Many years ago now when I was still a student at New England Conservatory and my then fiancé was a student at Boston University School of Theology I attended a worship service at BU's Marsh Chapel. This service turned out to be a very unusual service. It began with a group of female seminarians processing into the chapel and taking their place in the front. What was odd about this was how they were dressed. Half were dressed as nuns and half as prostitutes. As the service progressed the point became clear: in our western society, in the 70's, in America woman are categorized and viewed either as virgin or whore - instead it is time to start seeing women as human beings, equal with men. No more pedestals and no more objectifying. And to drive this point home at the close of the service they shed their nun and prostitute costumes and recessed dressed in normal clothes. At the time - 1975 or so - I found this shocking and confusing. But now, many years later I look back on this and see that I think they are right. And it is questionable whether or not we have progressed very far from those days, quite frankly.
This service and its message came back into my memory the other day as I was reading an excellent if rather uncontroversial article recommending the best youtube performances of operatic comedies by Tim Ashley - Tim Ashley's Opera Guide: Comedies. In the article he recommend's Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte." One of his readers took issue with this recommendation: "Cosi fan Tutte is the most sexist plot ever written for an opera... it is horrible." This criticism is not new however to this particular commenter. I have heard it before. In fact it comes up every time the opera is performed. In fact even folks in the 19th century had problems with the plot as the opera was altered to change the plot to make it less offensive in 19th century Europe. Only within the 20th century has the opera been restored to its original form. But it still makes folks uneasy. Even stage directors and singers try to find a way to mitigate what seems on its face to be the harsh sexism of the piece. Which is not helped by the title itself - loosely translated as "All Women are Like That."
So what is so objectionable? Let me quickly outline the plot: The opera begins in a tavern with two young soldiers, Ferrando and Guglielmo bragging about what wonderful girlfriends (fiancé's) they have. These are the most perfect goddesses who have ever existed, they are beautiful, perfect and completely faithful. Finally their older friend Don Alfonso has had enough - "What kind of creatures are these?" he asks, "Are they women or some other being?" So they place a bet to test the girl's fidelity. They stage a fake deployment and leave on assignment, leaving behind their grief stricken lovers - Fiordiligi and Dorabella. No sooner than they have gone then they turn up disguised as Albanian friends of Don Alfonso and begin to woo the girls, however making sure that Ferrando goes after Guglielmo's Fiordiligi and vice versa. But the girls want nothing to do with these guys. ("Like a Rock," sings Fiordigili in one of the most brilliant arias in the opera - "Come scolio!") But then the boys pretend to poison themselves out of heart break. Alfonso sends for a doctor who is really the girl's maid, Despina, in disguise. Using a "magnetic" therapy the boys recover, and act 1 ends with the girls as staunch as ever. But act 2 sees them beginning to weaken. "What if our boyfriends die in war, we will be left alone forever," expresses Dorabella. So they slowly succumb to the seductions and eventually agree to marry the "Albanians." The boys are brokenhearted. A wedding is scheduled, a notary arrives (Despina again), but after signing the fake contract a commotion is heard. The boys are back from war. They discover the fake contract, the girls ask for forgiveness. Ferrando promises that he will never test a woman's fidelity again. Guglielmo is angry and despite the "happy ending" does not appear to reconcile. In fact, for all the glorious music the opera ends under a cloud. It is important to remember that.
On the face of it, according to 21st century standards this is very sexist. The women appear to be victimized and tricked. But perhaps we should set aside our 21st century attitudes for a moment and look at this from an 18th century perspective. These two women are not peasants - they are aristocrats of some sort (after all they employ a servant girl who serves them chocolate in the morning!) Aristocratic women in the 18th century were expected to marry, in fact their entire livelihoods were dependent on marriage. To be married and have children was in fact a key element of the enlightenment - this was the pinnacle of what it meant to live a good life, especially for women, but also for men (This is an attitude that Mozart bought into completely). When Dorabella voices in a 2nd act recitative her fear that she and her sister could end up being left completely alone she was voicing what was one of the great fears of the time for men and for women (for men, note Papageno's desperate need to find his Papagena in "Magic Flute".) The women succumb to these new suitors in part because of this fear of being left alone forever. But that is not all. Fidelity was also an issue because of inheritance issues. It was absolutely important at the time for women to be faithful because otherwise how would you know whether the children were really the heirs of the father (see how this plays out in Beaumarchais' 3rd Figaro play "The Guilty Mother.") The result of this was increased suspicion and the tendency to categorize women as faithful or unfaithful (or Virgin/Whore - see above). We may not like this, it may not go with our enlightened values, but this is the world of Lorenzo da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Cosi makes no sense outside of this world. And it is da Ponte who sets out to challenge this, more so than Mozart.
In fact, Cosi would have been seen as expounding progressive views on women's place in society, marriage and relationships. Da Ponte is making a statement about the way society looks at women, and this statement is not dissimilar from the statement I started this article with and from the theme of the service at Marsh Chapel: Women are human beings, not goddesses, not perfect - they are human beings and should not be put up on pedestals. When the men is the penultimate scene declare "cosi fan tutte" this is not a put down, as it is often assumed to be. Rather, I think this is an acknowledgement of just this fact: Women are like all of us - human beings with feelings and fears and joys and sorrows, they are not perfect, but neither are men. This scene represents the symbolic removal of the pedestal. And this removal of the girls from their status as perfect has shaken the boys to the core.
But there is more - let us look at the boys for a moment. In scene 1 as they are bragging about their girlfriends they seem to be love with a fantasy. They obviously do not know these girls at all. The parting scene is a case in point, it is all surface and superficial even on the part of the girls (despite the fact that the scene concludes with one of the most beautiful pieces that Mozart ever composed - the trio "Soave sia il vento"). I would go so far as to say the entire relationship for both couples is pretty superficial at the beginning of the opera. It is only when the boys start actually courting the girls that they all come to know each other and start to develop affection for each other. And one wonders what kind of courtship occurred before the opera began. By the end we are left with this question - can they return to their original lovers? By 21st century standards, probably not. It is an open question I think. Certainly the boys have had their worlds and all their pre-conceptions about women and relationship called into question. It will not be possible to return to the status quo ante.
And what of Don Alfonso and Despina? I have heard Don Alfonso described as the most evil character in all of opera. I find that comment ridiculous. Opera as a lot of horrible, evil characters - including the devil himself - it is hard to believe that Don Alfonso out paces them all. But still, I suppose if you see him as purposefully and willfully setting out to destroy these relationships then that is pretty evil. But is that truly his motivation? It seems to me that anyone who makes us, or encourages us to see things differently, and who calls our cherished attitudes into question is seen as disruptive and evil. It is that of which I think he is guilty I believe. He calls all of us to recognize our shared humanity, and since we (even now) don't want to we can more easily disregard him if we see him as evil. As for Despina, I suspect she will need to find new employment, but in the Met's wonderful recent production the Despina, Danielle de Niesse reacts angrily to the moment of revealing. In this way I think the director was trying to redeem the opera for 21st century audiences. But I think it is misplaced. I think she knew all along and agreed with Alfonso at least in principal.
We have come a long way from these 18th century attitudes about women, relationships, courtship and marriage. Part of that is because of the shift in the socio-economic status of many, but we still have a problem with categorizing people. We do it all the time, we still have our pedestals and prejudices about women and women's roles in the world, and to that we now add lots of other categories - socio-economic standing, race, sexual orientation, religion and so forth. The message I take away from this opera is that none of those categories are valid. We need to see each other as human beings. Flawed human beings, yes - but human all the same. It is not this group or that group or those people or any other ways we humans have devised to separate ourselves into in and out groups. This message lay at the heart of this opera, and it is a message we would all do well to take to heart.
Listen: "Soave sia il vento" - Rene Fleming, Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson
"Come scoglio" - Kiri Te Kanewa
The complete opera - From Glyndebourne
And here is the complete libretto: Cosi fan tutte libretto English/Italian
2 years ago