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‘Così’ in Coney

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Ben Bliss as Ferrando, Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi, Serena Malfi as Dorabella, and Adam Plachetka as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, 2018

Mozart was an inland composer, raised in Alpine Salzburg, residing in Danubian Vienna, and the sea played a relatively small part in his relatively brief life. He came to the sea at Naples in 1770, age fourteen, and mentioned it in a typically scatological pun, without the slightest reverence for Mediterranean beauty: “I have now also traveled on the Merde-iterranean Sea” (“nun bin ich auf den Merditeranischen meere auch gefahren”). Mozart musically revisited the Mediterranean in 1781 in Idomeneo, set in Crete, and then once again when he created his most morally and sexually disturbing work, Così fan tutte, set in Naples, and staged in Vienna in 1790, the year before his death.

Early in Act One, in the most beautiful operatic trio that Mozart ever wrote, two sisters, soprano and mezzo soprano (accompanied by a bass-baritone), sing a farewell to their lovers, young officers who have just shipped off to war—“Soave sia il vento” (Gentle be the wind)—while the strings of the orchestra create the lapping of the Mediterranean currents. The women are amorously sorrowful, but the beauty of their prayerful lament is undercut by an irreverence that goes beyond the merely scatological—for the audience, even as it is seduced by the beauty of the music, already knows that the officers have not really gone to war but will return in disguise, subject to the terms of a bet by which each must attempt to seduce the other’s lover. The heartache of the women, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, is nothing but a cruel joke on them, and the bass-baritone, Don Alfonso, who harmonizes with them, is the cynical philosopher who has proposed the bet. He philosophically believes that every woman will inevitably be unfaithful: “Così fan tutte” meaning “That’s what all women do.” Such were the morals of Mozart’s Merde-iterranean imaginings.

In the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Così fan tutte, directed by Phelim McDermott, the sea is brilliantly present, as the opera is translated in time and place to Coney Island in the 1950s; the scene is set on the boardwalk with the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel of the Luna Park as backdrop. The sisters and the philosopher sing their trio looking out toward the ocean, which must lie just where we are sitting in the audience.

Mozart never thought of visiting New York, but his greatest collaborator, the Venetian Lorenzo Da Ponte, who wrote the libretto not only for Così fan tutte but also for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, lived a much longer life than Mozart and ended up in New York as the first professor of Italian at Columbia. He established the New York Opera Company, became a US citizen, and today lies buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. He died in 1838, when Coney Island was first being developed as a resort destination in Brooklyn—and that was also the year of the birth of General Tom Thumb, the dwarf who grew up to become one of the stars of P.T. Barnum’s original circus.

Tom Thumb is relevant to this new production of Così fan tutte because McDermott has surrounded the singers with the figures from a Coney Island boardwalk sideshow: sword-swallower, fire-eater, bearded lady, contortionist, muscle man, and little people. Mozart grew up in Salzburg, the site of a famous eighteenth-century “Dwarf Garden” (Zwerglgarten) with evocative stone sculptures. Furthermore, Mozart as a child prodigy was such an astounding musician that he was actually subjected to scientific observation to ascertain that he was really a child, and not a dwarf pretending to be a child. Grown up, Mozart was just over five feet tall, and sometimes signed himself in Latin: “Mozart Magnus, corpore parvus,” The Great Mozart, of small body. As a child prodigy on display, he must have had some idea of what it meant to be regarded as freakish in eighteenth-century society.

In the Met production, the sideshow characters convene on stage during the overture and reassemble repeatedly throughout the opera. They are usually in attendance upon Don Alfonso, who is masterminding and staging the freakish farce of the two officers—Ferrando and Guglielmo—each set to seduce the other’s lover. In Da Ponte’s original conception, the two men depart as Neapolitans and return disguised as Albanians, but in McDermott’s production they go away as clean-cut US navy officers and return with new identities as 1950s greasers, with leather jackets and swaggering sexual postures—in fact, as Neapolitan-Americans. Now unrecognizable, even to their own girlfriends, the men set about testing the women’s fidelity. McDermott boldly sets this very disturbing game in the context of a sideshow—but the sideshow performers are watching the lovers as if they are the entertainment on the boardwalk. 

All of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas pose challenging questions about how they might best be produced during the current #MeToo moment, especially after the Metropolitan Opera’s music director and most distinguished Mozart conductor of the last four decades has been fired over accusations of sexual harassment (James Levine is now suing the Met for breach of contract and defamation). The Marriage of Figaro, which the Met staged in December and January, deals with a sexually exploitative employer, Count Almaviva, though his predations are frustrated by the stratagems of his servants. In Don Giovanni, the compulsive libertine seducer receives a stringent comeuppance at the end of the opera, when he is dragged down to hell. In Così fan tutte, however, nobody is punished: the officers lose the wager because the women prove unfaithful, but the opera seems to end happily for everyone. Da Ponte and Mozart created Così fan tutte as an opera buffa: “all women are like that,” and life is like that—and so we might as well enjoy it as comedy, rather than suffer it as tragedy.

While Christian biblical history emphasized the lustful curiosity of Eve, accepting the apple from the serpent in the Garden of Eden—establishing women’s desires as the origin of human sinfulness—eighteenth-century culture produced the libertine career of Casanova, the celebration of Don Giovanni, and the model of the libertine male lover, eternally unfaithful. Così fan tutte places a wager on the weakness of women, but actually represents the romantic callousness of men:  Ferrando and Guglielmo cannot prove the women’s infidelity without being unfaithful themselves.

The Met production is set in the Coney Island of our parents and grandparents, America in the 1950s when overly-performed sexual innocence—Fiordiligi and Dorabella first appear in bobby socks and saddle shoes—concealed the darker desires that infuse everything about Così fan tutte. McDermott, unusually, makes the opera into a nocturne, with the sun setting at the end of Act One and all of Act Two taking place by night on the boardwalk.

The dark engine that drives the opera into such sexually disturbing corners of the psyche is the wager undertaken in daylight and consummated by night, the men betting on the women’s sexual susceptibility. The betting plot comes out of the Renaissance Italian tales of Boccaccio, but the eighteenth-century literary model was the French novel Les liaisons dangereuses, published in 1782, in the decade that concluded with Così fan tutte. In the novel, the marvelously depraved Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont wager on his seduction of another woman.

In the culture of the 1950s, one would have to look no farther than Broadway, where the supreme gambler Sky Masterson and the ultimate operator Nathan Detroit make a bet on whether Sky will be able to persuade a certain virtuous doll to go to Havana with him. Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway in 1950, and in 1951 Così fan tutte returned to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since the 1920s; it was presented by the new Viennese general manager Rudolf Bing in an American version that used an English libretto and two home-grown American superstars, Eleanor Steber and Richard Tucker, directed by another American, Alfred Lunt. My ninety-year-old father swears that there was never a more enchanting production than this one, and you can still hear, on recording, Richard Tucker beginning the opera in resonant tenor voice: “To doubt Dorabella is simply absurd/she’ll always be faithful and true to her word.”

Jonathan Tichler/Met Opera
A scene from Act I of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, 2018

At the Met, McDermott is working with a youthful cast. The four lovers are tenor Ben Bliss, baritone Adam Plachetka, soprano Amanda Majeski, and mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi. Earlier this winter, Plachetka was Mozart’s Figaro at the Met, while Malfi was costumed as a boy for Cherubino. As Dorabella, Malfi is the sexy sister, singing as she throws off a rose-colored robe to reveal a magenta slip, before donning a vivid red striped dress, her voice also full of rich colorings. She later appears in her red dress, hugging a giant stuffed elephant—a boardwalk prize—the symbol of constancy, which she tosses away and replaces with a stuffed snake, the symbol of temptation, shimmying as she sings: “É amore un ladroncello/un serpentello è amor” (Love is a thief/love is a serpent).

Majeski performs the role of Fiordiligi in the shadow of some very famous Met divas—Renée Fleming, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, and, of course, Steber herself—who all sang the role. If Majeski’s voice is not as charismatically striking as some, she nevertheless had her high-flying moment, when the production elevated her in a hot-air balloon ride to sing Fiordiligi’s famous rondo, “Per pietà” (For pity’s sake); she pleads for pardon in advance of her erotic surrender, knowing there is no escape from the opera’s relentless sexual dynamics. David Robertson, the conductor, allows Majeski to spin out a long and delicate thread of melody, as she ascends both vocally and physically, offering a magical filament of vocal light in the darkness of the stage and the darkness of the opera house, while clarinets, bassoons, horns, and flutes seem to sustain her ascent.   

Robertson is a confident Mozartean, but James Levine virtually owned this opera during his long tenure as music director at the Met, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone but Levine conduct Così fan tutte in New York. Robertson, also American and fifteen years younger than Levine, has made an impression at the Met conducting composers whose work Levine never chose to conduct—such as Janáček, Britten, and John Adams. (Notably, Robertson conducted the Met premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer.) In Così fan tutte, Robertson was respectful of the somewhat light-voiced singers, and attentive to the nuances of the production. In Act Two, a magical combination of clarinets, bassoons, and horns accompanies the lovers on the Coney Island rotating-teacup ride, spinning in Mozartean three-eighth time.  

The conductor commands the performance from the orchestra pit, but on stage the comedy of seduction is directed by the philosopher Don Alfonso, vigorously sung by Christopher Maltman, charming in spite of his character’s implicit nastiness. He receives assistance from the very worldly chambermaid Despina, here working at the Coney Island Skyline Motel and performed by the Broadway musical star Kelli O’Hara. It is her role to urge the sisters to surrender to their sexual inclinations—and she holds her own vocally among the opera singers, intoning obscenely at the opening of Act Two: “A woman at age fifteen must know where the devil has his tail.”

There are very few operatic works so cheerfully indifferent to morals as Così fan tutte, and it was largely deplored and rarely performed through most of the nineteenth century. Da Ponte, Jewish by birth, became a Catholic priest and then caused scandal by his libertine love affairs before leaving the priesthood; he was having an affair with the soprano who created the role of Fiordiligi. As for Mozart, he was the man who knew all about the serial courtship of sisters, since he first fell in love with Aloysia Weber and then married her younger sister Constanze. By 1790, when Da Ponte and Mozart got around to Così fan tutte, their last collaboration, the Enlightenment in the Habsburg monarchy was collapsing with the illness and death of Emperor Joseph II (his death interrupted the first run of performances of Così fan tutte in February 1790), and the French Revolution was beginning to reveal the extreme, even violent, implications of the new, enlightened ideas. If Don Alfonso was a philosopher, the one he most closely resembled was the fanatically amoral Marquis de Sade, who in 1791 published Justine, the landmark work of modern pornography in which every sort of sexual degradation is philosophically justified as a rational choice. 

In 1951, when the Metropolitan Opera was reviving Così fan tutte for the first time in a generation, Simone de Beauvoir published her famous essay “Must We Burn Sade?” The answer was no—in part because Sade had too much to teach us about cruelty, humanity, freedom, and pleasure. Così fan tutte touches on all these issues of the human condition with an exquisite lightness of touch that belongs to the late rococo world of the ancien régime in Europe but still speaks to us in a recognizable postwar American setting. Somehow, even though we know that the characters are being put through the motions of a brutal game, we can’t help being moved along with them, as they exchange partners and fall in love all over again in the gorgeous lines of music that Mozart composes for them. “Quante buffonerie!” (How many buffooneries!) exclaims Don Alfonso after the heartbreakingly beautiful trio in which he has participated, “Soave sia il vento.” In the trio when Mozart sets the words “our desires”—“ai nostri desir”—the last syllable of “desir” is suddenly rendered exquisitely unstable by an unexpected diminished chord. Our desires tell us exactly where we are most unstable, most vulnerable, most sensitively unresolved.  

McDermott understands Mozart and Da Ponte to be suggesting that the human condition is a boardwalk sideshow, which we need to accept philosophically and, if possible, with a sense of humor. “Ci vuol filosofia” (You need philosophy), Don Alfonso tells the young men who are losing their naiveté by brutally desecrating their own belief in love and loyalty. Famously, at the end of Così fan tutte, the libretto does not specify whether the original couples are reconstituted, or whether each man pairs off with the other sister whom he has seduced. Mozart and Da Ponte know the answer: all women—and all men—are “like that” (così), capable of love but inevitably inconstant. Da Ponte and Mozart, who so devastatingly explore the musical mysteries that underlie our desires, understand us better than we know ourselves, better perhaps than we want to know ourselves, and yet, we will all keep returning to the Mediterranean shores, to the Coney Island boardwalk, of Così fan tutte.  


Così fan tutte runs at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, until April 19.