Tchaikovsky described him as "the musical Christ." Goethe considered him "inexplicable." The archbishop of Salzburg considered him the most natural musician the world had ever produced and "dreadfully conceited." The late, great maestro, Sir Thomas Beecham, described him as "the central point of European music. In his brief life, everything was accomplished...the bridge was completed between the old world of music and the modern world of music. The man who built the bridge was (Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart."
Think about it: Monteverdi, Gluck, Handel and so many other composers who preceded Salzburg's greatest gift to music composed brilliant and original compositions: but works that generally conform to the expectations of their era and mark them as "period pieces." In Mozart's case, however, his compositions: especially his best operas: are both timeless and contemporary. CosÐ fan tutte is unquestionably one of his best.
So, how did he do it?
Since his untimely death in 1791, the world's taste for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has waxed and waned while the mystery of his genius has never been fully resolved. For many years, the elegant fiction of the composer touched by God prevailed and his compositions were thought to be as effortless as they were beautiful: the works of a singularly blessed and petulant man-child. Of late, however, musicologists have re-imagined Mozart as a much more thoughtful, hard-working Joe (His widow, Constanze, was convinced, in fact, that her husband worked himself into an early grave). A man whose witty and playful nature in no way overshadowed either his keen worldly ambitions or his determination to work a composition as many times as necessary to burnish it to mind-numbing perfection (or his own satisfaction, which appears to have been the same thing).
In his earliest works, Mozart shows an astonishing awareness of the breadth of musical forms and idioms of his day. Initially, his gift was one of mimicry rather than an expression of world-class originality. Nevertheless, Mozart's particular genius flashed forth on occasion in his youth in works like La finta semplice, a charming opera buffa composed at the age of twelve, and Mitridate, re di Ponto, a drama composed two years later for Milan's Carnival. Within a decade, Mozart would scale previously unimaginable heights...almost entirely on his own terms.
Conflict and tension are at the heart of all great drama and Mozart is no exception. Yet Mozart, as he matured, developed a special insight as an artist that enabled him to move beyond the clash of personalities and philosophies to discover the balance, the unifying element that overcomes even the most irreconcilable of differences: often, by forcing them into a state of grudging co-existence. This is most acutely reflected in his penultimate opera, the great "Masonic" work, The Magic Flute, but can also be found in the other Da Ponte operas, including his comically inspired CosÐ fan tutte.
It's an insight that probably originated, as so many do, in the home. The image of Mozart's domineering father, Leopold, is nearly iconic, at this point. However, the relationship between the extraordinarily talented father and his genius of a son was both more subtle and more complex. While Leopold, indeed, forced his opinions (and his will, whenever possible) on the way in which young Mozart conducted his personal and professional life; he was intelligent enough to perceive his son's special gifts early on and to subordinate his own career interests to that end. How, then, does a young man indulge in the time-honored tradition of rebellion against authority when the major authority figure in his life: in one of the most important areas (that of the pursuit of artistic excellence): willingly bows to the acknowledged superiority of the son?
Did Leopold see his young prodigy as a "cash cow?" No doubt. But the elder Mozart possessed a musician's mind and understood that he was dealing with a uniquely gifted individual. Leopold devoted the rest of his life to nurturing those gifts (if not the man), as best as he knew how. The mark left on the younger Mozart in the wake of this love-hate relationship can be demonstrated in the sense of structure, the underlying, unresolved tensions and the never-ending quest for balance that forms his musical and dramatic signature.
As Mozart wrote his father in 1783, regarding his desire to produce Italian opera, "The most essential thing is that, on the whole, the story should be really comic and, if possible (the librettist) ought to introduce two equally good female parts: one of these seria and the other mezzo caraterre, but both parts equal in importance and excellence. The third female character, however, may be entirely buffa: and all the male ones, if necessary."
It's practically a "mission statement" for the carefully balanced masterpiece he devised six years later during one of the least active phases of his career. For once, the luxury of time was on his side, and the composer used it to explore human psychology and personality in a series of sophisticated, captivating and nearly unparalleled musical characterizations.
In CosÐ fan tutte, one is tempted to look for the influence of Mozart's tightly knit family throughout: from the all-knowing, all-seeing Don Alfonso (a debauched version of Leopold?) to the faithless sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi (Aloysia Weber: Mozart's first grand passion, the one who got away: and her sibling Constanze, whom the composer eventually married). We also see obvious indications of Mozart's ambivalence towards women in general, beginning with his own mother, whom Mozart loved yet (according to his sister) never respected.
His uneasiness and uncertainty about Constanze's faithfulness during her frequent treks to out-of-town spas resulted in recurrent bouts of depression: a departure from Mozart's usually charming and sunny self. It also underscores telling moments, like the Speaker in The Magic Flute who proclaims, "A woman does little, chatters a great deal. You, young man, believe their wagging tongues?" and Don Alfonso's warning that "The fidelity of women is like the Arabian phoenix; everyone says that it exists, but where it is, no one knows."
Despite his protestations to the contrary, it appears that the composer was much less concerned with his so-called honor than the far more horrifying prospect of being taken for a fool.
So, in one sense, CosÐ fan tutte could be described as the repertoire's first anti-romantic comedy. One to which we will gladly give our hearts and minds: fully aware that our most vulnerable organs are likely to be impaled on a size-seven stiletto shoe by the end of the evening.
Gorgeous music. Moments of breathless heartache. Utterly modern sensibility.
Perhaps no further explanation is required beyond that offered, famously, by Mozart himself: "Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love: that is the soul of genius."
Dallas Opera performs John Cox's staging of Cosi Fan Tutte Feb. 12-28. The production features Elza van den Heever as Fiordiligi, Jennifer Holloway as Dorabella, Brian Anderson as Ferrando, baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Guglielmo, Sir Thomas Allen as Don Alfonso and Nuccia Focile as Despina.
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Suzanne Calvin is an award-winning journalist and writer who now serves as Manager/Director Media & PR for the Dallas Opera.