Some Reflections on Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”

A summary of the plot of Cosi fan Tutte does not appear very promising. Indeed, it seems no more than a somewhat misogynist barroom anecdote. Two young soldiers think their girl-friends can never be false to them, and an older man argues that all women are alike (“cosi fan tutte”), they’re all fickle. So they agree on a wager to settle the point. The young soldiers pretend they are called way on military duty, and then, disguised, return to woo each other’s girl-friends. The older man is proved right, and the young soldiers lose their bets. Could this crude and frankly rather objectionable little story form the basis of a great work of art? What did Mozart and his librettist, da Ponte, see in this?

What they saw in it clearly transcended the story, but it remains a problematic opera in all sorts of ways. For a long time, it was considered immoral: the Romantics, particularly, were censorious of what they felt was its slanderous depiction of Eternal Womanhood. Sir Thomas Beecham, on the other hand, saw it merely as a delightful, sunlit idyll of blue, cloudless skies. With due respect to the Romantics, and to Sir Thomas Beecham, to me, it is neither a morally reprehensible piece of misogyny, nor a sunlit idyll: it is, rather, the most emotionally elusive and most morally complex of all operas, and also, I think, the most disturbing.

The plot summary above is not a distortion of the plot of the opera. At the start, Guglielmo loves Fiordiligi and Ferrando loves Dorabella, and, having made the wager with Don Alfonso, a cynical older man, the two men pretend to leave, return disguised, and, with the help of the maidservant Despina, woo each other’s girls. The outline of this crude plot remains unchanged. But the subtleties of shading within that outline are so very complex, that the mind reels.

Everything seems to co-exist simultaneously in this work – the most profoundly felt emotions with the most cynical feigning, the broadest of comedies with utter heartbreak. It is an impossible task to capture all the shades and nuances in any single performance. The more one thinks about it, the more one finds oneself lost in endless mazes. We are told that this is a work of the Enlightenment, with its focus on the power of reason; but in the course of the action, reason gets left far behind. Don Alfonso is the man of reason: “See yourselves and your partners clearly,” he says, “and you will be happy.” Up to a point, he is right: one should not live with illusions, as, quite apart from anything else, illusions tend to be fragile things. Far better to see the truth, and accept it for what it is. But what happens if one cannot live with the truth? After all, it’s not merely the ladies who fall: the men’s affections and desires are just as uncertain and as malleable as those of the ladies. Each of the four lovers, who had been innocent to start with, discovers that not are their partners capable of betraying them, but they themselves are capable of a similar betrayal. And that’s a terrible truth to live with.

In the farewell scene in the first act, the situation is straight out of farce: the men are pretending to leave on military duty, and are feigning sorrow. And yet … and yet, the music is infinitely sad. I know of nothing sadder than that miraculous trio “soave sia il vento”, with that heartbreaking dissonance on the word “desir”. And I can’t help asking myself: whose sadness is it? It’s not the sadness of the men, who know this is all a joke; and it isn’t the sadness of the ladies either, as they are not yet aware either of the complexity or the depth of their own emotions. (In the very next scene, Mozart is happy to parody the ladies’grief in Dorabella’s aria “Smanie implacabili”.) Even Don Alfonso’s music projects sadness here: as we know from Le Nozze di Figaro and from Don Giovanni, Mozart was well capable of depicting different emotions of different characters within a single ensemble; but Don Alfonso’s music here is every bit as sad as that of the others. So who is it who is experiencing this all-encompassing sadness? Is it being too fanciful, I wonder, to think of the sadness not as belonging to any of the characters, but to, as it were, the “authorial voice”? That this sadness is for the loss of something that the characters themselves don’t know they are losing, but which, Mozart knows, can never be recovered?

“Soave sia il vento” from Act 1 of “Cosi Fan tutte”, with Miah Persson (soprano), Anke Vondung (mezzo-soprano), Nicolas Rivenq (baritone), and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Ivan Fischer

(From DVD featuring complete opera released by Opus Arte)

I don’t mean to underplay the fact that this is a comedy. Much of the music is, indeed, very funny. But in the best comedies, you don’t have “funny bits” and “serious bits”: the serious bits are funny, and the funny bits are serious, and Mozart’s music can change mood so quickly from one extreme to the other (and change just as quickly back again), that one often gets the most peculiar feeling of everything – all moods, all emotions – co-existing simultaneously.

Don Alfonso is often seen as a Machiavellian villain, as a raging, pathological hater of women, but I don’t know to what extent this view is justified. After the trio in the farewell scene, “soave sia il vento”, he expresses his mistrust of women in a recitative; and, unexpectedly, this recitative is accompanied by the orchestra, giving the passage great force. But even this accompanied recitative seems to me no more than an expression of worldly-wise cynicism rather than an expression of uncontrolled anger and contempt. The characters who do display uncontrolled anger and contempt are the two young men at the end, when they realise that their girls have betrayed them. (Of course, they have betrayed their girls as well, so it is entirely plausible that at least some of this anger and contempt is directed towards their own selves.) Here is the exchange between Guglielmo and Fernando after Dorabella has betrayed the latter:

– Ove vai?
– A trarle il cor dal scellerato petto
E a vendicar il mio tradito affetto.

[ – Where are you going?
– To tear the heart out of her villainous breast, and to avenge my betrayed affections.]

And here’s Guglielmo after Fiordiligi has betrayed him:

Mi pelerei la barba, mi graffierei la pelle,
E darei colle corna entro le stelle.
Fu quella Fiordiligi, le Penelope, l’Artemisia del secolo!
Briccona! Assassina! Furfante! Ladra! Cagna!

[I’ll pull out my beard, I’ll tear my skin,
I’ll rage at the stars with my cuckold’s horns.
That was the famous Fiordiligi, the Penelope, the Artemis of the century!
Harlot! Assassin! Cheat! Thief! Bitch!]

(I’m quoting from the translation by Jonathan Burton which is supplied with the recording conducted by René Jacobs.)

At no point does Don Alfonso express sentiments anywhere near so nasty and violent, so angry and contemptuous. Indeed, it is Don Alfonso who, at this stage, calms the young men down, and advises them to make the best of it. Whether it is possible for these young men to make the best of it is another matter, but given Don Alfonso’s calming influence at this point, it is hard to see him as an Iago-like figure. And at the end of this scene, Don Alfonso sings an aria about women that strikes me as essentially good-natured and tolerant (if, perhaps, somewhat superficial in its understanding of human nature):

Tutti accusan le donne,
Ed io scuso,
Si mille volte al di
Cangiano amore,
Altri un vizio lo chiama,
Ed altri un uso,
Ed a me par necessita del core.

[Everyone blames women,
But I forgive them
if they change their love
a thousand times a day;
some call it a sin, others a habit,
but to me it seems a necessity of the heart.]

Now, given the complexities we have witnessed in the drama, this may strike us as shallow; but these are not the words of a man who hates women.  Indeed, if we look back at the very first number of the opera – the opening trio – we find that it’s the young men who instigate the whole thing, not Don Alfonso. Don Alfonso has suggested that women are not the perfect creatures that the young men imagine them to be, and the young men, outraged, demand proof. “Tai prove lasciamo,” (“Let’s forget such proofs”) sings Don Alfonso, but Ferrando and Guglielmo insist:

No, no, le vogliamo:
O fuori la spada, rompiam l’amista.

[No, no, we insist:
or else draw your sword, and we’ll break off our friendship

I’m afraid I can’t see any evidence in any of this of malice or hatred on Don Alfonso’s part: quite the opposite. But what Don Alfonso doesn’t take into account is the sheer complexity of the human heart, the depth of human emotions. He does not realise just how much these four innocent people will be hurt. He believes, with absolute sincerity, that the hurt that the four lovers will receive will be more than compensated for by their increased knowledge and understanding of each other. What actually happens takes the whole thing on to a plane well beyond Don Alfonso’s understanding: his cheerful cynicism seems to have no bearing at all to the emotional upheavals we witness. He seems to expect human behaviour to conform to certain pre-defined formulae, but that cannot be: affairs of the human heart are presented in this work as so endlessly complex, that even more than two centuries after the first performance, we find ourselves disagreeing about their true nature.

But although not evil, Don Alfonso does seem to me emotionally shallow: the sort of emotional depth we witness in, say, in Fiodiligi’s aria “Per pieta”, or in Fiordiligi’s and Ferrando’s duet “Fra gli amplessi”, is well beyond his ken. Yes, Don Alfonso is proved right (at least in terms of what happens, if not necessarily in terms of how it happens), but Mozart does not endorse his viewpoint: there’s nothing in Don Alfonso’s philosophy that could make sense of the heartbreaking melancholy or the profound sense of longing that permeates so much of the music. We are now in waters so deep that they are unfathomable in terms of Enlightenment rationalism.

Women, as far as Don Alfonso is concerned, are no more than what he expects them to be, and he is happy to accept this cheerfully. But of course, he is wrong. Dorabella, perhaps, is flighty and shallow (which is not to say she is not capable of being hurt), but Fiordiligi certainly isn’t either of these things. And if she is silly, as has been claimed, it is only because she is inexperienced, not because she is unintelligent. Although, as Don Alfonso had predicted, she falls, he is wrong about why she falls: being himself emotionally shallow, he cannot see even the possibility of emotional depth in others. Everyone, he thinks, is as shallow as himself (and in this, if nothing else, he does resemble Shakespeare’s Iago). All that people need to be happy, he thinks, is the truth: it never occurs to him that the truth may be too much for mere humans to live with.

I can’t help seeing here a parallel between all this, and a play written about a hundred years afterwards – The Wild Duck by Ibsen. There, the well-meaning but fanatic Gregers Werle believes in all sincerity that if his old friend Hjalmar Ekdal understood the truth of his situation, he would be a happier man. It doesn’t cross Gregers’ mind that Hjalmar would be unable to live with the truth. Ibsen’s play is more explicitly tragic than Mozart’s opera, but the two works are not, I think, too far from each other thematically.

Nothing seemes quite resolved by the end, nothing is quite certain. What do these characters really feel, and for whom? Do they express what they really feel, or what they merely think they feel? To what point are they feigning their emotions, or expressing real emotions of which they are not themselves aware? And to what point, indeed, are they expressing the most heartfelt emotions? What is it that they most deeply desire? What is it that they so long for? There is no easy answer to any of these. Da Ponte’s marvellous libretto continually wrong-foots us, and cannot always be taken at face value; and Mozart’s miraculous music veers, sometimes from bar to bar, from cynicism to sincerity, from parody to heartbreak, from high spirits and comic horseplay to the most profound sense of longing and of tenderness. Sometimes, it seems to express all of these at the same time. And this misogynist barroom anecdote is, somehow, magically transformed into something very rich and strange.


8 responses to this post.

  1. My ignorance of Mozart’s operas is quite shameful. They represent probably the single most substantial body of work in the realm of classical music of which I know next to nothing, a few highlights from Die Zauberflöte aside. I really must remedy that this year, and this opera seems as good a one as any to start with. I’ve had my eye on an ancient recording featuring Heddle Nash for quite a while. Perhaps the time has come to take the plunge. I’ll try to remember to revisit this post when I’m more familiar with the music.


    • Until fairly recently, Cosi Fan Tutte was widely considered a minor work (or worse), and recordings tended to be quite badly cut. This is true even of some recordings made as late as the 70s. The recording featuring Heddle Nash is (obviously) in antiquated sound, and it also presents a text that is so heavily cut as to be, effectively, mutilated. It is perhaps not the best introduction to the work. The recording that is usually recommended is the EMI recording from the early 60s conducted by Karl Böhm, but there, too, the text is cut. (And in addition, I don’t personally care much for the performance, which strikes me as heavy-handed, and unsubtle in its crude underlining of the work’s irony.) But there are many fine recordings of this piece. Two that particularly come to mind is the earlier of Georg Solti’s two recordings (the one featuring Pilar Lorengar as Fiordiligi), and the Glyndebourne recording from the 1980s conducted by Bernard Haitink: both are available at mid-price. And if you want a recording featuring period instruments and period practice, then René Jacobs’ recording is very fine.

      I have only seen one DVD version of this opera (we as a family have become quite addicted these days to watching operas on DVD!) and that is the Glyndebourne production conducted by Ivan Fischer (the above clip is taken from that performance), and, both as a production and as a musical performance, it is absolutely first class.


    • Heddle Nash was my Grandma’s favourite! We spent ages trying to track down his recording of “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen” (che gelida manina) for her funeral a few years back (she died in 2006 aged 94).

      I’m afraid I’m even more ignorant of Mozart’s operas than you are Gareth! Where is the best place to start, Himadri? Don Giovanni?


      • Don Giovanni would be an excellent place to start. At least – that’s where I started! Mozart composed three operas with Lorenzo da Ponte as librettist – Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte, and all three are glorious. Don Giovanni is the darkest and the most dramatic of the three. (The Magic Flute is also wonderful, but, for me, it is wonderful despite its libretto: dramatically, I think it is weak. But not everyone would agree with me on that.)

        I think it’s great watching operas on DVD. The one of Don Giovanni we have on DVD is the Glyndebourne production directed by Deborah Warner ( ). It’s not a production that will please traditionalists (it’s done in modern dress and with minimalist, abstract sets), but it is, nonetheless, an intelligent interpretation, and I much prefer it to those lavish traditional Metropolitan Opera productions that effectively put the work behind glass, as if it were a museum piece. I think this particular production is excellent, and it is superbly performed by all.

        It has been noted that in Don Giovanni, every character reveals his or her inner self – except for Don Giovanni himself. I think that is because he has no real inner self to reveal. But that’s for another post…

  2. I’ll try and get a recording out of the library tomorrow. The Böhm and Jacobs appear to be available, along with others by Rattle and Colin Davis.

    I envy a family that watches opera DVDs together! I rarely watch opera productions on DVD, but if you’re ever looking for some Britten, the ENO productions of Grimes and Budd (both featuring Philip Langridge) are impeccable, and I recently watched Wolfgang Wagner’s production of Parsifal from the early ’80s starring Siegfried Jerusalem, which I would also strongly recommend.


    • I’ll keep the Britten recommendations in mind. If, however, we watch “Parsifal”, we’ll probably have to wait for some evening when my wife is out of the house!

      I’ve heard the Rattle recording of “Cosi Fan Tutte”. It’s a live recording, so you get applause at the end of each number, but I enjoy the performance greatly.


  3. Posted by Alan on April 12, 2010 at 10:58 pm

    Perhaps Don Alfonso keeps hoping to be proved wrong, philanderers are often failed romantics.
    As for emotional depth – we are are very good at creating elaborate stories to justify why we do things – perhaps this ’emotional depth’ is just the depth of self deception.
    I agree with your sense of authorial sadness. Others have seen this. Are you unconsciously referring to Tom Beck’s introduction to his translation of Yevgeny Onegin and his comparison of Onegin with Don Alfonso? Beck indirectly quotes a Pushkin scholar comparing Aldous Huxley’s view that Mozart’s music seems gay but is in fact sad, with his own view about Pushkin: “The artistic expression of sorrow, grief and the tragic is so filled with the light from some quiet, unearthly, angelic sense of reconciliation and enlightenment that the content appears joyful.”


    • I think I’d agree that cynics are often disappointed romantics, and, given that uncertainty of human motives is a major theme in this work, I would not dismiss the possibility that Don Alfonso is, as you say, acting against his most deeply held values, and hoping, even if unconsciously, to be proved wrong. If so, that adds yet another layer of complexity and ambivalence.

      And yes, we are indeed good at creating elaborate stories to justify our actions. But it doesn’t, of course, follow that the true reasons behind our actions are not also elaborate. In “Cosi fan Tutte”, as in “Yevgeny Onegin”, the different moods and feelings are so inextricably mixed, that it’s hard to see any one by itself, on its own. I can’t tell whether Mozart’s music merely appears happy but is in fact sad, or appears sad but is in fact happy: for me, the two extremes co-exist, and cannot be separated. But I do find in Mozart’s music “some quiet, unearthly, angelic sense of reconciliation and enlightenment” although, perhaps, it’s not quite the enlightenment as Don Alfonso might understand the term.

      Tom Beck’s memorable line about the Pushkin poem seems to me applicable to “Cosi fan Tutte” (and, indeed, to other Mozart operas), and also to many of Shakespeare’s plays: “Twelfth Night”, for instance, or the radiant closing scenes of “The Winter’s Tale”.


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