What is the nature of true love? If there is such a thing, how to understand infidelity? One of the most famously cynical and humane answers is “Cosi Fan Tutte” (“They All Do That”), and it is the last of three operas that Mozart wrote in collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. In this comedy with dark overtones, everyone is pretending to be something other than what he or she is. Goaded by a cynical older man, two impetuous best friends bet that their fiancées never would be untrue. But, as the title suggests, the two have a bit to learn about love and lust.
The Jonathan Miller production of “Cosi” — which many critics selected as the finest of last season when it originated at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — is going to be the centerpiece of 2004’s Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival, which takes place this month. The presentation represents something of a sweet revenge for the estimable Miller, who, after having created several of the most celebrated productions at the Metropolitan Opera, was famously and unceremoniously locked out of that house three years ago by its general manager, Joseph Volpe. (Miller’s offense was protesting that Cecilia Bartoli should sing the score as written, and not substitute ornamented, alternative material.)
Miller’s directorial method is one of reductive simplicity, the opposite of fussy, busy productions. He seeks to find simple, key, off-hand gestures — the kind of things we all do without thinking, but that show a great deal about personality — and exploit them to telegraph for the audience each character’s psychology. His production updates the story of “Cosi” to a contemporary yuppie-condo Never Never Land. The enterprising servant, for example, always seems to have a large latte in hand.
The plot of the opera — the two lovers pretend to be called away to a surprise war — takes on an additional resonance today. The two reappear in disguise, although not the Turks of the original libretto here, but, in a modernizing twist, as two drugged-out slackers. In their respective disguises, they each set about seducing the other’s beloved. Needless to say, they are both mortified — and secretly pleased — by their success. As befitting a comedy, the lovers are reunited at the end, but with whom? (Beethoven, although he worshipped Mozart, could not reconcile himself to modern, tolerant ambiguity the lack of heroism of “Cosi,” which he felt was shameful and depraved.)
The Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations are among the greatest of all operas, and were by a wide margin the only times that Mozart ever worked with literary quality approaching that of his music. But while Da Ponte’s libretti for “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” were adapted from literary precursors, his “Cosi Fan Tutte” is an original creation. It is loosely based on a true story that was a society scandal of the time — although the servant character is lifted from a Moliere play. The story, the music and the whole construction are marvels of symmetries — a breezy and profound comedy that is one of the liveliest and least pious examples of the classical enlightenment.
Nothing is quite what it seems to be in this opera. The same is true of the writer, who was quite a protean character himself. Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) was born Emanuele Conegliano, the eldest son of a Jewish family in the original Ghetto, the Jewish quarter just outside Venice. After his mother died, his father, who was a tanner, married a Catholic woman and had the entire family baptized. Fourteen years old at the time, Emanuele, according to the custom of the period, was given the name of the local bishop, one Lorenzo Da Ponte. The bishop took an interest in his young new namesake and helped him develop his talents and study at the university.
He was at various times in his life an ordained priest and a court poet. At other times he ran a bordello and got mixed up in radical politics. Except for wealth and title, he had much in common with his friend Casanova. Giving new meaning to writer’s block, Da Ponte claimed he needed to have a beautiful young girl handy to make love with in order to finish each writing project. In his memoirs, he claims to have expended an excessive amount of ardor in order to achieve these immortal opera libretti for Mozart.
Most people are surprised to discover that Da Ponte is buried in New York — on East 11th Street, to be exact — but in an unmarked grave. After Mozart’s death, Da Ponte decided that his destiny was in America. Once here, he became an impresario, organizing New York’s first Italian opera company and producing works by his partner, Mozart, and others. Less shaky adventures included establishing Columbia University’s Italian department and teaching there. Always practical, he also ran a grocery store.
Miller, too, is not necessarily what he seems. He famously claimed he’s “not so much a Jew as Jew-ish; not the whole hog, you know.” A restless polymath, he is an intellectual and comic virtuoso of astonishing range. He first appeared in the United States as part of the English comic team “Beyond the Fringe.” A medical doctor, he also created the acclaimed BBC science series “The Body in Question,” and recently has taken on the nature of perception. In peeling back the onion layers of his career, we find that he also was discovered recently to be a visual artist of long standing, making constructions out of detritus. As an opera director, he has been a pioneer in revisionist directorial stagings. Perhaps his most famous is one of his first: a “Rigoletto” set in 1950s Little Italy, with the duke as a mafia Don and the famous song “La Donna è Mobile” (“Women Are Fickle”) on a jukebox.
Bernard Labadie will conduct “Les Violins du Roy,” and the cast includes some extremely fine young singers: Nathan Gunn and Gordon Gietz as the two lovers, Susan Gritton and Krisztina Szabo as their fiancées, Lillian Watson as the resourceful servant and Andrew Shore as the cynical old man. Those lucky enough to get into this jewel-box run will encounter as delightful an operatic experience as can be imagined and see the artistry the Met has for the time being denied itself.
Raphael Mostel is a New York-based composer who writes on the arts frequently. His most recent composition on CD is “The Travels of Babar.”