Scholars and critics like to whip themselves up into a frenzy of moral indignation about Mozart and da Ponte’s Così fan tutte. Misogynistic, patriarchal, cynical, sadistic … the adjectives some fast and furious as the two sisters are trapped in the working out of Don Alfonso’s wager that even the most faithful of woman will give in when the next handsome man passes her window. Or in the case of Phelim McDermott’s ever-inventive new production, when hirsute hunks adorned with tattoos and in leather jackets drop by your motel. Women are like that.
Men too, but that doesn’t get a look in in da Ponte’s libretto, which to our modern eyes and ears is pretty nasty, though to try and be fair it does belong to an Enlightenment tradition of stories and entertainments that debated the idea of fidelity. What Mozart’s music adds, as Sarah Lenton put it so eloquently at the
pre-performance talk before the second night of Così, is emotional truth. Here’s a composer who cannot tell a lie in music, so the sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi and their fiancés Ferrando and Guglielmo are nakedly human as they share their desires and their despair, their fury and their triumph. And I would want to argue that it’s music that gives the two sisters the moral victory at the end of the opera as they honestly confront their fiancés. If women are like that, then that’s how men make them. And they know that even the men cannot see the truth at the end of their noses. Even if you don’t share that view of the end of the opera, you have to admit that it’s a consummate account of the frailty that our all human flesh is heir to.
And setting the story in a 1950s seaside pleasure beach somehow underscores this. Whether it’s Coney Island or Blackpool pleasure beaches and boardwalks are neither one thing nor the other, neither the ocean nor the land, but a kind of space between. And in in-between spaces anything can happen. The usual rules don’t apply. Think no further than the idea of the seaside holiday romance – fine for the week you are away, but what horror if it came home with you in your suitcase. Dirty washing indeed Holiday romances are what Dorabella and Fiordiligi are coaxed into by Despina as she works with a Don Alfonso who in this production is a huckster with a troupe of circus misfits to do his bidding (what could be more marginal that the bearded lady or the Siamese twins or the super strong man?).
And something else. Look closely and the Funfair at the back of the stage looks just a little bit tacky. And the motel where the sisters are staying and which employs Despina as a chambermaid is a tad sleazy. When the Dorabella and Fiordiligi take the weight off their heels you feel that a legion of Mr and Mrs Smiths have passed through the bed that they are sitting on. In this production it’s as if the ‘world’s like that’. Its fun – huge fun, but it’s also serious fun. And never cosy.