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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 176 Contents

Socialist Review, June 1994

Sabby Sagall


Operatic justice


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Cosi Fan Tutte
English National Opera

Cosi Fan Tutte (all women behave that way) is Mozart’s exploration of the tangled area of love, desire and conflict between the sexes. It was first performed in 1790, under the reactionary regime of the Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II.

A woman-hating old cynic, Don Alfonso, tells his friends that women are not to be trusted, including the two sisters to whom they are engaged. He offers a wager and they accept his challenge.

The women are led to believe that the men have been called away on military service. It is, however, a test of the women’s fidelity since the men reappear in disguise and proceed to woo the sisters. The women finally succumb to their advances, deciding, however, to swap fiancés. The men are distraught but Don Alfonso urges them to forgive. Plans are made for a double wedding.

The opera was deemed so outrageous that it was banned from the Viennese stage for 25 years. The idea of women making sexual choices was clearly offensive to the Austrian upper classes. And traditional productions have emphasised the theme of women’s fickleness. More recent ones, influenced by contemporary sexual politics, have been more adventurous. This one goes further than any in drawing out the implications of the women’s deviation from the straight and narrow.

Instead of the men reasserting their control over their wayward fiancés by locking them into marriage, the sisters turn the tables on them by substituting two servant women. They are seen waving goodbye as the wedding ceremony takes place. Though unfaithful to the letter of the original text by Lorenzo Da Ponte, it is faithful to the spirit of the opera.

Mozart represented the peak of 18th century classical music, created at a time of decay of the old order, when the rising capitalist class was increasingly challenging the economic strength of the feudal nobility and the power of the absolute monarchy. Mozart identified himself with the radicals who sought to create a new society based on reason and individual liberty. Cosi Fan Tutte shows Mozart at the height of his creative powers and contains some of his most poignantly lyrical arias, expressive of the rise of individual love and desire in the modern world.

First performed six months after the opening shot of the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille, it also expresses the search for human liberation at the heart of modern revolutions.

Plays at the London Coliseum in June and July

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