I just got back from watching the New York Met production of Cosi fan Tutte at Cinéville, and it’s left me feeling angry and unhappy. This reaction has nothing to do with the Met’s production: the six principal voices were all excellent and used with admirable technical mastery and restraint, avoiding all operatic excess; the acting was good too, at times exceptionally so. No, my beef is with the story line.
Now, this may seem silly of me because everyone knows that as a general rule operatic stories do tend to require a whacking big dose of Coleridge’s ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ and Cosi fan Tutte is particularly flaky. Two soldiers are boasting of their fiancées’ faithfulness. Their cynical older friend Alfonso claims that all women are by nature unfaithful. They make a wager and, with the soldiers’ connivance, he sets a trap to prove his point. Farrando and Guglielmo, the two soldiers, are spirited away at a moment’s notice, supposedly despatched to the front, but Alfonso brings them back disguised as Albanian aristocrats and they each set about trying to seduce the other’s fiancée. The ladies resist and Alfonso enlists the help of Despina, their maid, an incorrigible flirt (not to use unkinder words) who has very pragmatic views on what a girl should know at the age of fifteen. She thickens the plot with a couple of faked suicides but still the ladies resist, much to Alfonso’s surprise. Finally though, first one sister then the other, they succumb to a veritable campaign of merciless moral blackmail. They are just signing faked marriage contracts when a roll on the drums announces the army’s return. Cue utter consternation from the ladies when all is revealed, and fury from Farrando and Guglielmo who have the gall to accuse the girls of having betrayed them. Alfonso, having collected his winnings and paid off Despina, calms everyone down and they all live happily ever after. As I said, flaky…
By the end of the first act I was having difficulty suspending disbelief on the required scale, but I was hanging in there. I might even have managed to concentrate on the music — and only the music — right through till the end had it not been for presenter Renée Flemming’s comments during the entr’acte. As a good liberal American, she felt obliged to apologise for Mozart’s lack of political correction. I didn’t think that was necessary, but OK — let’s say it comes with the job. However, she then went on to claim that, even today, Cosi could be seen as a “wicked comedy”. And that was a mistake: you cannot subject a text like that to any sort of literary analysis and expect to come up smelling of roses.
The second act got under way and, as the trap began to close around the two girls struggling valiantly against overwhelming odds, I realised that there was indeed a parallel to be drawn with today’s world. In fact I near as dammit staged a one-man political protest by walking out, because if you really want to situate Cosi in the modern world you cannot think of it as a comedy: it becomes a trenchant satire of Islam and Islamic attitudes to women. (I even wonder if director Lesley Koenig might have been hinting as much by giving his ‘Albanians’ Arab-style headdresses.)
Having subjected the girls’ virtue to a ruthless and (emotionally) violent assault, the men crow over their alleged weakness, blind to their distress. All that counts for the men is their own wounded vanity. And nothing has changed. Out there in today’s world there are still countries where a woman is likely to be disowned by her husband and humiliatingly punished or even executed if she should have the effrontery to get raped.
The picture is a still from Cyrus Nowrasteh's film "The Stoning of Soraya M."