I just saw Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte at the Seattle Opera. I had a great time. Lots of fun. Well acted. Great music. And a modern dress production that works.
The plot, in case you’re unfamiliar, involves fiancée swapping. Two officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, accept a bet from Don Alfonso that their fiancées, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are fickle and will easily betray them. They pretend to go off to war, then disguise themselves and each woos the other’s fiancée under false pretences. Don Alfonso, along with Despina, the sisters’ personal assistant (maid) sows mischief. Dorabella, the flirt, wears down quickly. Fiordiligi is tougher, but eventually yields. Ostensibly a comedy, by the end, everyone has been hurt. The three men are shits and deserve what they get; the sisters do not.
There’s an interesting interview in the program with Jonathon Miller, the legendary English director, who’s responsible for this production.
JM: … It’s not even about fidelity, which is what most people think it’s about, it’s about identity. It’s about people. You see, feminists often object to the opera because it depicts the women as gullible and foolish; but the fact is that the men are much more deceived than the women are. The most dangerous thing is to get into disguise in the belief that your original identity is invisible. What happens, of course, is that you actually bring to life aspects of your identity which you didn’t suspect. And I think that’s what happens here. It’s very dangerous for a man—or anyone—to disguise themselves because, in addition to deceiving the person who in fact you intend to deceive, you actually find that you’re behaving in ways which you wouldn’t normally behave if you thought your identity was apparent.
EH: So you’re letting a little too much of the beast out, as it were.
JM: Well not so much “the beast;” but all sorts of alternative versions of yourself which you didn’t suspect come into existence. I was partly inspired by a novel which my mother, a very successful English novelist [Betty Spiro Miller], wrote after the war about the experience of being an officer’s wife. My father was a medical officer. She noticed that as soon as all of his colleagues got into uniform, they suddenly started to misbehave in a way which they wouldn’t have done if they were in their professional civilian clothes. They somehow felt that they were not recognizable and therefore not culpable.
That’s one of the reasons why people get into disguise at masked balls. It allows them to be someone else. It lets out an alternative version of yourself—not necessarily a beast, but something that you didn’t expect.