Così fan tutte lesson 5: Irony, and love (with musical examples)
In presenting Enlightenment themes while simultaneously destabilizing them, Mozart demonstrates a mastery of musical irony in Così fan tutte. He is able to say one thing one way, and still intend it to have exactly the opposite meaning at the same time. In this way he underscores the opposition between head and heart that is at the core of the libretto. He paints in music the tensions between the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the reliance on feelings and emotions that produced the Cult of Sensibility (or Sentimentality).
Mozart even employed irony in assigning the voice types of the original love pairings. The traditional primary love pair in classical opera is a soprano/tenor couple. But the two couples in Così are a soprano/bass pair and a tenor/mezzo pair. (Though Mozart designated all the female roles as “soprano,” and didn’t use contemporary designations of fach or voice-type, it’s generally agreed that Fiordiligi is best suited to a dramatic coloratura soprano, and Dorabella has traditionally been considered a lyric mezzosoprano role.) This cannot be sustained dramatically or musically, nor justified historically. So the irony is that when the couples are switched around, the soprano is now matched with the tenor, and the mezzo with the baritone. These are the “wrong” couplings, dramatically-speaking, though they are the correct pairings musically.
Almost any musical selection from the opera will demonstrate Mozart’s command of irony in the music itself, but a few of the more popular passages will serve as representative examples.
When Ferrando and Guglielmo are presented with what seems to them an irresistible wager with Don Alfonso, they eagerly accept. But while their words and actions say one thing, the stiffness and formality of their music—as much a product of their military experience as anything—suggests that they may not be as confident as they seem. As they sing of using their expected winnings to provide a beautiful serenade and a lovely feast for their fiancés, the music sounds more like heroic soldiers going off the battle, which is a telling musical insight into their characters as well as a foreshadowing of the ruse Don Alfonso is planning.
Don Alfonso aggravates the girls’ pain as he delivers the news that their lovers have been suddenly sent off to war (“Vorrei dir e cor non ho”). All the musical signs indicate that his grief is sincere. But we know he is playing a role, and doesn’t actually feel the emotions expressed in the text and music, which makes all the musical gestures of grief—the sobbing strings, thicker textures, halting vocal line—immediately suspect. Knowing this, the music comes across intentionally as a little too clichéd. Here Mozart walks a very tight line as he employs the stock devices of opera seria in a farcical situation. It has to seem anxious enough to trick the girls, but not so truly anxious to make the audience think Don Alfonso is serious.
Similarly, in the luscious trio, “Soave sia il vento,” the audience is already aware that two of the singers are sincere in their prayer to nature and the remaining singer (i.e., Don Alfonso) is hamming it up to sell his story. And yet the trio shares in the same music. Mozart was so adept at delineating character through musical style in his other operas—in the trio from Act I of The Marriage of Figaro, where Basilio makes that “così fan tutte le belle” statement, each of the characters is given very different music to emphasize their different predicaments. But here the task is reversed. The dramatic context has already demarcated the differences between Don Alfonso and his guinea pigs, and so Mozart is able to give them identical music, now intended to be understood ironically.
(Another possibility is that Don Alfonso is not quite the heartless manipulator that he seems, and actually sympathizes with the emotions that Dorabella and Fiordiligi are expressing. But that seems less likely than the clever conceit of Mozart not giving us explicitly ironic music when we might rightfully expect it.)
Perhaps the most overt irony is in Fiordiligi’s famous pair of arias, “Come scoglio” and “Per pieta.” Musically, the style of “Come scoglio” is classic opera seria, the stentorian protestations of a strong woman who will not be moved. It is every bit as firm and resolute as Konstanze’s “Martern aller arten” or Donna Anna’s “Or sai chi l’onore,” both of whom are formidable women who have been wronged but refuse to accede.
Fiordiligi, though, has already wavered a bit in private. And we can already safely (and accurately) predict at this stage that she will, indeed, prove unfaithful before the day is over. But rather than making her into a ludicrous caricature or mocking her inconstancy, Mozart invites us to recognize her strength and sympathize with her fall from grace. (According to one report, Mozart wrote the large leaps in “Come scoglio” to mock the soprano who was da Ponte’s mistress at the time. Adriana Ferrarese was said to have the habit of dropping her chin for low notes and throwing her head back on the high notes, so this aria would have her bobbing her head like a chicken. It’s not likely that Mozart would have made musical choices based on parodying his librettist’s lover, but it’s not entirely out the question either. Only Mozart could make a joke while detailing a complex operatic character at the same time!)
In “Per pieta” from Act II, Fiordiligi shows real, sincere grief over breaking her promise to Guglielmo, and true penitence for her very human weaknesses. She is a tragic victim here, forced into this situation by a libidinous foreigner who faked suicide in her garden in order to win her love. Even Mozart understood emotional blackmail, and paints a sincere character portrait here at odds with both the artifice of the story and the inherent comedy of the situation. But of course, it was da Ponte’s astutely judged libretto that created that opportunity for Mozart in the first place.
In the aria “Un’aura amorosa,” Ferrando believes that the women have remained faithful and that therefore he and his friend have won the wager. But there is no hint of swagger or boasting in the music. It is as genuinely tender and heartfelt as Tamino’s “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” from The Magic Flute. In that Singspiel, as in this opera, heartfelt love triumphs musically over a deceitful ruse, and the superficial emotions of the dramatic moment are subsumed by a revelation of deeper truths that contradict that moment.
Finally, the concluding “moral,” sung by all six soloists, can strike the listener as anticlimactic and ill-judged. Don Alfonso’s advice is to be pragmatic, trust reason rather than emotion, and laugh off the disappointments in life. But here the irony is all the more delicious. Two centuries of audiences took that moralizing at face value, and were understandably dissatisfied with it. But Mozart and da Ponte were perhaps too clever for their contemporaries, because all through the opera they had placed hints and indications that it is Don Alfonso and Despina who are misguided and in need of schooling. What was felt, and expressed, between the two pairs of young lovers was real, and indeed constant. Not one of the four were convinced that the love they “found” in Act II was an equivalent for the love “lost” in Act I. That is why, at the end, neither the composer nor the librettist made it clear whether the original match-ups or the “Albanian” arrangement would continue into the future. Following the path of reason at the expense of love left everyone confused and dissatisfied.
Perhaps, in the end, Mozart and da Ponte hoped merely to show that it is Don Alfonso’s philosophy, and not their opera, that is frustrating and misguided. With its rejection of reason and a plethora of evidence that true love might well be messy, unpredictable, dangerous, exciting, scary, and disappointing… but real… this might indeed be the first opera to break with Classicism and turn towards Romanticism.
© 2015 Luke Howard