Tuesday night I went to see Opera Colorado's production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. It was superb. The music was great, the singing was better, and the blocking and stage direction were original and hilarious. I laughed the whole way through.
This isn't a review though. The show spurred some reflections on gender and fidelity I want to share.
The plot of Cosi Fan Tutte is very simple. Two young soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, are in love and believe their ladies are loyal. Don Alfonso, an older gentlemen and a friend of theirs, believes all women are fickle in their affections and so he bets them that he can prove, by means of a deception, that the ladies are not trustworthy. The soldiers accept the bet and they lay out a plot where the soldiers will pretend to be called away to war, then return disguised as Albanian strangers and swap places to woo each other's lady, in order to test their fidelity. The ladies prove to be very resistant, but in the end they both fall for the Albanians, in time for Don Alfonso to reveal that it was all a ruse and win the bet. The moral of the story is - women are just like that and men should be tolerant, but go into a marriage with eyes open.
With a straight reading, according to a period understanding of the opera, it is wildly sexist - even mysoginist. However, perhaps accidentally, or perhaps because it is rich enough in its original libretto, it is capable of transcending its original meaning and conveying quite a different, even opposite meaning to a modern audience.
The reason is that the men are cardboard caricatures who never once question the morality of lying to their fiancees and proceeding even to seduce one another's girl. At the end of the opera they are just as guilty of infidelity as their women, but they never even realize it. In fact, they are worse than the women because they did it knowingly and even betrayed each other whereas the women were unaware they were being seduced by their sister's fiancee. The men demonstrate no moral volition at all. They are like children, asleep. The women on the other hand struggle mightily and movingly with their emotions and temptations. They are never under the illusion that their infidelity is anything but wrong. They face consequences and accept their responsibility. They are moral adults. The end result is that we end up identifying with the women and thinking of the men as capricious and cruel.
The reason this is interesting is it seems to point toward a shift in gender perceptions between 1790 and 2009 - and in both era's we are wrong. In a classic anthropology men are the embodiment of the intellect, while women are the embodiment of the libido. Don Alfonso wants the soldiers to be "enlightened" and go into marriage in a sober and rational way, aware that women are subject to fickle affections. To some degree these old gender roles still persist, but in some ways our modern thinking actually reverses this line of thought. Men are often thought of in our culture as driven purely by libido, unable to control their lusts and thus not responsible for their infidelities or sexual transgressions. Women by contrast are often held responsible for controlling not only their own libido, but the libido of the men around them.
The point is, watching Cosi Fan Tutte, we easily dismiss the gender roles it presents as wrong, but we miss the irony that we are just as wrong today. It's about time that Guglielmo and Ferrando learned to keep their penises in their pants and stopped blaming their women either for having fickle affections, or for failing to control every man's rampaging libido. When are the men going to grow up and become moral adults, themselves?