Love, sex and Cosi fan tutte

By August 21, 2016Books, History, Music, Society, Theatre

For those who don’t know much about the work, Cosi fan tutte is an opera with music by Mozart, for a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, who also worked with Mozart in creating Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. Indeed da Ponte wrote 28 libretti for eleven composers, and had a most interesting life. The opera has a sub-title The School for Lovers, but it is rarely used. Cosi fan tutte means ‘They all do it’, and ‘they’ means women. If both men and women had been meant, the third word in the title would have been tutti. This little exercise in language is important, because the message in the title is that women are fickle, and there has been continuing feminist and earlier objection to the implication that men are not fickle, if not that they are more so.

Cost has been the most criticised of Mozart’s operas, and it was not much performed in the 19th century, or it was performed in a bowdlerised way. Beethoven is said to have thought it immoral and frivolous, and he may also have thought that for Mozart to set such beautiful music to such a silly story was beneath the role of a true artist. He certainly knew the work, and there are echoes of its music in his own Fidelio. Since 1950 Cosi has been consistently performed as originally intended, and is a standard item in the operatic repertoire.

What was all the fuss about? Briefly, Cosi is about fiancée-swapping. Two soldiers boast about the constancy of two sisters, their lady loves, and are drawn into a bet, in which they are to pretend to go off to war and then return in the guise of Albanian nobility, each of the men to woo his friend’s fiancée. They are ultimately successful, to their own chagrin, but all is revealed at the end, and the four agree that life has its ups and downs, which have to be accepted with equanimity.

I have seen the opera four or five times, in England and Australia, and in each case it was played as a farce. It is certainly a comedy, and you can emphasis the fun. Much of the music is simply gorgeous, so it is no hardship at all to sit through its three hours. But the production by the Australian Opera that I saw a little while ago made me think of its relevance to today’s Western world. The Director, Sir David McVicar, has emphasised the uncertainty of love and attraction, and the outcome, to me at least, was a powerful story of the unexpectedness of sexual attraction. The two sisters, it becomes clear, have accepted their original soldier lovers without much real thought or affection: one has to have a lover, so here’s mine. They appear to be horrified at the soldiers’ supposed departure to the battlefield, but their laments are shown as stagey and overdone. When they then encounter the supposed Albanians they meet men who are different, and powerful, and attractive, and they fall for the new suitors, one after the other. At the end they are to marry their original loves, but you can see the tug of affection for the other. What am I doing marrying this one? What has love done to me?

In today’s Australia, at least in some quarters, the four would sort it out pretty quickly. I actually knew two couples who divorced in order that the wives could swap or be swapped (I’m not sure who were the initiators). It seemed to be done with civility, though I was not close to any of them. More generally, the widespread availability of contraception and the early sexual activity of today’s young people probably means that the whole of da Ponte’s original plot is almost irrelevant. Who would be taking about about constancy in a society where one of two marriages ends in divorce and a third of Year 10s (in NSW, anyway) are sexually active? For Year 12s the proportion is well ahead of fifty per cent.

The funny thing is that the great majority of us do expect sexual exclusivity in our relationships, and that proportion may well have grown. In permanent relationships so much depends on trust and reciprocity, and while there are other forms of indifference, a sexual liaison outside the bond suggests that something is badly wrong and that the relationship is in trouble, whether or not the other partner knows it.

There have been a number of important changes in marriage since my first wedding in 1958. Marriages as the confirmation of the strength of the relationship are now less frequent, and the age of partners at the ceremony is older. Perhaps they have learned something. It is certainly true that the introduction of no-fault divorce in the 1970s led to a sudden rise in divorce, and it is still true that, as pointed out above, that on the evidence only half of marriages last. We live longer too. Boys born in the 1880s lived on average to their mid 40s, while today they could expect to live to their late seventies. Women’s life expectancy was and is a little more. Those extra 35 or so years are  of course as adults. A marriage that lasts fifty and more years (and there are many of them) will have good bones, but it is not surprising, I think, that boredom can creep in. I do know a woman who decided in her early fifties that she could not face the thought of living with her husband for the rest of their lives. There was nothing wrong with him, but their marriage had no spark left in it. She left, to his consternation.

It was different in earlier generations. My mother, undecided about the offer of marriage from my father, who had been courting her for a couple of years, sought the advice of her mother. ‘What’s wrong with you, girl? He doesn’t drink, and he won’t beat you. What are you waiting for?’ Jane Austen, at the beginning of the 19th century, focused on what would seem to us tiny groups of people, out of whom marriages were formed. Girls, in particular, had few chances to find a husband because their place was in the home. Family, visitors and the church represented virtually all the sources of potential partners. The wealthier you were, the more chances you had, because you could move about, to London and the country — and your wealth offered an inducement. An offer of marriage was really important, whether or not you actually liked the guy. Girls were chided for not accepting an offer that was respectable. Love might come later, if you were lucky. One of my sons, entering adolescence, told me one day that he was sure that he wouldn’t find his true love: he had come to the view that the right girl for him was actually German, and he would not be able to visit Germany. She would be snatched up by someone else. Actually, he has travelled, though not to Germany, and married well, too.

The point of all this pondering is that the institution of marriage is changing, just as much else in Western society is changing. Technology is part of the reason, as well as longer lives, greater wealth, greater movement, women’s ability to control their own fertility, the decline of organised religion, the possibility of same-sex marriages. I don’t think it means the end of anything. We will adapt, and are adapting. But it is a different world, and the McVicars production of Cosi fan tutte offered an insight into it that I valued.

And, returning to the actual performance, I thought Nicole Car, the new Australian soprano sensation, was quite outstanding as the more faithful of the two sisters, Fiordiligi. As always, the whole AO production was first class.

Declaration of interest: I have been married three times, in marriages of 18, 12 and 25 (continuing) years. The first two were good marriages, too, while they lasted, and I was sad when they ended. The reasons for their ending are not especially relevant here.

Join the discussion 35 Comments

  • spangled drongo says:

    I must confess to providing an incredibly boring life for my wife of the last 55years. When we were young and I played and coached football our club had regular wild wife-swapping parties and I often discussed with her the possibly of us partaking.

    Neither of us could summon the courage at the time yet it could have been exciting or then again ended up like “someone left the cake out in the rain”:

    • margaret says:

      Here I could say to you why “wife” and not husband-swapping – it’s the proprietorial attitude of those who walk most comfortably in the world we inhabit…. even ‘white-hatted’ white males.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Marg, how do I swap husbands?

        How do you swap wives?

        Give me a break!!!

        • margaret says:

          Haha … clever point. How come wives didn’t organize husband-swapping parties then?

          • spangled drongo says:

            Maybe they did. I know one wife who wanted to but her husband was too straight laced.

            These days I’d be surprised if some women didn’t organise orgies.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Do the Hindus not have a marital convention – I think the word is Sanyassin – whereby a man and wife, once there family duties are ended and kids are off their hands, can go separate ways in order to attend to the well-being and progress of their respective spirits. i became interested in this for my third novel – To The Burning City – where one character leaves a marriage to atone for things where he believes himself responsible, the moral crux (and departure from the Hindu propriety) being that he breaks the heart of his son.
    I have been immensely lucky, marrying late but joyously for the past 34 years. That ‘late’ enabled me to base another of my novels on the idea of the pathos that can occur in both men and women, that somehow their personalities or fortunes disqualify them from love, and how this can be true in some instances and a false perception in others.

    • margaret says:

      Interesting. As for Cosi I can’t comment as I only saw the film set in a mental institution where one of the patients wants to stage the opera.
      What did surprise me when I went to the Degas exhibition was the seedy beginnings of the Opera Ballets in Paris in the C19th. The ballet didn’t begin until act 2 for the reason that the abonnes (a powerful group of wealthy men) could ask for favours from the young ballerinas during act 1. Their mothers were complicit in this and it was a way out of poverty if your daughter was chosen to train for the ballet. The youngest ballet girls had the nickname petit rat de l’opera.

      • margaret says:

        From Wikipedia:
        “The plots of many ballets were dominated by spirit women—sylphs, wilis, and ghosts, who enslaved the hearts and senses of mortal men and made it impossible for them to live happily in the real world.”
        Poor men!
        I realise I’m off topic – but perhaps not, as the themes of opera echo the crazy template that men have imposed on their ‘ideal of femininity’ – thank goodness so many women were/are able to see through the con.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Yes, a Louis Nowra play, very good too,when I saw it in the theatre.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Talking of Sylphs and Sirens, I have just, a few moments ago, completed an essay on Antony and Cleopatra for a book on Shakespeare I am preparing. One intriguing substance of the play is this. The title of the play names both Antony and Cleopatra as the tragic protagonists, but Antony death falls short of the climactic act, occurring at the end of Act IV where he botches his own suicide after displaying behviour through the play that repeatedly ‘falls short’. So what is Shakespeare up to in making Cleopatra’s most effective engagement with the asp the climactic scene of the play. My conclusion was that the play is about the clash between Apollo and Dionysus, which is to say between the calculating, abstract spirit of order, and the wilder, sensuous pressures of imagining and possibility. Apollo triumphs over Dionysus. In Antony’s end is the fate of a Dionysiac aspirant, and a very blundering one. In Cleopatra’s end is the death of the very spirit of that larger living that is the province of Dionysus, imagination, the affective life, and so constitutes the real tragedy of the play, the factor that makes life smaller. That’s roughly the argument, at least.

    • margaret says:

      Alan that seems interesting – but it’s over my head. Once when I was 23 and friends were at our house, the male partner harrumphed at something I said and called me a pseudo intellectual … it cut to the quick and I’ve been damaged.
      Joking … I think.

  • margaret says:

    “Did lovers really fall in love to stay,
    And stand beside each other, come what may?
    Was a promise really something people kept,
    Not just something they would say?
    Did families really bow their heads to pray?
    Did daddies really never go away?”

    “If you don’t ask grandpa – or if grandpa isn’t a white male – the answer is usually no.”

    • spangled drongo says:

      Marg, I druther have Mac’s Park days than Climate Change days.

      Thinks; I must write a sonnet on CC to the tune of MP.

      Something like:

      ?Consensus never waited for us girl,
      It ran one step ahead
      As we followed it to France….?.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Not a sonnet, of course and Jimmy Webb would groan but you get the pichur:

        Consensus never waited for us girl,
        It rushed a mile ahead
        As we followed it to France.
        Between those doubtful pages we’ve been pressed
        By the IPCC iron
        Like a striped pair of pants.

        Obama’s spark is melting in the dark,
        All the false green icing flowing down.
        Did NOAA leave their cake out in the rain?
        It took them so long to bake it,
        To bake it and to fake it,
        They may never find the recipe again.
        OH, NOAA, OHO NOAAGHH!!!

    • spangled drongo says:

      “If you don’t ask grandpa – or if grandpa isn’t a white male – the answer is usually no.”

      Gettin’ a bit obsessive there, Margie.

      Were you, your mum or grandma frightened by one some time?

      Or do you just naturally hate us?

      • margaret says:

        I didn’t write that – it’s a quote from the article. Nope I’m married to one and he wears a white hat. But you’re right, it’s hard not to become a bit obsessive Spangled, as you have shown only too well.

        • spangled drongo says:

          Yes Marg, I obsess about white females [one in particular] but not in the way you obsess about white males.

          BTW, I reddit and knew it was a quote but why quote it if it isn’t your POV?

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks. Interesting.

  • Ron Dent says:

    I went to a wife swapping party some years ago and I ended up with a second hand simpson washing machine.

  • margaret says:

    “The point of all this pondering is that the institution of marriage is changing, just as much else in Western society is changing. Technology is part of the reason, as well as longer lives, greater wealth, greater movement, women’s ability to control their own fertility, the decline of organised religion, the possibility of same-sex marriages.”

    Many of my children’s friends and they themselves have long term relationships outside the institution of marriage.
    I wonder whether, if men had the ability to control their own fertility with a pill they would take it, or even, as they can already do, just automatically use a condom. I suspect that ‘sow your seed’ is a primitive call from nature and that without the same consequences, one that continues without much thought.
    There is no soulmate for each person. There’s a lot of luck in pairing and there’s always attraction for others.

    • Don Aitkin says:


      • BOTTOM FEEDERS says:

        There is a fairly constant derision of Queenslanders as being at the bottom of everything, and general hillbillies. Well, that has changed. Queensland has now joined the bottom end of town, and lowered the age for anal sex to 16, and we are working to become leaders in this by going even lower than 16. We will show the rest of Australia that we are bottom feeders par excellence !

        “Health Minister Cameron DICK said the laws finally corrected an injustice and protected the health of young people.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    “I wonder whether, if men had the ability to control their own fertility with a pill they would take it,”

    You don’t know what’s going on around ya, Marg. Try opening your eyes.

    EG, two of my sons had vasectomies to please their partners who didn’t want to take the pill.

    I suggested it to my wife years ago and she said, “No, if anything happened to me and you got married again, it could ruin your chance of a family and happiness with your new partner.”

    That’s a real woman!

    • margaret says:

      That’s a saint!
      My husband had a vasectomy after our third child. I appreciated that.
      Goodbye you exasperating person and goodbye to to ‘the growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement’.
      It’s too emotionally draining, there’s not enough sharing of ideas – as you all, apart from the very noisy man, sit behind the curtain and wait for the professor’s next pearls of wisdom.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Marg, you’re priceless!

    You never stop playing the sexist card and then find it “exasperating” and “emotionally draining” when you get fed some honest reality.

  • JimboR says:

    “the decline of organised religion, the possibility of same-sex marriages. I don’t think it means the end of anything. We will adapt, and are adapting.”

    The ultra-conservatives (Abbott, Bernardi, Abetz, Andrews etc.) can see dangers the rest of us couldn’t begin to imagine. They’re all for the will of the people, until the will of the people gets it wrong. How do they know it’s wrong? They read it in a millennia-old book.

    • spangled drongo says:

      “They’re all for the will of the people, until the will of the people gets it wrong”.

      But you want to live in a democratic society only as long as it agrees with your POV?

      Tell us all how you are any more noble when you are convinced that the population are far too stupid to decide if a change in something that has ruled their whole existence for millennia should be allowed.

      And if you think that “book” got it wrong, does it ever occur to you that people who have lived through privations – that you couldn’t dream about in your sheltered current lifestyle – and survived, may have had reasons for following the code they did and those reasons are also possibly beyond your limited comprehension?

      Or maybe you do understand that the first choice children should have is to be raised by their natural parents?

      Perhaps you could tell us of more civilised and successful cultures than Christian and others that all supported monogamous, heterosexual marriage?

      And while you’re at it I’m sure you can find an ancient culture or two that supported and promoted same sex relationships and how well that worked out for them.

      • Ross says:

        Good for you Spangles. A boring old bible brasher revealed.
        Out and proud!
        (Love your contributions, Margaret.)

        • spangled drongo says:

          What’s a “bible brasher”, Rossie?

          If you mean “basher”, fyi I’ve never reddit in my life.

          But then, you can always be counted to get the bull by the foot.

          Otherwise I might have asked you to address the subject under discussion but I know it’s a waste of time.

        • spangled drongo says:

          So tell me how a bible applies to other religions that I mention above who have similar values?

          Read a bit of history, Rossie.

          Amazing what you [and Jimbo] can learn.

  • JimboR says:

    Spangled, it looks like you’ve forgotten how to count to three again. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, but I look over at the Recent Comments panel and all I see is wall-to-wall Spangled. I may have missed a contribution from someone I do read, and now I’ll never know.

    Don, it seems to me Spangled is a repeat violator of 3-posts-per-day rule. Any chance you could put him on the same program you’ve got David on please, just so the Recent Comments panel remains somewhat useful?

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