Thursday, October 13, 2011

So Are We All (on Mozart's opera Cosí fan tutte)

so are we all

Lorenzo da Ponte (text), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (music) Cosí fan tutte / LAOpera, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (the performance I saw was on Sunday, October 2, 2011)

 Despite the often splendiferous musical beauty of da Ponte's and Mozart's wise comic satire, there is something patently unfair about the major series of events. Yes, we easily conclude with Don Alfonso, "Women are like that," but so too, do we comprehend, are men. And it is the men in this opera who truly step out of bounds in testing their sweetheart's faithfulness.

     To be fair, the two young soldiers, Ferrando (Saimir Pirgu in the production I saw) and Guglielmo (the handsome Ildebrando D'Arcangelo) begin the opera singing endless praises of their loves, Fiordilgi (Aleksandra Kurzak) and Dorabella (Ruxandra Donose). We immediately recognize their naiveté; and when I say we, I think I can speak for the whole of USA culture given that the current divorce rate is 50% which rises substantially with second and third marriages. Although divorce may be caused by many things other than unfaithfulness, it appears that, in the US at least, Americans are fickle.

      But the young men are easily challenged and persuaded into obedience to their friend Don Alfonso (Lorenzo Regazzo), who, without much difficulty, convinces them to lie to their sweethearts by pretending to go off to war, and to themselves play cheats. After all, to dress up in the costumes of other men, taking on their very different personalities and to court each other's fiancées certainly suggests that they are willing to be guilty of behavior they do not hope to find in their fiancés Costumes are extremely important in Cosí fan tutte (and, of course, in the whole of the commedia dell'arte tradition, on which much of this opera is based); a slight costume change, an attached moustache, a bit of acting immediately convinces others that a familiar figure is someone else. Even women like the maid Despina can easily dupe their employers, dressed like a man (she becomes in the opera both a mesmerist doctor and a notary). In short, by donning costumes they temporarily become another person, and so too are these young soldiers allowing themselves in their transformations to become unfaithful seducers of the two sisters they proclaim to love.

     Moreover, Mozart gives his sweet heroines a great deal of reverence and fortitude in which to protect them. The celestial song they sing as their lovers go off to war, "Soave sia il vento" ("May the wind be gentle") is almost enough to convince the most hard-hearted realist that these two mean what they say. And to back it up, Fiordiligi sings the powerful "Come scogli" ("Like a rock") pledging her love to Guglielmo.

      The weaker of the two is obviously Dorabella who must be reminded consistently by her sister of the role she should play, and seems, quite early on, more distressed by being left alone than by the absence of Ferrando. Yet, despite her obvious interest in the two strange Albanians who suddenly appear in the sister's home, she also remains impervious throughout Act 1.

      The Albanians, on the other hand, although declaring their love for the two beauties, seem more interested in their own prowess than in the women they are trying seduce. A great part of the humor of da Ponte's text lies in the constant metaphors that point up their endowments, Guglielmo, in particular, pointing up his masculine attributes in "Non siate ritrosi" ("Don't be shy").

     In the production I saw this was reiterated by their attempt at suicide by arsenic poisoning, wherein their dying bodies were laid out upon a chaise longue, the two men almost on top of one another, hinting at a greater interest in their own bodies than in the two of what they later relate as "the fair sex." If nothing else, the scene suggested an long homoerotic embrace between Ferrando and Guglielmo, made even more apparent when the women come to revive them, all four crawling over and under one another.

     Clearly they are not "playing fair," forcing the women to brush against and touch them—often in somewhat lewd positions. These are beautiful young people, all four of them, and like most young people, are easily aroused.

      What Mozart and da Ponte also make clear is just how boring these wealthy sister's lives are. Except for the excitement through sexual flirtation, there is little do in their house, as Dorabella, in particular makes clear. Despina serves them meals and sweets such a chocolate, they play puzzles, and, mostly, sit discussing their situations. Might it not be fun to do something else since their soldier's have gone off?

      Even when Dorabella despicably gives in, exchanging a necklace, containing Ferrando's picture, for a gift from the Albanian Guglielmo, Fiordiligi runs away from her temptation, desperately trying to regain control of the situation through her consciousness ("Per pietà, ben mio, perdona," "Please, my beloved, forgive"). Her brief decision to dress up like a soldier and run off to war to find her lover is absurdly touching, if ludicrous. There is, obviously, no war, and one wonders to where she might run. And if she were to find Guglielmo, how could she show him her love dressed—like Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl—as a man? The opera, fortunately, does not take us down that path. Instead, Ferrando challenges her again with suicide. What is a woman to do, given that she has already tried to save him as chastefully as she can? Her only choice apparently is to give in.

     The men, all ego, are furious with the obvious turn of events, but fortunately Don Alfonso is wise enough to insist that they accept the natures of their loved ones, without mentioning their own  obvious failures and deceits. "Marry them," he advices, and so, apparently they do, both symbolically, with the fake notary marrying Dorabella and Fiordilgi to the Albanians (each linked to the opposite of their lovers in their previous existences) and then, again—at least in promise—to the miraculously returned soldiers. What does it matter, truly, who marries whom, when a simple moustache and coat can alter any personality. And, in that sense, Cosí fan tutte, is neither a celebration of faithfulness or even a return to order, but a joyful tribute to sexually-inspired love.

Los Angeles, October 3, 2011