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The original Così fan tutte

Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, whose popularity made him the official poet to Emperor Joseph’s court, created three operas together, which have been performed continually since their premieres. Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), based on French plays, deal with serious issues through Italian opera buffa, mainly focusing on the society and its morals. The last of the three, Così fan tutte (1789), is different. It’s a light-hearted comedy based on da Ponte’s original story.

In Così fan tutte, young noblewomen Dorabella ja Fiordiligi’s fidelity is put to the test by pretend philosopher Don Alfonso, who has teamed up with the girls’ fiancés, Ferrando and Guglielmo. This test of morals wouldn’t be possible without the help of the serving maid, Despina. To tempt the girls to marry their new moustached suitors, who are in fact their fiancés in disguise, she happily dresses up as a quack providing magnetic treatment and the notary of an impromptu wedding.

“In Mozart’s time, copyright was unheard of and the performers would modify works to their liking. Great soloists would add their favourite arias just about anywhere, and if one aria proved too difficult, it could be replaced by another.”

Così fan tutte has always been overshadowed by Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. It was criticised for its plot as early as in the 19th century, prompting several so-called improved versions of the opera. The forerunner of such modernisations was the English doctor Thomas Bowdler. He saw Shakespeare plays as too violent and published his own, family-friendly versions of them in 1807 and 1818. As a result, classics that have been censored for moral reasons are often dubbed ”bowdlerised”.

Today, Così fan tutte remains problematic, even if it was never meant to be sublime art. It paints a downright bizarre picture of women, its plot is embarrassingly implausible, and its dramaturgy is clunky. With two lead couples, every scene has to be repeated, which means twice as many arias for the sake of equality. This makes the opera too long with a stagnating plot.

Mozart’s music salvaged as much as it could. His solution was to include a wealth of crowd scenes, which are perhaps more frequent in Così fan tutte than in any other opera. The duets, trios, quartets, quintets and sextets of the finales represent the very best of this opera. These crowd scenes move the plot along even more effectively than spoken drama.

We must also keep in mind the carefree attitude to operas as complete works of music in Mozart’s time. Copyright was unheard of and the performers would modify works to their liking. Great soloists would add their favourite arias just about anywhere, and if one aria proved too difficult, it could be replaced by another. It was fine to skip over boring sections, and once the conductor got hold of scissors, nothing was sacred.

Kuva: Stefan Bremer

“The choice of Così fan tutte as our Covid victim was purely practical. The opera can be performed with a small orchestra and without a chorus if necessary, which means we could adhere to the strictest social distancing rules. We also decided to condense the opera so it has no interval and it only lasts 1.5 hours.”

A condensed update

The idea of a condensed Così fan tutte translated into Finnish didn’t seem like a crime when Lilli Paasikivi contacted me with her headline Covid fan tutte. When modernising classics via the direction, costumes and sets, it’s not unusual to end up with disturbing contradictions between the interpretation, libretto and music. An edited libretto would serve a modern interpretation much better, and in my seat in the auditorium, I’ve often found myself wishing that the creative team had dared to condense the work.

We had little time, in fact we didn’t have any. But even Mozart and Rossini knew that the impresario raging behind the door is an artist’s best inspiration. I believe we got the order from impresario Paasikivi in mid-May, giving us a little over a month to put together our ideas with director Jussi Nikkilä and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. Die Walküre had to make way for Covid, as the Finnish National Opera was the first to react to the pandemic turning the entire world on its head.

The choice of Così fan tutte as our Covid victim was purely practical. The opera can be performed with a small orchestra and without a chorus if necessary, which means we could adhere to the strictest social distancing rules. What’s more, our solution for the keyboard is a very unusual break from tradition. We also decided to condense Così fan tutte so it has no interval and it only lasts 1.5 hours.

I picked the music primarily for its atmosphere, taking the parts that best matched our preliminary plan. We needed one carefree duet, one tender aria, another fervently energetic one, and one full of rage. A determined quintet opens the Government’s press conference, while the tender one brings to mind the frailty of the elderly. We kept the long finale nearly intact, as its music builds up to a solution that’s as sudden and naive as comic opera can be.

Così fan tutte is an opera of numbers, meaning that every music scene, no matter how long, has a clear beginning, end, and key. These numbers are connected by recitatives accompanied by the keyboard, which we shamelessly binned in our very first Teams meeting. When it comes to spoken scenes, I took Mozart’s contemporaries’ approach to copyright and gave Jussi Nikkilä and the rest of the team complete liberty to edit the lines I’d written.

The story is completely new and rather fragmented, and it would fall apart had we stuck to the original order of the music. Sometimes we had to stick an aria in the middle of a duet and skip over unnecessary plot twists in a long scene. Despina’s role gained extra importance in our version, as the soprano steals the baritone parts of Guglielmo and Alfonso on a couple of occasions, turning an aria into a duet and adding a gooseberry soprano in a trio of baritones. I pinched some numbers from Mozart’s other operas, too, one from Don Giovanni and one from The Magic Flute. Another baritone aria is a rarely performed alternative from the original premiere in Vienna. Esa-Pekka Salonen came up with the necessary interludes, keyboard parts, and the flip in the overture.

Kuva: Stefan Bremer

“I believe we’ll be able to laugh or at least smile at our shared experiences once we see how well they go together with Mozart’s music. This opera is not about a serious illness, people’s fears, or even about death. I hope that the unique magic of Mozart’s opera can make us all stop and enjoy a simple story put to music.”

Finnish for singers

Mozart composed Così fan tutte to be sung in Italian, and the changing accents and prolonged vowels provide natural rhythm to the music. Language always influences music, which is highlighted by how musically different Mozart’s German and Italian language operas are. The idea of translating the original libretto is somewhat misconceived, even though part of today’s audience will still remember how operas only used to be performed in Finland in Finnish. The translators included Armas Järnefelt, Jussi Jalas and Hannu Heikkilä, and after completing Covid I admire their work more than ever before.

Finnish and Italian could hardly be more different when it comes to rhythm, though both are well suited to singing. The march-like Finnish language has no syncopes or words starting on the upbeat. Instead, the stress is strictly at the beginning of every word. How many times I used up my vocabulary of monosyllabic exclamations to get my phrases off the ground! Sometimes I gave myself the liberty to use similar-sounding expressions regardless of their meaning (non vi sara – on pisara , tocca, tocca – totta, totta). Sadly, their comedy will be lost, as people won’t have access to the original text. I also had to include some key phrases in Finnish, like social distancing, the new normal, common sense, and virus incubator, and of course the test, trace, isolate and support strategy.

Jussi Nikkilä and I didn’t worry too much about the plot, as this is opera, and a comic opera at that. We decided on a hybrid strategy, in homage to the Finnish government’s plan to combat the coronavirus. On the one hand the story is about singers who were supposed to perform Wagner, while on the other hand it’s a collective look at what we experienced in spring 2020. The men are experts, the women are ministers, just like in today’s Finland. The issue of masks causes harm and hilarity, and no one knows whether a rule is a rule or a recommendation.

I believe we’ll be able to laugh or at least smile at our shared experiences once we see how well they go together with Mozart’s music. This opera is not about a serious illness, people’s fears, or even about death. I hope that, despite the situation in which we find ourselves, the unique magic of Mozart’s opera can make us all stop and enjoy a simple story put to music.

Covid fan tutte premiers in the Finnish National Opera 28th of August 2020. 

Text MINNA LINDGREN
Photos STEFAN BREMER AND TUOMO MANNINEN