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Who Marries Whom?

Alternative endings to Così fan tutte

by Roger Brunyate

Così fan tutte at Peabody, March 13-16, 2002

Other writings by Roger Brunyate

The ending of Mozart's opera Così fan tutte presents its interpreters with a dilemma. Everyone gets married and lives happily ever after, more or less, but who gets married to whom? The opera begins with two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, boasting about the perfection of their sweethearts, Dorabella and Fiordiligi respectively. Their older friend Don Alfonso warns them not to be idealistic, and engages them in a bet to prove his point. The men must pretend to be called off to war, but return in disguise to court the women for one day. Alfonso bets that the women will fall for the strangers, and of course he is right: Dorabella is seduced by Guglielmo, and Fiordiligi forms a romantic union with Ferrando; both couples sign fake marriage contracts. Then Alfonso declares that time is up; the men return as themselves, and the women’s treachery is discovered. Alfonso tells them to kiss and make up. But whom do they kiss? Their former sweethearts or their new lovers?

  Photograph of 
conductor Martin Isepp
Guest conductor Martin Isepp
Guest conductor Martin Isepp believes the former ending is the only possible one historically. Even though the finale itself remains somewhat ambiguous, the outcome is implied by the preceding recitative. The men admit that they love their fiancées despite their flaws, and agree to take them back. This neat closing of the circle is the appropriate eighteenth-century comedic ending: the day of folly has ended; its lessons have been learned; life goes on. It is the same moral exactly as in The Marriage of Figaro.

I first met Isepp in 1969, when we were both assisting on a production of Così fan tutte at Glyndebourne, England’s foremost Mozart house. I was new to the company; he had been with it since 1957, and still coaches there today, so he knows a thing or two. But while Martin sees the historical necessity for one ending, he also understands what might persuade a director to choose the other. Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, he contends, began by writing a farce. But being the people they were, the authors could not leave their characters as mere types; by the second act, they become creatures of flesh and blood — and there the difficulty lies. The more you get to know Fiordiligi and Ferrando, for instance, the more you see them linked by a common romantic idealism. They seem suited to one another, as the passionate coupling of Dorabella and Guglielmo seems to suit their more impetuous natures. Our contemporary view of drama places character development above plot. As a result, it has become almost modern orthodoxy to end the opera by confirming the new relationships.

Ultimately there is no way of playing the characters in Così as real people without moving them into territory that is morally questionable.

So where do we turn: to our own era or to Mozart’s? I chose Così for my first full production at Peabody in 1981. Wanting to concentrate on period style, I played the piece in eighteenth-century costumes and honored the original ending. In 1989 for my second production, however, I wanted the student actors to identify with the characters in modern terms, and so updated the action to the twentieth century. To emphasize the giddy freedom from convention, I set the action on a cruise ship in the flapper era, and this time kept the characters with their new partners. The dramatist in me wants to explore some of these ideas further in my third Peabody production; the teacher wants to honor the historical perspective, especially when working with a collaborator with such links to a great tradition.

I glimpsed a possible way out of the dilemma this past summer, when I was preparing a production of the opera for a new company in Northern Spain. That venture has now been put on hold for financial reasons, but the dilemma we faced there was not so different from our needs in an educational institution here. We wanted performers and audience to experience the classical style as faithfully as possible; at the same time, we wanted to show the opera as relevant to the moral issues of our own times. In short, we were torn between both endings, and the very different views of drama which they represent — classical or modern. My proposed solution in Spain was to open the opera in the eighteenth century, as though with figures twirling in a music box, but to have the men return dressed in the tee-shirts and jeans of our own time! As the women gradually discard their whalebone and petticoats, so we would replace a conventional morality with the apparent sexual freedom of our own age. In the end, both would fail the test, and the characters would be forced to turn to more basic values such as honor, compassion, and loyalty in order to rebuild their lives.

I liked how the contrast in styles would become a metaphor for an exploration of contemporary morals, fun on the surface yet also profoundly serious. But it did involve a deliberately provocative departure from the classical period. Then it occurred to me that there was a simpler metaphor we could use which could enhance the period style, and yet lead to a moral exploration every bit as profound as my time-travel notion. This is simply the move from the black-and-white of period engraving into full color.

The author's design
for the sisters' bedroom in Act I, scene 2, one of the scenes in black and
Black & white: design for the sisters' bedroom (I/ii)

I freely acknowledge that the idea is not original. It comes from the first production of Così that I ever saw, at Scottish Opera in 1966, directed by Anthony Besch. Although I later got to know Besch well, and became his assistant for a while, I do not now recall how he developed or even ended his production, but I will never forget his visual concept. Besch and his designer John Stoddard opened the opera in a Turkish bath, with the men clad in white towels. The second scene showed the women in white nightgowns arising from tall four-poster beds curtained in white muslin. When the men entered to take their leave, they wore regimental uniforms in black and white. In fact, there was not a glimpse of color in the production until the men entered in disguise as Turks - a veritable chromatic onslaught. From there on, the women gradually admitted little touches of color to their clothes and surroundings, until at the end they were in glorious Technicolor while the returning men looked incongruous in black and white. Besch's use of color now seems to me the perfect metaphor for the intrusion of a new morality into a world of convention. So I will borrow his idea with grateful acknowledgement, the tribute of a pupil to his former master. But the production I build around it will be my own.

The author's design
for the masquerade in Act II, scene 2, one of the scenes with the most
Color: design for the masquerade scene (II/ii)

Or rather, two of my own. For this time I intend to do something I have never attempted before: to have the two casts, performing on alternate nights, give two entirely different interpretations of the piece, one for each ending. This is not simply a matter of adjusting the staging of the last few minutes. From the moment we first meet them, the characters must be revealed as people for whom their particular ending is not only possible but also right. This can no longer be a matter of accepting the données of the plot just because we are told to do so. Mozart and da Ponte spend much more time showing the men with their new partners than with their original fiancées. If it is to seem right that the characters in the first cast return to their old loves, we must find ways of showing that they love them. This is going to mean playing the opening scenes more sensitively than mere farce. It may also involve having the men spend more time with their original partners when they return in disguise, rather than switching immediately to the new ones. Conversely, if the switch of affections in the second cast is to be based on anything more than a mere trick, the women must know whom they are actually falling in love with, meaning that at some point we must drop the comic assumption that the men's disguises are impenetrable.

Photograph by Jesse
Hellman of the masquerade scene in the March 2002 Peabody production
The masquerade scene in production

Ultimately there is no way of playing the characters in Così as real people without moving them into territory that is morally questionable. As soon as one woman guesses who is behind the disguise, but does not let on, she betrays not only her fiancé but also her sister. If one man pulls back from a possible seduction out of concern either for the woman or for his friend, while his friend has no such compunctions, there is betrayal there too. The opera's title may literally mean “women do that,” since the word tutte is feminine, but the men are as much to blame. Whatever ending we come up with, everyone, both men and women, must face up to a tissue of betrayal, apologize as best they can, forgive others, and learn to live with themselves. Lorenzo da Ponte’s Così fan tutte may start as a farce, but Mozart’s opera, when brought to either of its possible conclusions, poses moral questions which are just as relevant today as they were 212 years ago, and even more disturbing.

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