Mozart’s Così fan tutte. (Published in The World, July 16, 1890)
George Bernard Shaw
The chance of hearing this unlucky classic is not to be missed
lightly; for such chances will not come often, as may be judged from
the fact that the opera, composed a century ago, has never before been
performed here in its original form, and only once or twice in
hopeless attempts to fit the music to a new libretto. Imagine la
donna è mobile spun out into two long acts; and you have the book that
seems to have struck Da Ponte as Molièresque in its fun and Ibsenic in
its insight. Mozart did what he could for it: that is to say, more
than anybody else, before or since (except Goetz, perhaps), could have
done; but it was no use. He saturated it with music, tender or
playful, as the case seemed to demand— he supplied imaginary drama and
characterization sooner than leave the play utterly barren; but until
we have artists who can sing with such rare charm of voice and
delicacy of expression as to raise the lost Mozartean enchantment and
keep its spell unbroken for three hours at a stretch, Così fan tutte
will never conquer a place on the stage.
Of course it's foolish to compare a mere Mozart to Goetz*. But putting that aside.....
I've always brushed off the scoffing that COSI was "just THREE'S COMPANY". Now that I've directed a very nice little production, my reaction is more nuanced.
COSI indeed is a historical precursor to the modern sitcom, and was quite daring for its day. COSI, not TRAVIATA, was the first opera set in modern times, daringly based upon an original story, and daring for being a sex comedy about 4 well-to-do late- or post-teens who seem to live sans chaperones.
Also, as a Jewish comedy writer, Da Ponte paved the way for the later emergence of Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and the modern emotionally complex sitcoms. Of course he had some help from Beaumarchais, the commedia dell'arte tradition, and many other sources. But Da ponte seems to be the one who advanced the art form.
There's even a penis joke, though not the three or more that are in DON GIOVANNI. Being ahead of its time, COSI enraged the 19th century, and not just Beethoven. Our COSI conductor has a German score wherein Despina appears in an added recitative and reveals the whole wager to the sisters, whereafter all three gals hang the men on their own petards.
The music by the mere Mozart adds even more profundity and comic timing to the libretto and the whole work wades just deeply enough into dangerous waters, as the sexual revolution arrives under the radar of the church, to qualify as a masterpiece. Like many masterpieces, it could do with a few cuts.
Had the great Shaw attempted to translate or direct the piece, he would have revised his opinion. The director and cast of COSI have their work cut out for them to keep up with the the genius MozartdaPonte.
* Actually Goetz' TAMING OF THE SHREW has it's charms.