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October 05, 2004

Young Men are Not To Be Trusted - Cosi Fan Tutte at Covent Garden

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
conducted by Stephane Deneve, directed by Jonathan Miller
25th September - 23rd October 2004

Foolish people often think that opera is a ridiculously unrealistic genre, full of heroic characters and exaggerated emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth. The popularity of opera comes from the fact that it precisely mirrors our internal passions, which are not subject to the grey and gritty repressions of everyday life – until murder or suicide come out. Take the problem of fidelity, for example. The world is full of people gnashing their teeth with worry about the fidelity of the other, but few people have so economically crystallised the problem as Da Ponte and Mozart in Cosi Fan Tutte.

The plot is a piece of pure geometry, in which realism (such as the family background of Fiordiligi and Dorabella) has been totally omitted. Our heroines get by with one mischievous servant Despina, and they love our heroes and our heroes love them. Into this Garden of Eden comes the vile serpent Don Alfonso with his cynical talk that investing your faith in a woman's heart is folly, indeed against nature. And the opera proceeds to elaborate the cruel bet in which the disguised lovers try to seduce the women they love as if they were a couple of strangers. Will our heroines succumb to their blandishments? Modern films raise similar questions: would any woman resist a man offering her a million dollars. Well, may be not, but two million…? At some level of temptation, all but saints are likely to violate laws, but in Mozart's time, there was no law against entrapment. A good lawyer would tear Don Alfonso to pieces and have our heroines vindicated within hours.

Seduction is a fascinating department of rhetoric. How does one persuade another human being to behave in a way straight contrary to every vow and conviction this other person holds. In the eighteenth century it would be a real issue, and Mozart was obviously fascinated by it. Don Giovanni is all about a serial seducer. In our time, sexual seduction hardly occurs because the moral background for it is largely lacking, though there are no doubt a few convent educated girls whose convictions might not differ greatly from those of Mme. de Tourvel in Liaisons Dangereuse. Today however, sex is no longer the defining event it was in Mozart's time. Seduction today is likely to be political – the turning upside down of the decent convictions of a whole society, as happened in the Nazi era.

The seduction in Cosi requires an assault on both reason and the passions. The rational assault is given in the cynical philosophy of Despina who believes that men won't be faithful to women anyway, so why should women be faithful? In any case, what they don't know won't hurt them. The seducers disguised as wandering Albanians work on the passions by pretending undying love and faking death, appealing to human sympathy on the part of the women. It is a potent combination, and not at all unrealistic within the conventions of the opera.

Jonathan Miller's production at Covent Garden (now ten years old) uses modern dress so as to exploit topicality jokes. The lovers go off to war in military fatigues bound for Iraq and they return disguised as Hell's Angels. Bit of a class problem here, I should have thought, though when the men mimic the gyrations of a rock band Dorabella and Fiordiligi respond in their body language. The opera is often done with the six basic characters, but the current production spices things up a bit with camera teams, men in suits coming to the wedding party and a couple of nurses helping Despina to revive the lovers from their supposedly arsenic-induced death throes. Altogether, then, not the most vibrant production, but the singers are marvellous and the orchestra plays like a dream.

Mozart was a contemporary nature philosopher, and Don Alfonso is an evangelist who want to turn the young men into cynical philosophers like himself. It's a cruel play from one point of view, but it is presented within a didactic framework, and its main lesson is that young women ought not to trust the vows and wiles of young men. Quite right.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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