Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Men and Women, Music and Words

From left: Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella), Craig Verm (Guglielmo), Laura Tatulescu (Despina), Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiordiligi), and Tuomas Katajala (Ferrando), Seattle Opera, Cosi fan tutte 2018 © Philip Newton
By Lucy Caplan
Women cannot be trusted, Don Alfonso tells his impressionable young companions, and your lovers are no exception. Just watch me prove it, he huffsand so the story of Così fan tutte begins. At this moment, settled comfortably in my seat as an audience member, I begin to feel conflicted. I have already been delighted by Mozart’s effervescent music, which has captivated me from the first notes of the overture. But now I am also exasperated by Alfonso’s broadbrush dismissal of all women as inherently untrustworthy, and by Guglielmo and Ferrando’s willingness to deceive the women they love. 

It doesn’t feel right simply to ignore Alfonso’s brazenly sexist sentiments. It also doesn’t feel right to let that frustration negate my enjoyment of the opera’s beauty and charm. So, as the story and the music continue to pull me in different directions, I can’t help but wonder: Is this a misogynistic work of art? If it is, and I love it regardless, what does that say about me? 

I am not the first operagoer to have qualms about Cosi’s portrayals of women, though the reasons behind the criticisms have changed over time. After a moderately successful premiere in Vienna in 1790, the opera only lingered on the margins of the standard repertoire for more than a century. One reason for its infrequent performance was that it scandalized nineteenth-century audiences with its frank depiction of women’s sexuality, particularly Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s infidelity. In response to this criticism, some productions tweaked Cosi’s plot to make it more socially acceptable—transforming Don Alfonso into a sorcerer and Despina into a sprite, for instance, so as to transport the opera into the realm of fantasy. One version abandoned Da Ponte’s libretto entirely, replacing it with a French translation of Love’s Labour’s Lost. These revisions strived for a neat separation between story and sound, which would minimize the women’s “immoral” behavior while preserving the musical beauty. 

In the twentieth century, Cosi finally entered the canon—including in the United States, where it received a longoverdue premiere in 1922. Ironically, the women’s rights movement may have helped make its success possible: the opera’s rise in popularity corresponded with the ascent of first-wave feminism and newly progressive social mores regarding women’s behavior on and off the stage. Today, it is among the world’s most popular operas. 

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Dorabella) and Marina Costa-Jackson (Fiordiligi), Seattle Opera, Così fan tutte 2018, © Philip Newton
As a twenty-first-century listener, I don’t find the opera’s content especially risqué. What disturbs me is how Cosi seems to make light of the male characters’ attitudes toward the women. Guglielmo and Ferrando’s scheme to test their lovers’ fidelity is as cynical as it is absurd. They take pleasure in setting the women up for failure, deceiving the people they claim to love. The women succumb to temptation, seeming to confirm the sexist claim that “all women are like that”; that is, devious and fickle. But nobody onstage ever asks if “all men are like that,” or whether the guys are acting in a devious manner themselves. 

As this all unfolds, a striking mismatch emerges between the libretto and the score, which is heartfelt and tender throughout. Opera is always artificial to some extent—we don’t generally communicate through song or punctuate our daily lives with arias—but Cosi is exceptional in this regard, combining a darkly implausible plot with deeply sincere music. 

As I listen, I wonder if I should let music and plot remain comfortably separate. The loveliness of Mozart’s music makes complacency tempting; it would be easy not to think too much about the piece’s implications in the world outside the opera house. Oriented only by beauty, my moral compass wavers. Maybe yours does, too. Listening to one delightful melody after another puts me at ease; the artistry conceals the ugliness of sexism. But is there something amiss when we admire the opera’s beauty, regardless of what it cloaks? Can we meaningfully separate our listening selves from our broader ideals and beliefs? 

Hanna Hipp (Dorabella) and Marjukka Tepponen (Fiordiligi), Seattle Opera, Così fan tutte 2018, © Philip Newton
These questions are not unique to Cosi. Related issues arise across the standard opera repertoire, from Madame Butterfly’s Orientalism to Otello’s racism to Don Giovanni’s sexual violence. Each work prompts the question of what to do when the world an opera depicts is out of sync with contemporary values. But the music and story intermingle in complicated ways. With Cosi, the contrast between a superficial storyline and musical depth actually heightens the potential for complexity. Mozart’s music invites me to come closer, to listen more intently. When I do that, I find that I grapple with this opera’s sexism—beyond simply noting its presence—and I see new nuances in the characters and new relationships between the opera and our own time. 

Take the relationship between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, for instance. When Fiordiligi sings the majestic aria “Come scoglio,” her expansive vocal range conveys the depth of her convictions; no one could mistake this music as insincere. Another way to say this might be that while the male characters are having fun at the expense of the women, the music is not. Later, she reluctantly capitulates to Ferrando’s advances (“Yield, my dearest!”…“Cruel man, you’ve won! Do with me what you will”). The moment feels eerily resonant with the stories that have dominated the news lately—accounts of powerful men, from actors to politicians, who take advantage of vulnerable women. Against this contemporary backdrop, my response isn’t to tsk-tsk Fiordiligi for her unfaithfulness. I’m infuriated by Ferrando’s cruelty and Fiordiligi’s inability to escape it. Listening in this way makes me wonder if the claim “Così fan tutte” is anything more than a cynical provocation. When Alfonso, Ferrando, and Guglielmo sing it near the opera’s end, enclosed in boldly stated chords, they certainly try to make it sound definitive, but I don’t have to accept it as such. 
Modern stagings and interpretations, like this one, bring all sorts of creative possibilities to the fore. They allow the opera itself to try on disguises, as it were, to experiment with different facets of its identity. This production, set in contemporary Seattle, embraces Cosi’s obsession with creativity and costumes; comical touches show us how even the men who think they’re all-powerful end up looking a bit ridiculous. 

Ultimately, one of Cosi’s signature revelations is that what seem like fundamental splits—between men and women, music and words, art and audience, the world outside the opera house and the world within it—are never as absolute as they appear. Art and artifice may distance us temporarily from outside realities, but they don’t make those realities disappear. So I want to resist both the temptation to excuse Cosi’s sexism in the name of art and the temptation to let that sexism ruin an opera that I otherwise love. Instead, I’ll embrace the opera’s ability to do what all great works of art do: to bridge the divide between its world and our own, revealing something profound in the process. 

Lucy Caplan is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University, where she is writing a dissertation on African American opera in the early twentieth century. She is the recipient of the 2016 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism. 

Così fan tutte plays at McCaw Hall through January 27. Tickets and information at