Cosi Fan Tute

Dec 6, 2005 8:00 pm
Many people when they watch this opera start to take sides. They feel that Ferrando is not quite right for Dorabella or Fiordiligi does not belong with Guglielmo. What even more interesting to me is WHY we believe this to be the case. If we had to make an argument that one matching is better than another, what would we use as evidence? We don’t really know much about any of the characters from what little they say and one would more likely come to the opposite conclusion from a straight reading of the libretto.

This is what I think is brilliant about Cosi Fan Tute. While what the characters say in the libretto suggests one pairing we know from the music that the characters really prefer the opposite pairing. While most people seem to sense this watching the opera, they have a hard time trying to describe exactly why they feel this to be the case. Here is how it works out musically:

Unusual for an opera, there are no arias in the first 10 numbers. This seems to show a lack of introspection and deep-felt passion that we typically expect from our operatic characters. In general I feel like the music in this part of the opera is rather formal, dispassionate and cold–minuet’s, marches, etc.

The original couples are represented at the beginning of Act I, before No. 10 when the men leave on the ship. There are six times when we hear duets or trios. We never hear Fiordiligi singing with Guglielmo, or Ferrando singing with Dorabella outside the two quintets where they are all singing at once. We only hear the men singing together or the women singing together. To be honest, on the basis of the music or the libretto I have a hard time keeping track of who belongs to who at the beginning.

There are only two love duets in the entire opera. They only occur in Act II with between the new couples: No. 23 (Dorabella & Guglielmo) and the high point of the whole opera, No. 29 (Fiordiligi & Ferrando). Between these two numbers we get five arias by our main characters, showing a much increased degree of introspection, self-awareness and emotional involvement.

Of course, when “the ship” returns we go back to the original couplings and a somewhat bittersweet finale that ties together both kinds of music from earlier in the opera in a rather ironic celebration of fidelity.

The finale is really a masterpiece of musical characterization. There is a sort of basic music that underlies the whole section. It seems to be very close to the formal dance and march music of the beginning of the opera. But weaved into this are fragments, motifs and hints of the more passionate arias and duets from the second act. You can really hear the sadness, confusion and disappointment in the characters as they embrace their “duty” to their former lovers.

It would be so easy to make a muddle out of all these opposing feelings. But Mozart is able to tie together all these contradictions and still keep them clear and lucid. It is really amazing!

~ by severalfourmany on December 6, 2005.

4 Responses to “Cosi Fan Tute”

  1. Dec 9, 2005
    Cosi Sources
    Apparently, Da Ponte used many literary sources in constructing his libretto for Cosi fan tutte but his primary source, according to John Stone in the English National Opera series #22, was a story written by a 17th century scholar Feng-Meng Lung and adapted by Western translator Dentrecolles. I have been unable to find anything on the Internet on the subject…

  2. Dec 9, 2005
    I don’t know how much help this will be, but here is what I know. Dentrecolles is Père Francois Xavier d’Entrecolles (1664-1741) a Jesuit missionary who traveled to China in 1698. He is most famous for trying to steal the secrets of manufacturing Chinese porcelain. It is quite possible that he translated many Chinese documents into French.

    Feng Meng-Lung (1590-1646) is the famous scholar of the Ming era who, unlike any Chinese intellectual before the twentieth century, collected popular Chinese literature. He edited three books of vernacular short stories as well as volumes of folk songs and jokes. He is still very enjoyable to read today and The Canary Murders is one of the earliest detective stories, pre-dating Poe by more than 300 years.

    Like most of the stories in Feng’s collection, this story of Tien almost certainly dates from much earlier. I know the story well and assume that it dates from the Tang dynasty or perhaps earlier. But I cannot seem to find the source and fear that I am on the wrong track. If I run across it again I will post the source. I wish I could confirm where it came from, fearing that one day I will find that it was not a Chinese story at all but came out of a comic book popular in the 60’s or something equally absurd.

    I had no idea that this was a source for Da Ponte and am very curious how Stone comes to this conclusion as I have never seen anyone make this connection before. Thanks for the info.

  3. Dec 9, 2005 4:48 pm
    Voltaire’s tragedy L’Orphelin de la Chine was based on a Chinese play printed in Duhalde. The folktale itself was also used by him in Chapter Two of Zadig.

  4. Dec 9, 2005
    Ah ha! It was a comic book popular in the (17)60’s after all. And that explains why it is so familiar to me. I read both Zadig,/i> and L’Orphelin de la Chine almost exactly three years ago.

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