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Così fan tutte: They’re (Operas) All Like That?

I recently had the chance to see the English Touring Opera’s dress rehearsal of Così fan tutte at the Hackney Empire.

It’s a very exciting thing to walk into a working theatre for a rehearsal: for me there is a very strong sense of having crept into a secret world of esoteric delights.  I haven’t been to a rehearsal of anything since I last directed a short play as an undergraduate, and I’d forgotten just how wonderful it was to watch the business of theatre at work.  (Performances are also ‘theatre at work’, of course, but in a very different way.)

I am not a Super Opera Fan (despite having a very fetching opera cape which I wear at even the slightest pretext, as you will know, dear reader, from the amount of time I spend discussing it) and I had actually won the tickets in a competition put on by the ETO in association with the Inside Out Festival.  It seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore a performance art with which I hadn’t yet spent a lot of time.  And I must say Così fan tutte is a good ‘starter opera’: the plot is the kind of farcical battle of the sexes that you’d see in any contemporary sitcom and the music is in every way delightful.  (Of course.  What else would you expect from Mozart?)

I shall summarize thusly: two youths with more sentiment than sense, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are postulating on the everlasting fidelity of their fiancees when a cynical older man tells them they are both ignorant puppies who should wake up to reality: all women are the same.  Emotional, irrational, flighty and easily swayed, women are many wonderful things but faithful isn’t one of them, according to Don Alfonso.  A wager is formed: will Don Alfonso be able to prove that their two sworn loves (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) would be unfaithful at the drop of a hat, or are the young men right to believe in their eternal constancy?

How is such a test of fidelity to be accomplished?  Why, by dressing the young men up in Oriental disguises (break out the false mustaches!) and having the boys try to seduce the young maidens.  With a little help from the pragmatic and worldly maid Despina, hijinks ensue.

It would be very easy to criticize Così for misogyny, or to excuse it by saying something like “It’s a product of its time.”  With all classical productions that focus on what we might perceive as obsolete ethical or moral dilemmas, there are multiple ways to interpret these: you can present them as a historical relic from which we can learn about the Ways of Past Peoples.  You can without irony attempt to prove the relevance of such concerns to contemporary life (a sort of ‘playing it straight’ attitude).  Or you can focus on the absurdity of prior moral attitudes with a sort of camped-up “Look at the funny old ways of these people!  Wasn’t everyone absurdly backwards in Olden Times?” panache which could possibly by extension point out the absurdity of some current moral constructions.  (Guess which one this production did.)  This isn’t an exhaustive list of course, and I look forward to hearing about other ways that different performances address moral anachronisms.

Those are all legitimate readings of the text–deployed with greater or lesser effectiveness in different situations, I think.  But there are more nuanced possible readings also.  I don’t think that the main theme of Così is that women are flighty and untrustworthy creatures, but we can’t live without them so let’s just throw up our hands and make the best of it.  Or that men are gullible, rash, cunning, and prone to fits of mental exaggeration (seeing their paramours as paper-doll goddesses rather than real women).  Rather, I think Don Alfonso’s advice can be generalized to something like “Don’t let your entire happiness rest on the behavior or intentions of others, because this is outside your control.”  Corollary: everyone is human and prey to the vagaries of unexpected circumstances, so be forgiving and judge how you’d want to be judged if you found yourself in the same situation.  These lessons can be distributed equally among all the characters, I think.

Another element of particular interest to me is the ‘Orient drag’ Guglielmo and Ferrando use to deceive Fiordiligi and Dorabella.  In this translation Despina highlights the non-specific, pan-Oriental nature of their disguises, singing, “Are they Turkish or Egyptian?  I just don’t know, I just don’t know,” whilst making fun of their clothes and mustaches.  (Apparently the original lyrics question whether they are “Turkish or Wallachian” which I had to go look up and so should you.)  Better scholars than I have posited that disguising them as ‘lustful men of the East’ makes use of an Orientalist fantasy of Eastern social mores as a “release from conformity and from entrapment in a conventional relationship” (John Mackenzie, Orientalism: History, Theory and the Arts, 1995: 146).

Interestingly this is similar to my own hypothesis that for many, belly dance acts as a space outside ordinary life to set the imagination free, allowing license to explore aspects of the self that are constrained by ordinary convention (McDonald, Global Moves, 2012: pretty much the whole book).  These freedoms are allowed only in spaces where they are perceived as exotic and foreign–and therefore it is important when making use of such spaces to question assumptions we are making about ourselves, and about ‘others’: what are we projecting onto ‘others’ so that we allow ourselves to explore these things without jeopardizing our sense of propriety?  Though it is also worth being wary about assuming that such cultural escapes are available in one direction only.  In an increasingly globalized world, such imagined spaces are made available through multiple cultural channels and methods of transfer (though flows of cultural capital are not always equal among different parties).

So, to sum up, this version of Così fan tutte is an excellent diversion for anyone who enjoys playful melodramatic hijinks, while opening up a space to think about more complex themes around gender, race, social position and cultural expectations.  It suited my performance needs on many levels, and if you have an opportunity to see it I encourage you to do so and ponder both the deeper and the lighter things in life.