Great moments in opera: Così fan tutte

December 2, 2010

One’s view of a piece of music can be strongly affected by a live performance.  A few years ago I saw Così fan tutte sung by the students at our local faculty of music, and it was such a terrific night that, ever since, Così has been the opera that I always think of first when I think of Mozart.

I love it for three principal reasons.  First, of course, is the fact that Mozart poured out a gorgeous river of song; Così does not have as many famous solo arias as Le Nozze di Figaro, but Mozart filled it with wonderful ensemble numbers, which I prefer, and for sheer enjoyment it is hard to beat.  Second, I like the neat symmetry of the story: we begin with two pairs of young lovers, plus a third buffo pair who tamper with their romances, and we end with the same structure but with the lovers having traded partners.  Third, it has a genial and gentle comedic spirit.  Some, I know, contend that the opera is cynical, or fraught with ambiguity and tension, but I do not agree with them.

Which brings me to a fourth, minor, reason why I have a special affection for Così: it is politically incorrect.  One often hears (although it is not really true) that Mozart’s two previous da Ponte operas (Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni) were politically “revolutionary” because they depicted the aristocratic characters as buffoons and the lower class characters as admirable and intelligent, thereby offending the sensibilities of the original aristocratic audience.  All too often, this putative observation presents an occasion for modern audiences to feel smugly self-satisfied, for we cannot but note that we are not offended in that way, and that, of course, is because we are more open-minded, generous, and better than they were.  Then along comes Così fan tutte, which pricks at one of our sincerest pieties.  The title of the opera is not straightforward to translate, but All women behave thus would be a reasonable English rendering, and the entire story is premised on the idea that women are fickle and inconstant. In other words we have here a sexist Mozart, and that is, I confess, quite cheering.

The first highlight I have selected is the Act I trio Soave sia il vento.  It is sung by the two young women, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and the prankster, Don Alfonso, as they bid farewell to the two young men who are allegedly departing to serve in the war.  (They will shortly return, disguised as “Albanian gentlemen”, to woo one another’s beloved.)  The trio is one of those sections of melting beauty that Mozart’s muse dreamed up.  It is sung here in a recent Glyndebourne production.  English subtitles are included.

The second section I’d like to highlight is the opera’s finale, beginning with the hilarious entrance of the maid Despina disguised as a notary to solemnize the marriages of the two women to the “Albanian gentlemen”.  Despina’s little song is the funniest operatic moment that I know of.  The deed done, the men depart and return undisguised to confront their faithless lovers.  Things come to a head before finding a happy resolution, and in the meantime we get to hear how Mozart handles having five or six singing characters on stage at once.  These two clips, which take us right to the end of the opera, are from the same Glyndebourne production as above, and have subtitles.

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