Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte (“all women behave that way”) is his exploration of the tangled area of love, desire and sexual politics.
It was first performed in 1790 when the formerly progressive Austro-Hungarian emperor Joseph II was abandoning his reform programme in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution.
A sexist, old cynic Don Alfonso tells his two friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that women are not to be trusted, including the two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, to whom they are engaged. He offers a wager and they accept his challenge.
Don Alfonso tells the women that their fiances 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 opera was deemed so outrageous that it was banned from the Viennese stage for 25 years, and largely neglected during the 19th century.
The idea of women making sexual choices was deeply offensive to the European upper classes.
Traditional productions have stressed the sexist theme of women’s fickleness.
But more recent ones, influenced by post-1960s sexual politics, have been more adventurous, including this one.
The opera explores the fragility and uncertainty of relationships as both the women and the men apparently become genuinely attracted to their new partners. It is thus a plea for tolerance in the face of human desire.
An important character is Despina, the maid. She urges the sisters to play the field, as men have always done. What women need, she tells them, is not love but lovers. So we see how subversive the opera is of the ideals of bourgeois marriage.
Mozart represents the peak of 18th century classical music. His music was composed at a time when the rising capitalist class was increasingly challenging the economic strength of the feudal nobility and the power of the absolute monarchy.
He identified with the radicals who sought to create a new society based on reason and individual liberty.
Cosi Fan Tutte reveals Mozart at the height of his powers, containing some of his most poignantly exquisite arias (solos), expressive of the rise of individual love and desire in the modern world.
Nicholas Hytner’s production is vigorous and well-paced, and brings out the eroticism in the action.
There are excellent singing performances all-round, especially from Aga Mikolaj as Fiordiligi. There is also fine playing by the orchestra under Gerard Korsten.
Cosi Fan Tutte
Directed by Nicholas Hytner (Glyndebourne on tour)
On tour until 9 December