Cosi Fan Tutte is one of a triptych of operas wherein Mozart (and de Ponte, his librettist) deal with the way sexual relations are connected to the question of liberty. The other two, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, are concerned with the way aristocrats can have their way with women, and the two operas take the side of women, they to be treated more as equals rather than as objects of pleasure for the powerful, and so the two operas favor a revolution in morals that may require a political revolution, while Cosi inquires into the love between people who are social equals and so is about the universal characteristics of the sexes, what men and women are by their natures. In that, it joins with those other pre-revolutionary works, such as Dangerous Connections and Manon Lescaut, which use personal relations to reveal what an enlightened world would or would not be like and how sexual freedom points to what freedom in general means.
Cosi begins with two friends boasting about the faithfulness of their betrothed. A friend of theirs proposes a bet to test the proposition, which the two men accept for reasons of vanity and greed, as if the fidelity of their loved ones was something in which they could traffic. They present themselves to the two young women as Albanians, this a farcical conceit in that one would not think it that easy to alter their appearances, though de Ponte never gives any reason to think that the girls are onto the scheme, have seen through it, and instead seem surprised when, at the end of the opera, the men reveal their true identities. The putative Albanians court the two girls who at first resist the importuning of their new love interests even though the guys have staged a fake suicide so as to show how desperate they are to get the love of the girls. At that point Don Alphonso, the orchestrator of the plot, asks when the pity the girls feel will turn to love, as if that is the transformation that inevitably happens in a woman’s psyche. And after a while so it does, the girls putting aside concern about gossip or harm to the two absent men they love because they are women and so subject to their compassion for men who have so outrageously declared themselves totally devoted to them. Shocked and crestfallen at the betrayal of their betrothed, the two men are advised by Don Alphonso to marry them while in their guise as Albanians and the girls are about to go through with that when their real lovers are reintroduced to the scene, shocking the girls who have been caught out, and then the two men reveal that they themselves were the Albanians, to which the girls respond by asking for forgiveness and promising never to roam again. The opera ends with a song to peace and harmony though that may not ring true in a world filled on all sides with deception, it being only a matter of time before the girls will stray again, harmony meaning only that everyone accepts the wisdom of Don Alphonso, which is that women are fickle and get on with life not expecting otherwise.
The opera has a very anti-woman message, so it would seem, but is it really? After all, it is the men who are the ones who initially start off with subterfuge by embarking upon this plot to undo the honor of the women they supposedly love. What right did they have to do so? One would think that true lovers would not so trifle with the most sacred feelings of their betrothed. And when the women finally give in, it is an expression of their having finer feelings than do men in that they move perhaps too easily to the emotional transmogrification of compassion into love, which is what all women do. They cannot but be gulled by the pain of people who say they love them. The men are the tricksters. The women would not have considered such a plot as the one foisted upon them because they take their idealism seriously, at least within that moment of their lives.
All courtship consists of men importuning the objects of their affections with just how desperate their emotional needs are, just how admired and irreplaceable are their beloveds. Women prefer to be courted in this way rather than for their dowries or so as to become a caretaker who is provided with a comfortable home. Courtship of this highly emotional nature is just what is to be expected of the newly enlightened bourgeois world, and so for women to respond to such overtures is not only usual but a desired outcome, a woman won over by a man’s flattery or whatever he does to make himself appealing enough that the woman in fact and of her own free will does indeed find him appealing. That is not a criticism of women at all. And if women can find their own loves, then they can also find new loves, just as men have always found their own conquests, whether or not those were also accompanied by love. And so sexual matters carry with them a whiff of freedom, which is a sense that choices are always possible, and that is the unalienable right that can also be expressed in a political context: people, not customs, make decisions, people in charge of their own selves. That is the brave new world into which social life has stumbled. The daughters of immigrants to the United States have always found out the same truth. They are free to make their own choices after listening to Frank Sinatra.
This world of freedom is the world of Madonna: every love is like “for the very first time” rather than the world of Goethe’s Faust, where virginity is the most prized of virtues and which is the prize most sought by Faust in his early outing as a rule breaker. Nor is it even the world of John Milton, where love presumably can be rekindled even after divorce, though that may require a time of healing, people not likely to make the leap into love more than a few times. So rather than being a tragi-comedy, a tale of double-dealing and betrayal on both sides of the gender wars, Cosi Fan Tutte is a loving tribute to the foibles of people and how those are to be accepted in a loving world, those weaknesses endearing rather than threatening. This is the softening mission of all high comedy and it includes the idea that people like Don Alfonso, as well as Malvolio and Lady Bracknell, have their parts to play within it.
To see just how serious and so, ultimately, unfarcical is the undertaking of Cosi Fan Tutte, consider another test that had been arranged from on high. The devil, which is one way to characterize Don Alfonso, tempts God, for no good reason, to persecute his faithful servant Job just to see if Job will turn against Him. And Job does no such thing, enduring his sufferings without complaint, though eventually coming to ask what is the source of his misfortune, only to be answered by a god from the whirlwind who says Job has no right to ask that question. Well, what if Job had persisted with his query or asked it much earlier during his time of suffering or even denounced God for having been, in some sense, the source of his suffering? How would God have responded then? The authors of Job do not take up that question, but we can think of some answers to it that have occurred in the history of religion. God could have been offended, and therefore created even more havoc. After all, He had been on the brink of killing all of mankind before, so there is no getting past his anger unless He is the one who stays His own hand. Or God could have withdrawn from the fight entirely, acknowledging that Job had a point, and so become an obscured God, His Presence no longer felt within the world. And that is the view of the matter taken by the so-called atheist theologians of the last century. God was rejected and so He withdrew perhaps waiting for a good time to reappear.
Now, look at Cosi Fan Tutte. There the bet is placed by the devil and the devil wins. The girls are unfaithful. But what is the consequence? In a production I saw recently, all Don Alfonso got was that he was paid off with money. He did not in any sense collect the souls of those he had gotten to deceive one another. Rather, as in a Shakespearean comedy, the two couples pair off again just as they had been before without any hint of irony that there are to be rough times ahead. All that had to happen for that to take place was for the women to beg forgiveness, which was quickly granted, however unfair asking forgiveness might be for those who were the most sinned against. But that may be just the way it is with men and women. Women are obliged to be the partners who ask forgiveness and men are the creatures who cannot but grant forgiveness, for what else is there to do? Job always presents cataclysms and pain and ends in the rhetorical pain provided by God even if he restores Job to health and wealth, however little that makes up for the years in which he suffered. Here, there is the very European (I would say French) sense that society can be restored, that people can resume living with one another even after seeds of distrust have been sown. Those seeds just die because everyone concerned wants order restored. Neither the boys or the girls want to give up on their betrothed. What would be the point of that except to appease a formal sense of morality?
Well, my interpretation of Cosi Fan Tutte is certainly controversial in that it upends understanding the opera as just about duplicity or about the fickleness of women in particular. Each point I made could be argued about. The title itself, which means “women are all that way” suggests that the opera is only about women and not the human condition. Which just goes to show, to me, that the opera should be included in an undergraduate canon of great books (or maybe just a women’s studies course on love throughout the ages) perhaps just after Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a romantic tragedy where love is all pain and plenty of bad things eventuate. These are the polar opposites concerning love and all undergraduates reflect and feel keenly about whether they think love to be comic or tragic.