Errare humanum est… (To err is human)
“Così fan tutte le belle…non c’e alcuna novita” (That is the way all the beautiful women do it, there is nothing new), exclaims Don Basilio, when he discovers the apparently unfaithful Susanna alone in her room with the young page Cherubino, in the first act of The Marriage of Figaro.
It is pointless to ask who is the best composer, or painter or sculptor. There is no “top ten” in art. At best we can imagine an arc at the highest levels of accomplishment rather than the point of a pyramid. But were I forced to choose one composer above the rest, it would be Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). There is none better. Beyond the perfection of his music, there is an intangible, mysterious cosmic dimension. He intuited laws of the universe and human nature. His operas portray humanity in all its foibles. He wrote with an understanding of the human heart that defies explanation as and transcends the age in which he lived.
Mozart’s collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte (born in Vittorio Veneto in 1749; died and buried in New York City in 1838) produced three Italian operas which are, in order of their composition: The Marriage of Figaro, 1786 (drawn from a French five-act play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais); Don Giovanni, 1787 (based on multiple sources of the Don Juan myth); and finally Così fan tutte, 1790, whose sources are diverse and ambiguous. Together, these three operas bring to life the battle of the sexes more vividly than any comparable set of works.
Among its many virtues, the trilogy contains sharp satiric elements. Satire is “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own…” wrote Jonathan Swift. I wonder if the same can be said for the creators of those satires. Does Mozart see himself in this imbroglio? Or is it possible to infer a moral standpoint from which Mozart structured his works? Can we say what were his beliefs, his politics or his value system? Can one deduce any of this from the many personalities in his operas? It is no more possible to do that anymore than it is to derive a personality profile of Shakespeare, the man, from his works. Knowing the person behind the art is interesting, but not relevant when we experience the work.
Although each of these Da Ponte operas is a universe unto itself, the three are interconnected. In Figaro and Giovanni, the men fare poorly, the women much better. That balance is redressed in Così. Subtitled La scuola degli amanti, “The School of (for) Lovers,” it is a rich (and serious) comedy which questions women’s fidelity, after the male bashing in the two previous operas.
What does the title—which defies easy translation—signify? Così (thus); fan, the poetic form for fanno (they do); tutte, the feminine plural (all women). What do they do? It. What is it? We shall see. (Please note that the last letter makes more than an iota of difference: it means ALL WOMEN. The masculine and collective plural is tutti, which would mean “all men” or “all men and women.”)
Do the women in Così look as bad as the men in Figaro and Don Giovanni? If one were to survey opera enthusiasts’ opinions of each character, there would be as many perspectives as respondents. Passionate and contentious opinions would emerge as each character—Figaro, Don Giovanni, Don Alfonso, the Countess, Donna Elvira, Zerlina, Fiordiligi and Dorabella—could serve as a Rorschach test for opera lovers everywhere.
In Figaro, the men show themselves to be self-centered. The Count is arrogant, petulant, jealous and manipulative, all in the service of maintaining le droit de seigneur (a nobleman’s presumed “right” to spend the wedding night with any bride in his dominion). Figaro, despite his celebrated shrewd mind, lags behind the curve of events. They both are out-smarted by their virtuous women. The young Cherubino, charming as he might be, is nothing more than a Count in training. Don Basilio, a corrupt intriguant and Don Bartolo, pompous and vengeful, fill out this masculine rogue’s gallery. The Countess is the most evolved figure. In her act of forgiveness, she elevates the comedy to the sublime. Susanna, representing the servant class, is a dynamo, loyal to both the Countess and to her fiancé Figaro, even when his behavior doesn’t merit respect.
Don Giovanni’s misdeeds are fathomless, epic. They require divine intervention, and he is suitably sent to eternal damnation. The story of this mythical character continues the critique of the male. The other men—Don Ottavio, Masetto and Leporello—are weak or victimized. None is heroic or a positive male image. The women, far more complex, are portrayed in a more favorable light. Donna Elvira is the most evolved, showing a capacity for love, sensuous and passionate, fiery and strong, and ultimately capable of forgiveness and devotion.
What will we learn in Così’s School for Lovers from its professor, Don Alfonso? We learn that women, too, are unfaithful. Or is there more to the story? By hatching an intricate plan to prove to the young men that their fiancées are imperfect, does Alfonso open a Pandora’s Box? Or does he merely lay bare a reality, allowing the four young lovers to marry with a levelheaded understanding of human nature? Are the women as culpable as Giovanni or the Count? Are the men wholly innocent victims of a scheming mentor and their women’s flightiness? Is Così a complete departure from the earlier operas in turning the tables on the women?
No. In deceiving their fiancées, the young men, masquerading as exotic visitors, are duplicitous. When they realize that they are in competition with each other to prove their seductive prowess, the boys redouble their efforts. Is Don Alfonso motivated by generosity or cynicism? Does he revel in destroying their illusions? Is he an avuncular therapist, positive and practical disciple of Swift’s aphorism: “Blessed is he who expects nothing… for he shall never be disappointed”?
In the epilogue, the moral is drawn: “Happy is the man who looks on the bright side of things, and lets himself be guided by reason. That which makes others weep, will make him laugh, and amidst the terrestrial whirlwinds, he will find a beautiful calm.”
In the end, don’t the women do what Mozart’s men have been doing all along? Why shouldn’t they, asks Despina, the sisters’ servant and Don Alfonso’s accomplice. Dorabella, the more lighthearted and sensuous sister, gives in to this erotic adventure more readily. But is she any less loveable than Cherubino? Fiordiligi, far more serious and passionate, resists longer and suffers before she surrenders to her new feelings. She has emotional depth, like the Countess and Donna Elvira. Is Despina, in encouraging the sisters to carpe diem, any different from Leporello, who helps his master’s conquests for the price of a daily meal? What about Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter in Figaro, who, at a tender age, has already learned to use her feminine charms to obtain what she wants from the Count? And Zerlina, who sets a speed record in falling for Don Giovanni on the morning of her wedding?
The list of could go on. Neither the men nor the women are completely innocent in any of these operas. Mozart eschews moral judgments and presents his characters for our delight and recognition, accepting them all as a part of the universe. Mozart and Da Ponte, like Swift’s looking glass, show the behavior of others, not for condemnation, but for instruction. And we will be wiser when we see ourselves in this marvelous and motley troupe of characters. Mozart, by peering into the microscope, holds up the mirror to us as well.
Mozart envelops each character in his sublime music with acceptance and affection. The rhythmic dynamism, the transcendent harmony and lyricism, the sensuous, evocative voices of the orchestra, the perfectly structured architecture of his music provide equilibrium encircling the characters and their tumultuous emotions. He takes them apart, but then puts them, us—and the universe—back together again.
His music lives in an idealized Enlightenment world, but is equally at home in the real world of human passions and imperfections. The battle of the sexes can never be won, nor can a lasting cease-fire be expected. Vive la différence! It has always been that way; there is nothing new, as Don Basilio told us.
At the end, Don Alfonso says to the boys, and all of us: “Everyone accuses women, but I excuse them, if a thousand times a day they change their love. Some call it a vice and others a habit, but to me it seems a necessity of the heart. The lover who, in the end, finds himself disappointed, should not condemn the error of others, but rather, his very own; Inasmuch as women young and old, beautiful and ugly……”
And, leaving his sentence incomplete and his thoughts to the imagination, he adds: “Repeat with me: Così fan tutte.” Or rather, implies Mozart: “Così fan tutti… non c’e alcuna novita!”
James Conlon, the conductor of Così fan tutti, is LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director.