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Cosė Fan Tutte and the Power of Reason

By Gabriela Ramírez-Carr
January 2011

Così fan tutte, Dramma giocoso in two acts
First performance in Vienna in January, 1790
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838)
Virginia Opera at George Mason University
December 2010, Northern Virginia
Conductor: Joseph Walsh

Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, clearly opera's greatest musical-dramatic partnership, teamed-up to put society under a microscope in one of the most insightful operas of all time, Così Fan Tutte. In 1789-1790, as the final states in America were ratifying the US Constitution, one of the most debated issue of the day was whether or not mankind possessed the reasoning power necessary to create a governmental structure to run its own affairs. At the time the answer was not clear, and even Friedrich Schiller, disappointed with the turn of the French Revolution away from the American model, would write his series of letters, “On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” to address this underlying issue.

Much of Europe was racked with upheaval. The oligarchy, desperate to maintain their stagnent and corrupt old order, could not depend on their military might nor their financial hegemony to maintain their control, but had to resort to the oldest trick in the book--manipulating the population through sense-certainty. Indeed the entire Romantic Movement was promoted to prevent human reasoning. Man could not be permitted to understand the universe, nor even determine his own future. For the romantics and their oligarchic controllers, the highest model of freedom could be a cow grazing in a pasture--and to think beyond that was considered too arrogant! Mozart was committed to shaking-up these European pastures. He knew the importance of this opera, and was in a race against the clock to bring it to the stage. Could Europe react in time, or would it remain in its own mental straightjacket, and fall victim to the imposed littleness?

Opera as Statecraft

This lesson in statecraft begins with an elaborate illusion created by Mozart and Da Ponte. There are young couples deeply in love, there are marching armies, sailing ships, weddings, and even attempted suicides, but none of it is real. This fantasy world should be obvious, but the characters on stage operate only on sense-certainty. This empiricism is so extreme that the two sisters can't recognize their own lovers when they each put on a small fake mustache. The audience watches as the characters are forced to rearrange their entire lives in order to adapt to this fabricated “reality.” The highstrung Dorabella in Act I even sings that her mind has no control over her actions, that she is a victim of her own wild emotional swings. The composer here gives us a glimps into the human condition, where the characters, each in their own way, are trapped by a cultural matrix that seems to prevent them from reasoning, problem solving, or even simply recognizing reality.

The Old Philosopher, Don Alfonso

Photo: Anne M. Peterson

Soprano Camille Zamora as Despina and bass Todd Robinson as Don Alfonso.

Reason, however, does make an appearance on stage in the form of the old philosopher, Don Alfonso. It should be noted that while one may “see” the philosopher on stage, the voice that we “hear” is that of the deep thinking, well read Da Ponte, whom we can picture, just behind the curtain, feeding the dialog to his favorite character, Don Alfonso. Da Ponte fills the libretto with references and actual quotes from ancient poets and philosophers. He even puts quotation marks in the musical score (although some of the quotes have been slightly altered for the specific ocassion). Some of these references were well know to the public and others were almost private, known only to his closest friends. Many consider this to be Da Ponte's most literary dramatic work.

Some critics refer to Don Alfonso as being a cynical misanthrope, disgusted by the flaws in society, but this is false. While the others talk of love, he is the only one who accurately understands that it is NOT all senses, infatuation and feelings. He challenges the young lovers - after being challenged to draw his own sword over the issue - by an experiment in marital fidelity - a well known and ancient topic in classical literature (with varying results…) More importantly, the poet and composer portray the degenerating society onstage, using these singers, to enable the audience to see these flaws in themselves. How does Reason prevail in such circumstances? The audience changes.

Mozart was doing some experimenting of his own, creating some of his greatest music ever, but also playfully recalling many great moments from different operas—especially from his own works. Musically for Mozart, this would be an opera about opera. For example, in Act I the sisters are introduced in a love duet, (having been seduced not by their lovers, but rather by miniture portraits of their lovers). This calls to mind a pattern of seduction scenes by Mozart (such as Susanna by the count, Zerlina by Don Giovanni, or Fiordiligi by Ferrando) where clarinets create the theme in the Key of A. In each of these three Mozart/Da Ponte operas (Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così) the recurring themes of failed seductions seem to be a blunt warning to the oligarchy that the “old ways” will not work any longer.

Mozart also could not pass-up the opportunity to poke fun at an old “scientific” acquaintance of his, Dr. Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). Although Mesmer was a sometimes patron of the arts and even sponsored Mozart when he was age 12, it seems that Mesmer had been “mesmerized” by Newton and his theories of “fluid transfers” inside objects—even inside rocks—caused by the positioning of the Moon.[1] Mesmer's medical theory was that invisible fluids were being blocked in his sick patients, and that he could use magnets to open up passageways and restore balance. The funniest part of the opera is when the 15 year old chambermaid, Despina, comes out on stage disguised as “Dr. Mesmer” and uses a magnet to “cure” the male lovers who feign to have been poisoned. In this class conscious period, Mozart often uses the humblest cast members--who don't decend from landed gentry, nor royal blood lines--to completely discredit prestigious charlatans, using nothing more than humor.

The Virginia Opera's Production

It would seem clear from the program notes distributed before the performance that not everyone at the Virginia Opera Company was in agreement on Mozart and Da Ponte's intent with this opera. The Director, Lillian Groag, who has directed everything from Shakeapeare plays to Verdi operas, understood the role of humor to both appeal for tolerance with an individual's shortcomings, but, more importantly, its calling to a higher, more profound state of consciousness from the audience. However, Stephen Willier in his “Historical Background” notes seemed to be inviting Mozart to include him in the Act I “Toast to Love” three part musical trill “laughing” at those clueless characters on stage who can give eloquent speeches about topics close to their heart, but have no idea of their subject matter. It may be for this reason that some--but not all--of the power of this opera was realized on stage. Mr. Willier went to great lengths to “prove” that the other joint efforts by Mozart and Da Ponte (Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni) had nothing in common with Così Fan Tutte, yet Da Ponte himself always refered to these three works as a “family of operas,” and that Così was the “third sister.”

Upholding the Virginia Opera Company's long tradition of recruiting some very polished and acomplished young talent, this production exceeded even many previous successes. The most outstanding was tenor, David Portillo playing Ferrando, who gave an all around world class performance. Portillo has developed true “Bel Canto” technical skills that give him perfect placement of each note, yet a very wide vocal range, and all combined with his very poetical phrasing. His other big asset is his fine acting skills, always keeping the audience laughing out loud at his antics, and was the most successful at bringing to life Mozart's intent of the “other directedness” of the characters—meaning that they are never in control of any situation, but rather their surroundings control them.

Photo: Anne M. Peterson

Baritone Timothy Kuhn as Guglielmo and mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier as Dorabella.

Part of the overall success of this production was due to the excellent dynamic created between Ferrando and Guglielmo, played by baritone, Timothy Kuhn. Both with his rich voice and also with his acting, Kuhn filled his roll perfectly. He deffinately had the most audacious stage presence which was needed as the leader of the two bachelors. Kuhn's duet, “Il core vi dono,” showed his versatility, where at one instant the audience is laughing at his foolery, and the next nearly brought to tears by his beautiful handling of Mozart's musical appeal to one's humanity.

This reviewer saw Todd Robinson as Sargent Sulpice in last year's Virginia Opera production of “La Fille du Regiment” and was impressed with both his voice and stage presence. In this production he was again impressive and did a very convincing Don Alfonso, the philosopher, who is often dismayed at the ignorance that surrounds him, but who never loses hope for humanity. Robinson had just the right mix of “tough love” that a stern father might use to improve his children.

Soprano, Jan Cornelius (as Fiordiligi) and mezzo soprano, Katharine Tier (as Dorabella), worked so well together that one could picture them as real sisters. Tier came across as very playful and her aria, “E amore un ladroncello” was effortlessly done to perfection, despite what might seem as an impossible position for a singer, lying down on cushions. Cornelius, who comes from a long line of classical singers in her family, did her family proud with her aria, “Come Scoglio.” She has a commanding soprano voice with great vibratto, yet flexible to work well in duets.

Last, but certainly not least, is Despina, played by the soprano, Camille Zamora. What a fine and effective performance she did! The two oligarchic sisters are helpless without their servant, Despina, who delivers a Figaro type role, where nothing on stage can happen without her first developing the plan, and then directing the action to completion. Despina also often serves as the audience's connection to the opera. For example, in a very clever staging in Act II, the sisters are “looking at themselves” in an empty mirror frame, but Despina climbs through the empty frame, and brings the audience directly into the action.

Photo: Anne M. Peterson

Soprano Camille Zamora as Despina, mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier as Dorabella and soprano Jan Cornelius as Fiordiligi.

Mozart also uses Despina to create a Cinderella type moment in order to challenge the audience on “other-directedness.” All the cues from the stage would have the audience join-in on an offensive, tasteless laugh by the sisters at the expense of Despina, but an akward silence is left in the theater, as the audience passes Mozart's first test, and leaves the sisters looking like fools when they tell Despina that, because she is a lowly servant, no man could possible be romantically interested in her. Finally, on a personal note, Camille Zamora also deserves applause for her off-stage performance as the co-founder of a non-profit that strives to bring the fine arts to underserved youth.

The lack of a Hollywood style “happy ending” has caused considerable consternation among certain critics over the years. There have even been cases where Così's final scene had been changed, and Mozart's opera was reduced to a “feel good” love story. When properly done, despite the beautiful singing, the inspiring music, and laugh-out-loud comedy, the audience is transported out of its comfort zone and should leave the theater a bit agitated. In a world of sense-certainty, there are no heroes. It would seem that Mozart's prescription for a time of crisis is not to look for a catchy slogan, a special favor, nor any other type of immediate gratification, but rather to work to develop society's power to reason. That is the only true happy ending!

[1] For more on Franz Anton Mesmer and the Martinists, see

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