Così Fan Tutte: A Crash Course in Sex and Identity
Max Hoehn | Article Commissioned by Welsh National Opera
Two sisters watch a ship sail over the horizon and out of sight, carrying their lovers off to war. The girls are on the cusp of adulthood and the departure of the men has come as a sharp shock, shaking them out of their naïve, romantic view of their destiny. It is their first painful experience of loss and adversity. Their initial reaction is one of panic and disbelief. A teenage tantrum. But then, in one of the greatest moments in all opera, they sing a quiet prayer for a safe voyage: “Soave sia il vento”. Murmuring strings evoke a breeze gently rocking the waves. The sisters become calmer and, as if suddenly conscious of the importance of this moment in their short lives, they abandon themselves to this new, bittersweet feeling of growing up, of passing from innocence to experience.
But what are we to make of this journey towards so-called maturity? What values are we left with when faced with the cruel games life plays on us?
Over the course of 24 hours the young lovers undergo a brisk and often brutal education, guided by the old philosopher, Don Alfonso, within the confines of a house, a symbolic School of Love, sealed off from the outside world. Alfonso’s view, like Freud’s, is that the sex instinct is amoral and selfish. As he predicts, the girls and the boys cheat on each other in quick succession. The pursuit of pleasure is too tempting and their idealised notions of love and fidelity prove worthless. Or so Alfonso thinks…
Compare his cynical worldview with that of the infamous Marquis de Sade, Mozart and Da Ponte’s contemporary. Sade believed that sex is power. When it comes to making love there are no moral obligations; only our natural urges. Seduction inevitably involves pressure and submission. There’s no point fighting our true natures when it comes to sexual attraction.
While Così fan Tutte does tap into these ideas, the young lovers do not end up complete libertines, immune to guilt or morality. When Alfonso’s lesson turns the emotional lives of these young people upside-down he prescribes marriage, a heavy dose of realism and a sense of humour to ease this unpleasant transition to rational adulthood. Taking his cue from Alfonso’s ideas, Mozart’s music pokes fun at youthful immaturity and has a strong absurdist streak. But it also depicts the young lovers’ situations with the greatest tenderness and empathy. Just as adults may laugh at the mood swings of the adolescent brain, the heightened feelings of vulnerability or confusion that young people experience as they reach sexual maturity can be deeply unsettling, even traumatising. A lesser composer may have been content to maximise the farcical elements of Da Ponte’s libretto, but Mozart wanted to go deeper. Why else write that magical, mysterious trio: “Soave si al vento” ? Perhaps the opera’s story resonated with Mozart’s own life. Before marrying Constanze, he had loved her elder sister, the singer Aloysia Weber. The profundity of his music for Così fan Tutte ultimately clashes with the deep cynicism behind Alfonso’s experiment. The central character of Fiordiligi has a moral core that has no place in Alfonso’s view of the world. The ending feels anticlimactic and open-ended because the music does not wallow in reconciliation or newfound confidence. Alfonso’s School of Love highlights the need to accept this darker, fickle side of our natures, but the opera suggests when it comes to relationships our desire for lasting love, mutual trust, and moral values are just as essential to our common humanity.
A more transparent and joyful aspect of this coming-of-age opera is the playful exploration of identity. Disguises, cross-dressing and free sexual expression have a liberating effect on these young people’s minds and bodies. They begin this coming-of-age opera, singing near-identical music and repeating each others’ text. In this sense they are just like schoolchildren who congregate around cliques, mimic each other’s behaviour and suppress their own personal tastes or eccentricities. The individual character traits of Alfonso’s pupils only start to emerge more clearly with the commencement of this radical lesson in love; when the boys return disguised as moustachioed Albanians to seduce their fiancées. Their assumed personalities and exotic costumes allow them to behave without any inhibitions. Then there’s the mischievous maid, Despina, who acts as a counterpoint to Alfonso’s misogyny. She rages against gender-based double standards and encourages the girls to freely explore their sexuality and enjoy the pleasures of polyamory. The more adventurous of the two sisters, Dorabella, becomes Despina’s willing pupil, culminating in her ecstatic, hedonistic aria “E amor é un ladroncello”. Despina’s use of magnetic stimulation in the whacky Act One Finale fits in brilliantly to this narrative of emerging sexuality and identity. Her bizarre mesmeric treatment involves a vibrating magnet that unleashes the primal forces within the boys, leading to total hormonal mayhem onstage.
Mozart and Da Ponte confront us then with three contradictory attitudes towards what might be considered an enlightened education of young adults. Sometimes it feels like we’re watching a calculating, nihilist comedy, stage-managed by a bitter old sexist, Don Alfonso. But this is only the surface. Beneath the cruelty there is a more compassionate perspective that refuses to allow romantic relationships to be reduced to flippant farce. Finally, there is the idea of education as a series of disruptive experiments that sets the characters free and leads to a new, multi-layered sense of identity.
In his colourful memoirs Da Ponte refers to Così fan Tutte only by its second title: The School of Lovers. If Mozart had not rejected this option in favour of the more provocative title by which the opera is known today then the work might be better understood. Rather than placing misogyny centre-stage, the opera is really about the unpredictability of human potential; our ability to transform, to fall in love, to hurt other people and to hurt oneself.
Così è la vita. That’s life.