OK, let’s face it. When people speak of ridiculous opera plots, Così fan tutte has to be near the top of the list. To accept the story at face value, we have to believe that two young women are so distraught at their fiancés’ departure for military service, that they contemplate suicide, fall in love with two new suitors within a matter of hours, and then fail to recognize that the new suitors are actually their own fiancés in disguise. We would also need to accept the idea that the men would successfully pursue each other’s intended with such persuasiveness, knowing it is against their best interests to do so.
Then why has this opera consistently held a solid place in the standard repertoire? The obvious answer—the music—cannot tell the whole story, despite the fact that it contains the most beautiful ensembles Mozart ever composed. While librettists have rarely been as famous as the composers with whom they collaborate, any composer who has worked in this medium has recognized that a good libretto is the first requisite for a great opera.
The magic of Così fan tutte, I would assert, comes not from the music alone but from the fact that Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte approached the subject with dead seriousness despite the surface absurdities. Contrast this approach with that taken by Gilbert and Sullivan in their equally absurd light operas. In works such as H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, the actors always seem to be presenting the story with a wink at the audience, and their acting is usually over the top. Not for a single moment in The Pirates of Penzance are we expected to share Frederic’s agony over his dilemma of whether to keep his oath to serve as a pirate until age 84. In Così, we are expected to share Fiordiligi’s pain as she agonizes over the question of whether she should remain faithful to her fiancé or follow her heart and choose her new suitor. Moreover, the opera will fail if the performers do not approach their roles fully committed to the emotions their characters are feeling.
Despite the exaggeration, the opera asks us how we would feel if between the time of our engagement and the wedding date, we met our true soul mates. How would we resolve the conflict between our duty and the feeling that true happiness would lead us in another direction? How would a man feel when he realized that his fiancée’s love was so tenuous that she would consider the advances of another man? These are real questions that transcend the details of Così fan tutte’s libretto. Like few other operas, Così probes the depths of what it means to be human and live in relationship with others, and it displays a profound psychological understanding of human nature, matched by few other works for the stage.
Stu Lewis writes the in-depth guides to each mainstage opera for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City website.
Tickets to Così fan tutte (March 16, 20, 22 and 24 at the Kauffman Center) start at $29; best seating availability is Wednesday, March 20.