A factory for making universals in the bowels of the folk consciousness

In Brown’s book on Cosi fan Tutte, which is a treasure trove of quotations, there is a passage from Jonathan Miller [who LI once shared a drink with, ho ho] explaining how he envisions the opera, and particularly the role of Don Alfonso. It is Alfonso who begins the action with a bet: he bets Ferrando and Guglielmo, two soldiers, cento zecchini, that he can prove their fiances can be seduced in a day. It is simply a matter of rearranging the tableau – by a simple ploy, he has the two announce they are going away, then has them disguise themselves and has each soldier woo the other’s fiance. A recto, we have Despina, the maid who tries to convince Fiordiligi and Dorabella that all men are essentially fickle, especially soldiers. Miller views all of this in the light of Don Alfonso’s fundamental motive:

“I have always seen him as a genuine eighteenth-century philosopher, a mixture of Diderot and Voltaire, and this means that the opera then becomes an experiment with human nature. In the first scene, to show him as a philosopher and not a joker, I had him appear at a table covered with books and classical references – the drawings of Sir William Hamilton’s Neapolitan Collections, some of Galvani’s early experiments on animal electricity, and thee might be a mesmeric tub in his room. He is interested in all these scientific and intellectual developments of the Enlightenment. The view that ultimately all human beings are the same because all individuals partake in the nature of Man is an eighteenth century idea. It follows that if there is any escape from a basic human nature it is achieved only by acknowledging those parts of oneself that cannot be altered.”

Diderot and Voltaire would not have recognized that the choice was between being either a philosopher or a joker – but this aside – and I bracket it now only to make a promise that I will come back to it later, because it is of the utmost importance to see how Mozart deals with such assumptions about the codes of seriousness - there is a lot of sense in Miller’s notion. One can’t help noticing that this is an opera that deals with another world of seduction than Don Juan’s. Don Juan’s was limited by hell on one side and marriage on the other. He traverses that world as an adventurer, believing in neither estate – and yet, by his behavior, by the life defining importance he grants these limits even as he opposes them, showing them a kind of respect. The libertine of the 17th century was taking a bet him or herself – Pascal’s bet – but the notion that hellfire might wait at the end of it was not something one could easily put off when the whole weight of the order in which one had been raised depended on that assumption. Which, in turn, was nested in a system of assumptions about spirits, nature, and human beings.

There’s no question of hell in Cosi fan Tutte, although about spirits ...


One of the preusumed inspirations, Marivaux' La dipute, is online here
Anonymous said…
LI, I'm really liking your Cosi fan tutte posts!
I wish I could find some good clips of this performance of Cosi fan tutte that I saw this summer. Anyway, here are a couple. The first is a very interesting interview with Kiarostami, who staged it. The second gives a glimpse or two of the mise-en-scène which was incredible.



roger said…
Aimie, wow! You have truly had a summer of golden coincidences! I believe you told me last year at some point that you went to a Kiarostami film fest in NYC. Like a dummy, I haven't seen the Kiarostami films you recommended. However, I'll try to repair that in September.
oooh I'm very jealous; i couldn't go this summer. i love that festival best of all, it's so nice there, the whole town covered with restaurant tables late into the night....

some footage, looks fantastic
Anonymous said…
yes, the Aix music festival is very nice, and this summer's Cosi was so very sweet.