Women are like that? Perhaps everyone is like that

This blog post is by Emily Schweich, junior broadcast journalism major.

Cosi fan tutte

Cosi fan tutte photo by C.Stanley Photography

Cosi fan Tutte (“Women are like that”) is one of the most oft-performed operas today, so it’s hard to imagine that throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the opera was rarely performed. Infidelity, disguise, trickery – all cloaked in a beautiful, melodic Mozart score – were considered topics too risqué for the stage. Today, the opera provokes a contemplation of gender roles and the human challenges of fidelity.

Perhaps…“Cosi fan tutti” would be a more appropriate title for this whimsical opera that explores the human heart and the power of the human spirit for forgiveness.

The opera tells of two young soldiers, Guglielmo (Gregory Voinier) and Ferrando (Logan Webber) who are sure that the sisters they plan to marry are virtuous and faithful. To prove their fidelity, they make a bet with the jaded Don Alfonso (Ethan Lee Greene), who believes women aren’t capable of loyalty. Don Alfonso seeks to prove before the end of the day that the men’s fiancées, Dorabella (Stephanie Polonio) and Fiorgdiligi (Teresa Hitchcock) will betray them. The two men pretend to be called to the battlefield, and their fiancées weep over their parting. Meanwhile, their cunning maid Despina (Suzanne Karpov) urges the sisters to seize this opportunity to have some fun. “Beware the fate of those who trust in men,” she sings. To her, men are incapable of loyalty.

When the two men return disguised as Albanians and attempt to seduce each other’s fiancée, hilarity ensues. Perhaps it’s not just women who are “like that.” Perhaps, it’s everyone.

Voinier has a full, rich voice and made the audience roar in “Donne mie, la fate a tanti— My ladies, you do it to so many,” as he interacted with the audience in his lament about women’s infidelity. Hitchcock is a beautiful Fiordiligi with an agile, clear voice, and she shone in her Act II aria “Per pietà, ben mio, perdona — Please, my beloved, forgive." Her voice blends beautifully with Polonio’s rich, smooth tone, and their onstage chemistry as sisters is believable. Karpov is a sassy Despina, sometimes the only voice of reason in the play. Her singing was bright; and her presence was captivating.

“Others blame women; I excuse them,” sings Don Alfonso. After all, “women are like that.” This opera’s treatment of women has frustrated female performers for years, including the UMD School of Music’s Professor of Voice Delores Ziegler, who is the most recorded Dorabella in operatic history. Ziegler joined the opera’s director Nick Olcott and Dr. J. V. Sapinoso of the university’s women’s studies department for a discussion about the representation of gender in the opera before Monday night’s show.

While many regard the opera as misogynistic, the three panelists suggested that might not be the case. While the sisters are portrayed as “damsels in distress” when their fiancés go off to war, Despina reclaims women’s sexuality by encouraging the sisters to enjoy pleasure while their men are gone. Both genders, not just women, struggle with fidelity in this opera. Sapinoso wondered why the men in the opera are madder at their fiancées than each other for cheating. Olcott noted that the formality of the music in the first act – mostly quartets featuring all four lovers – reinforces the young lovers’ infatuation with love itself, not so much with the partner. It’s only in the second act that the lovers encounter true love. That “performance” of love for the world still happens today, and so much of the male ego is “performing for other men,” Sapinoso noted.

In comparing several published editions of the score, there’s also evidence that Mozart made a few subtle tweaks to the libretto to empower the female characters. In an older edition, one of the men sings, “Her constancy is weakening;” the line was later changed to, “My constancy is weakening.” These small changes suggest Mozart’s belief that fidelity is a challenge for everyone.

Olcott and Ziegler noted that changing just one letter in the opera’s title could change the entire meaning. Instead of “Cosi fan tutte” – women are like that – “Cosi fan tutti” means “men are like that,” and because we assume the masculine pronoun for everyone, “everyone is like that.” Perhaps, as Olcott and Ziegler suggested, “Cosi fan tutti” would be a more appropriate title for this whimsical opera that explores the human heart and the power of the human spirit for forgiveness.