Rookie Mistake: Thinking critically about Cosi fan Tutte

On a grey Sunday afternoon in Seattle, sometime in autumn 2001, I passed a nuclear family walking down University avenue.  The father figure bore a painted-on smile.  He seemed uncannily familiar. It took me  a moment to realize that he was then-governor Gary Locke.  In true Seattle fashion, he was being unanimously ignored.  I wondered why the governor & family were strolling through the U-District and remembered that the University was staging the opera Cosi fan Tutte that day.  I had never seen an opera and my student ID was good for free admission, so I decided to check it out.

I completely hated watching that opera.  I hated the characters and the plot left me fuming with the sort of righteous indignance that it seems only college students are capable of.

The title, Cosi fan Tutte, translates roughly as “They are always like that.”, but is often translated “Women are like that.”  Mozart wrote the music and a man named Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto.  The story is a simple “fiancee swapping” theme.  Don Alfonso, a jaded old knave, convinces two young aristocrat-soldiers to test their lovers’ fidelity.  The two young men, Gugliermo and Ferrando, tell their lovers Dorabella and Fiordiligi that they are leaving for war.  While the women cast about in privileged agony at their loss, the two men disguise themselves as Albanians and return to seduce each other’s fiancee.  Don Alfonso orchestrates the seduction, even paying a very clever maid named Despina to help him corrupt Dorabella and Fiordiligi.  Within 48 hours, the women have given up on their fiancees and married the Albanians.

The moral underpinnings of this story are enough to incense anyone with even a hint of feminist sentiment.  When I saw the opera, I was reading Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Toby Marotta’s The Politics of Homosexuality for fun.  I walked out of the theater that day with the following synopsis stuck in my head:  In short, this story assumes that women are morally flawed, making them incapable of fidelity.  In contrast, men aren’t even expected to attempt fidelity.  Rather, men are encouraged to practice infidelity as a test of their lovers’ mettle.  In other words, Heads, men win.  Tails, women lose.  I wish I could say it’s an uncommon theme.  The “happy” ending of this farce leaves manipulative, faithless men unscathed while the women are painted as feckless children who are “always like that”.   Meanwhile, Despina the maid — the only speaking part who is not a member of the aristocracy — falls to the bottom of the moral pile as a quasi-biblical archetype of the clever woman who revels in eroding virtuous behavior for fun and profit.  In contrast, Don Alfonso, the instigator of the entire escapade stands as king of the mountain, gazing down at all of these fools.  The final score: Men +3, Women -3. cosi fan tutte.

Needless to say, my first encounter with the opera was not splendid.

Rookie Mistake

When my friend Meredith informed me last year that the Dead Composers Society would be staging Cosi fan Tutte, I impulsively responded “I hate that opera.”  “Why’s that?” she asked.  “I hate the point of the story and I hate all of the characters, especially Despina.  I find her disturbing.”  Meredith’s response: “Ha ha ha.  Oh Matthew, nobody watches opera for the story.  It’s about the music and the experience.”

I had made the rookie mistake of taking an opera (a comedy!) seriously.