and volatile as Da Ponte could eventually find lasting happiness, then perhaps the young lovers of Così fan Tutte should not surrender to cynicism and despair. E del mondo in mezzo ai turbini Bella calma troverà. In the midst of the world’s tempests one will find a sweet peace.


© Max Hoehn

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