Supported by Bank of America
‘Fortunate is he who takes everything for the best… amid the storms of life he will find serene calm.‘
‘Patience and tranquillity of Mind contribute more to cure our Distempers as the whole art of Medecine.’ Mozart inscribed this maxim — in English, just as it stands here — in the Stammbuch or ‘friendship album’ of his fellow mason Johann Georg Kronauer on 30 March 1787. In the same wording it can be traced back to an English edition of Instruction sur l’Histoire de France et Romain published in 1728. Immensely popular throughout Europe, this work concluded with a ‘collection of excellent maxims and stimulating reflections for the conduct of life and knowledge of oneself and the world’. It circulated in many different editions and translations, and some of the sayings it contained even made their way into manuals for learning English. It is likely that Mozart came across the maxim in one of these books, wanting to improve his English ahead of a journey he was planning to London at the beginning of 1787. Why he wrote it in Kronauer’s album in English — evidently from memory, as the linguistic errors attest — is unclear. At a first reading it could be taken as a platitude, an 18th-century equivalent of ‘don’t worry, be happy’.
Likewise, the plot of Così fan tutte could easily be read as an accumulation of platitudes — as a farcical and even sadistic experiment carried out on the basis of simplistic clichés about female (in)fidelity and male pride. But that would be doing an injustice to the piece and most especially to the music that Mozart wrote for it. A lesser composer might have settled for keeping the music superficial and effect-driven. While Mozart does resort to musical conventions, it is only to play with them and take us by surprise: one can always sense an authentic emotional state underlying the ostensible superficiality.
From one moment to the next, the fates of the four young protagonists are changed completely — not because of the silly experiment instigated by Don Alfonso as such, but because of the emotions and realizations that it unleashes. Arias like Ferrando’s ‘Un’aura amorosa’ and Fiordiligi’s ‘Per pietà, ben mio, perdona’ leave all farcical elements behind, opening up insights into the depths of human emotion. What the protagonists experience during the course of the action leaves them all — the women and men alike — in a state of existential bewilderment. In the rather brief conclusion the ‘original’ couples look each other in the eye again. Interestingly, they bring to this encounter neither stubbornness nor spitefulness, but resolve to reconcile and move forward together.
In the three years that lay between Mozart’s contribution to Kronauer’s album and the premiere of Così fan tutte in 1790, the composer had lost two of his children as well as his father, and was plagued by money and health problems. And yet he seems to have retained his belief in the above-quoted maxim — which could have been coined by Don Alfonso. As the figures sing the final words of the opera: ‘Fortunate is he who takes everything for the best… amid the storms of life he will find serene calm’, they implore one another — and in turn the audience — to let themselves be guided by reason, and to accept themselves and their loved ones for who they are. It is revealing that Mozart was still able to write such sincere, heartfelt music — void of any hint of cynicism.
As Christof Loy put it: Così fan tutte invites us to embrace the complexity of life and face the future with heads held high. In his staging of the version he abridged with Joana Mallwitz for the Salzburg Festival 2020 the focus is wholly on the figures and the subtle choreography of their emotional states — in a space that like a magnifying glass exposes the intricate mechanisms between the characters. In this way the production leads the protagonists and the audience to experience the ‘serene calm’ that can perhaps indeed cure our own ‘distempers’.
Translation: Sophie Kidd