In “Who betrays Elizabeth Bennet?”, Prof. John Sutherland (no relation to La Stupenda) dedicates himself to explain loose ends in the plot of famous books in English literature not by considering them small blunders in otherwise “perfect” works, but rather as puzzles to be solved and thus enriching the understanding of the story. Although Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto is hardly considered a literary work of some depth, Così fan tutte is arguably his best collaboration with Mozart.
Many of those who dislike Mozart believe that his music is just cold divertissement, an illustration of vacuous grace and elegance. I don’t want to accuse these people of trying to find on stage the excitement lacking elsewhere in their lives, but a short glance in Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s biographies show that their own lives were far from angelic and often full with violent feelings and emotions. Mozart’s letters to his mother particularly emotionally mature for a boy of his age, rich with touching and sensitive remarks. Classical art intended to provide mankind with a balsam for the tempest of emotions and violence that plagues ordinary life by means of images of perfection provided by the balance of reason. And no other composer offered better than Mozart such idealized visions of perfect proportion, of l’art qui cache l’art so accurately conceived that one cannot see the hand of the artist in it. Some end on attributing its inscrutable beauty to divine inspiration or – worse – to mere chance. But don’t mistake my words – this is only a first impression. Actually, although Mozart was no revolutionary, the reason why we still listen to his music instead of that of Salieri or Paisiello is that he actually spent his whole creative life bending, distorting, adapting these conventions. I would dare to say that Mozart gradually ceased to believe in the artistic credo of Classical art, as his final works increasingly show – and Così fan tutte is the work in which he put his own convictions to test.
The whole concept of Così fan tutte turns around the Classical idea of “right proportion”. An old philosopher who sings no aria leads two couple of twittering, trilling love birds with unrealistic notions about love and shows them that reality is far more exciting if far less comfortable than their world of sentimentality. It is important to note that Don Alfonso does not promise Gugielmo and Ferrando happiness, only discernment. In order to illustrate this evolution, Mozart composed a score that parodies, that exaggerates, that overstates and gradually acquires a matter-of-fact quality that speaks in more truly emotional colours. You just have to compare Come Scoglio and Per pietà, Smanie implacabili and È amore un ladroncello and Un’aura amorosa and Tradito, schernito to see the remarkable maturing in every character (but for Guglielmo, who remains more or less immune to the lesson) – the early affectation is finally replaced by real contradictory feelings. In the end, devastated by these revelations, the four of them do not seem convinced that the trade-off was positive. Despina has never lived the sweet fantasy her mistresses used to live – she gets her commission in the end.
Back to puzzles, I have observed that a most important detail is overlooked by almost every commenter. Although Fiordiligi and Dorabella are not aristocrats (as Don Alfonso is), they seem to be eligible young unmarried women of some wealth. The strange thing about the situation is that the plot does not explain who is in charge of them. Two young ladies of some position would hardly travel alone as Fiordiligi and Dorabella, especially if two young suitors are involved. My first conclusion is that they probably lost their mother when they were very young. This would account for her absence and for their naiveté (Despina is actually quite puzzled about their ignorance of worldly matters). If there were a father, he would have probably entrusted them to a chaperon or some sort of relation to accompany them in their trip (as the libretto explains, the ladies come from Ferrara and are visiting Naples). I would understand such a situation as an emergency, they are probably on their way to encounter their guardian (in the case they have also lost their father, which could be the case since they do not feel they need his consent to marry the “Albanians”) or hosting relatives. Also, if Ferrando and Guglielmo are wooing these respectable ladies, they should have understood themselves that their irregular situation in Ferrara is ill-advised. Unless the person in charge of them is indeed there in Ferrara. And the only character on stage respectable enough for this position is no other than… Don Alfonso. This explains his freedom to appear in the girls’ apartments without any formality, his previous knowledge of Despina’s character and his right to speak of the girls’ behavior with their fiancés.
The hypothesis of seeing in Don Alfonso Fiordiligi and Dorabella’s guardian at first does not go with one line in the libretto: “Non son essi: è Don Alfonso, l’amico lor”. The girls are expecting their fiancés, but it is Don Alfonso who shows up. Dorabella says “Not them, but their friend Don Alfonso”. This does not mean that they know Don Alfonso via their fiancés, but only that instead of them, they are seeing their friend. My last assumption: the friend who probably introduced the young men to the two girls just a few days ago in Ferrara. That is why they have their miniatures in their first scene – they had probably first seen Guglielmo and Ferrando in these miniatures and now they have finaly seen them in person. This thesis accounts for their lack of familiarity with them and their difficulty to recognize them in disguise (I know, it is still hard to believe…) and for the fact that the young men cannot quite explain why they trust the girls in their opening scene.
The subtitle of Così Fan Tutte is “The School for Lovers” and it would be interesting that a cynic like Don Alfonso is charged to marry his two mystified wards to two impressionable young men. Foreseeing catastrophe in these young people’s high-flown sentimentality, he prefers to teach them a bit about life before they become husbands and wives. Is this too benign an explanation? Maybe, I am not entirely convinced myself, but the question remains – what were these girls doing alone in Naples? If you have ever been in Naples, you know that this is no rhetorical question!