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.