Men beware women

How we underestimate the women in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte

On Opera

As everyone knows, women are keener than men on opera. I exclude (obviously) performances of Wagner, packed with male Tory MPs wriggling and puffing up like bullfrogs as Wotan’s tunes portend pompously on trombones (the dears don’t realise it’s satirical, and Wotan literally the worst god/politician/person ever) and later as Siegfried gets a welkin-shattering funeral way too noble for this intermittently amiable lunk. No, the Wagner aberration aside, it’s definitely the ladies who go for Verdi, Puccini, Mozart and the other guys. And yet it’s an article of faith in the business (even among some men) that opera hates women.

I suppose it all started with Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a bracing, sunny staging of which may by now have resumed its interrupted countrywide tour with the admirable English Touring Opera. Its authors could have had no notion what a time-bomb they were launching in 1790 with this title — which means “that’s how women are” — and these days it’s effectively illegal to present it without ostentatious brow-furrowing about its incorrect attitudes and Mozart’s deplorable etc etc. In truth — and setting aside the regrettable fact that the eighteenth century happened, sorry everyone — beyond the trigger title and the shaming of “unfaithful” girlfriends in the denouement, Così’s purpose is not to denigrate women but just to point out that they are not necessarily that much less ghastly and shallow than men.

Così’s purpose is not to denigrate women but just to point out that they are not necessarily that much less ghastly and shallow than men

That was plenty bad enough for the nineteenth century, as it turned out. Beethoven was the first to find Così intolerable (the poor fellow had a ridiculously elevated view of women, which is why he could never land a proper girlfriend), and the Victorians were so horrified by the idea that ladies might possess sexual urges they had to close their eyes and furiously pretend Così didn’t exist. Oddly enough, or not, that was the very moment opera chose to embark on its trademark, single-minded extermination of heroines — Exhibit Two in the opera-as-misogyny show trial.

And it’s not a bad prima facie case, to be sure. Mortality can dawn for our gals in many jolly ways: go mad and die (Lucia di Lammermoor), go on the game and die (La traviata), get mixed up with violent nutters (or Americans) and die (Carmen, Madam Butterfly), take poison and die (Il trovatore), get walled up and die (Aida), get stabbed by your brother and die (La forza del destino), or simply melt into a muddy puddle ( The Snow Maiden). Career choices preceding the fatal moment are much scantier and may be pretty much summed up as “nun or whore” (though an enterprising portfolio-careerist could probably attempt both at once).

Again, this is really down to how the psychoses of the nineteenth century were encoded in the (mostly French, entirely forgotten) dramas appropriated by opera. But opera is a vividly unsafe space for both sexes; men’s exits tend to be less fun, but spare a thought for Don Giovanni (apparently carted off to hell for being what Bridget Jones would call “an emotional fuckwit”), Verdi’s Don Carlos (dobbed in to the Inquisition by his dad, King Philip), Alvaro in La forza del destino, who accidentally wipes out his girlfriend’s entire family before hurling himself into a ravine, cursing God and the world — and not forgetting old Radamès, sharing that wall-space with Aida.

Anyway, the prosecution case entirely misses the point: even if the playwright (of La Tosca, etc) Victorien Sardou happily called the motto of his success “Torture the women”, opera redresses the balance of suffering, turns those pervy fantasies on their heads by making women the only mouthpieces of humanity and truth, transforming voyeuristic sadism into a manifesto of sympathy, protest, compassion, forgiveness. Throughout Romantic opera, it’s always women who sing the stuff that matters. Because in opera, what counts is not the what or the why, but always the how — which music can express far better than any words. And it is particularly fatuous to accuse Mozart, the most feminist of composers, who more than any other challenged the shibboleths of his era. Così is an equivocal piece, for sure, a rough lesson in growing up, a sort of packed- lunch Enlightenment delivered to four kids who must learn life for themselves through the (rather stupid) game of testing their significant other’s fidelity.

But it is the soulful girl Fiordiligi who incarnates its humane truths, lives the pain of shedding her illusions about herself and the world, learns that things are complicated, “illicit” desire happens but can be forgiven, learns, in short, that other people actually exist as sentient and multi-layered beings. ETO’s programme notes rehearse the usual finger-wagging routines, but the show doesn’t, and Mozart’s music is left to describe — with unimaginable tenderness and beauty, and a surgeon’s eye for the heart’s most intricate recesses — the joy and pain of giving birth to a genuine, human self.

Naturally, the whole thing has precisely bugger-all to do with sexism, as audiences know perfectly well. As usual it’s only those who run the business, the smug and sanctimonious directors and opera-house apparatchiks, who don’t get it.

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