- Betting Against Themselves:Conflicting Conceptions of Love in Così fan tutte, o: la scola degli amanti
As early as a year after the début of Così fan tutte in Vienna (January 26th, 1790), the actor, playwright for the Imperial Court Theatre, and Freemason Friedrich Ludwig Schröder recorded in his diary that the opera was “a miserable thing, which lowers all women, cannot possibly please female spectators, and will therefore not make its fortune.”1 Since then, it has become a critical commonplace to bemoan the libretto’s attitude towards its female characters: the opera has been considered an expression of a classical antifeminist mode in comedy. In order to salvage the score without subjecting the audience to what was considered an unsuccessful plot, many impresarios of the nineteenth and twentieth century decided to stage it either by altering the written text, or substituting it altogether, reportedly with mixed results.2 [End Page 105]
Today, even if Così fan tutte is one of the most performed, acclaimed, and discussed operas, a sense of its antifeminism still lingers: the bill for this year’s staging at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for example, calls it “a beautiful score depicting questionable behavior.”3 Such an impression is due, no doubt, to the titular emphasis on Don Alfonso’s infamous opinion on female behavior, and by the fact that Fiordiligi and Dorabella are indeed tricked by their reciprocal fiancés under his guidance with the complicity of their maid Despina.4 As Peter Cochran observes: “Così was rarely performed before the mid-twentieth century anyway, because of its satirical portrayal of women, which, even more brutally than Don Juan, went against the cant of the age; even now, it is often excused by feminists on the sole ground that Mozart’s music makes it irresistible—Da Ponte’s contribution is dismissed as unfortunate” (136). Readers and spectators continue to feel discomfort when faced with the seemingly blatant sexual double standard that appears to drive the plot, despite its historic context, which makes it a participant in the Enlightenment’s querelle des dames. But this attention to gender politics, I would argue, reflects an incomplete, if not mistaken, focus. For Da Ponte is not so much engaged in a battle between the sexes as in a complex dramatization of the nature of love that involves social, moral, and philosophical issues. In the cosmopolite and multilingual capital of the Austrian empire, at the verge of the epochal changes brought forth by the French Revolution, Così fan tutte speaks to the intuition that an old order—of gender, class, and sexual mores—was on the brink of transformation.
In contrast to conventional accounts, this article suggests an alternate reading of the libretto, one that rebalances the actions of all six characters and considers the opposite ideas of love at work in the plot: the medieval (and surpassed) idea of chivalric love maintained [End Page 106] by the two pairs of lovers, and the libertine idea of love extolled by Don Alfonso and Despina. I argue that Da Ponte’s libretto, rather than dramatizing gender stereotypes and gender conflicts with a misogynistic attitude, marks an important intervention in a larger cultural transition involving theories of love and erotic engagement. Understanding the libretto in these terms allows us to see how in fact all the lovers, men and women, are subjected to ruthless testing, albeit through different mechanisms of the plot. This fact is underscored by the subtitle of the work, which is often ignored, but is the title by which Da Ponte refers to the text in his Memorie.5 La scola degli amanti grammatically could indicate either a plural masculine (thus referring exclusively to the officers), or a collective gender neutral plural (thus referring to all four lovers), or both. Following this lead, I suggest that the libretto challenges all lovers, with a particular emphasis on the young men, by testing their antiquated conceptions of gender dynamics and offering them a chance to learn an enlightened, safer way to manage their erotic relationships.
The originality of Così fan tutte’s plot is best appreciated when considered against Da Ponte’s other...