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Mozart's "Cosí fan tutte" for Beginners

By Judith Fein


Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte” for Beginners

You can rest assured when you settle into your seat for a performance of the romantic dramedy Cosí fan tutte, which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed in 1790 with a libretto by the brilliant Lorenzo Da Ponte, that the story will be a straightforward boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back tale, right? There won’t be anything overtly sexual, and surely it won’t touch on things like cross-dressing, role play, and gender identity, right? In this production, directed by 33-year-old R. B. Schlather, toss all your expectations to the Santa Fe breezes because this gender-bending, utterly contemporary staging deals with all of the above, and more. And of course it’s controversial, which is all the more reason to see it. It will give you plenty to talk and think about long after the music ends.

Before going into the plot, which can be summarized very quickly, I’d like to tell you that in the world of opera, which is gloriously rich in talent, the Santa Fe Opera’s production of Cosí stands out as the hands-down, baton up, most perfect casting you are ever likely to witness. The six principals have voices that make the heavens happy, and the four lovers are young, vibrant, vigorous, physically fit and dexterous, and very easy on the eyes. Remember these names: Majeski, D’Angelo, Dahl, Bliss, Ott, and Gilfry. If you are lucky, you will see and hear these stars again and again.

Couple on stage, Cosi fan tutte

Jarrett Ott and Emily D'Angelo in Cosí fan tutte at the Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Ken Howard.

Couple on stage, Cosi fan tutte

Ben Bliss and Amanda Majeski in Cosí fan tutte at The Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Ken Howard.

Full Cosi fan tutte ensemble

The cast of Cosí fan tutte from L to R: Emily D'Angelo (Dorabella), Ben Bliss (Ferrando), Amanda Majeski (Fiordiligi), Jarrett Ott (Guglielmo), Rod Gilfry (Don Alfonso) and Tracy Dahl (Despina). Photo by Ken Howard.

Now for the plot. Two beautiful young sisters are engaged to two handsome young men. They are smoochie-smoochie-love-love relationships, based on old-time values like trust and fidelity. But then, there is a worm in the apple of perfect love. An older friend of the two men, who happens to be a blasé cynic when it comes to women, makes a bet that their two fianceés are fickle and will opt for infidelity if given the chance. The plot he hatches is diabolically simple. He will tell the women that their beloveds have been mobilized for war, and the men will pretend to deploy, disguise themselves, and come back incognito to try to seduce the women. The miserable women, who toss and flop around the stage in primo drama queen fashion, are ultimately seduced by each other’s disguised fiancés. And the older friend has paid the women’s maid handsomely to help him prove how faithless women are. It’s not very hard to solicit her help because she loves money, and she thinks men are pretty worthless so what’s the point of being faithful to them?

This production of Cosí does away with all of the powdered wigs and visual trappings of an l8th-century opera. It’s so minimalist that it could be an art installation at SITE Santa Fe. The focus is on the characters, their relationships, and the vocal and orchestral music. And to underscore the point, the girls wear very short white tennis outfits that suggest innocence and purity but show a lot of leg. And the men stride in wearing abbreviated white tennis togs and they later don cowboy duds because this takes place in the Wild West, with the emphasis on wild. Once the sexual genie and infidelity are out of the bottle, everything else pours out of the bottle as well. Even the older friend and maid get into the act.

You are probably used to seeing singers and actors perform in the light. In this Cosí, major arias are delivered in half-darkness. It’s as though the characters are operating in the shadows, with hidden areas of their personalities, denying the totality of who they are and what they feel. At the end, everything is exposed, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and the world on stage is bathed in light. So are the characters happy? Here, they sing beautifully with no affect, and they talk about the reasoned philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment when, in fact, they act from passion and feeling, lust and longing.

Don’t be upset if you don’t understand the “meaning” of everything the director intended. Just go with the flow, the music, the divine singing, the general thrust of the story. You may start out incensed at how women are stereotyped as faithless, but the men don’t come across too well either. What kind of man accepts a bet to expose his girlfriend after subjecting her to endless talk of love and how attractive she is?

Now, with the plot under your belt, and the pressure removed to understand everything, you have plenty to discuss with others and to wonder about yourself. Is there pure love? Are women faithless? Are men jerky? Is love just another name for sex? Does sexual liberation lead to happiness or is the road fraught with dangers? Are men and women really like two different species that live with the illusion that they can get along without causing emotional train wrecks? Why are the older friend and the maid so cynical? And was young Mozart, who seems to be cynical as well, injecting autobiographical pain into the opera? Were the rumors that his wife might have been less than purely faithful true?

It might be really interesting – if you’re brave enough – to go to see Cosí with a date. It could be a way to laugh together, be transported by sublime music together, and discover together what really matters in relationships and in life.

—Judith Fein

Judith Fein is an award-winning author, international travel journalist specializing in culture, reviewer, director, and opera librettist. You can learn more about her by visiting