Romantic Reversal: Mozart's 'Così fan tutte'

woo-1638-cosi mainRemember what it was like to be a teenager in love? How it seemed like it could never possibly end? How you and your "steady" were so right together that you couldn't even imagine being apart?

Now think back to what it was like when the object of that love, your perfect soulmate, threw you over for someone else. Painful, right? Almost too painful to bear -- or at least that's how it seemed at the time.

When we get older, it's easy to look back on our lovesick youth with amusement. We wonder at how losing that long-ago sweetheart could have been so devastating. But we still remember how it felt, and with age and experience we realize that when grown-up relationships break down, the pain -- not to mention the consequences -- can be even worse. Maybe that's why Mozart's outwardly comic masterpiece, Così fan tutte, also presents as a cautionary tale -- leaving us holding on to our hearts, uncertain where the romantic winds might blow.  

Over time, the mixed emotions Così evokes have led to criticism of the opera.  The problem, some contend, is that sentiments the libretto states glibly are heard in music so deeply stirring that the words and the score seem at odds with each other.  Perhaps that's true enough -- but in this instance, it may also be entirely appropriate.

In fact, any emotional disparity between words and music may be exactly what Mozart had in mind, as a way of making sure this unlikely story hits its mark.  Deep down, Così fan tutte provides a sharp reminder of how often the true depth of our feelings is sadly contradicted by clumsy statements and predictable actions. Mozart's opera also does something even more profound:  It bluntly reminds us that our most cherished relationships are often the most fragile and tenuous, and in doing so it shines a harsh light on the barest of our vulnerabilities.

Increasing the unease, the production featured here, from Aix-en-Provence, takes things a few steps further.  It places the action in Eritrea during the 1930s, when the country was an Italian colony. And the two young men who contrive to seduce each other's lovers don't hide behind outlandish, "foreign" disguises.  Instead, they return with blackened faces and dressed as African mercenaries -- adding racial and political tension to an already uncomfortable personal situation.  
On this edition of World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us Mozart's Così from the 2016 Aix-en-Provence Festival.  The stars are Lenneke Ruiten, Kate Lindsey, Joël Pietro and Nahuel di Pierro, as the two couples whose suddenly tottering relationships can often leave real life romantics feeling a little queasy.  The production also features the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, led by conductor Louis Langrée.