Theory and practice of sex

Article by Tim Ashley

First performed in Vienna in 1790, Così fan tutte considers the struggle between desire and reason and treats some of the 18th century’s major concerns. It is the most ambivalent of Mozart’s operas, a work in which immense formality of plot is countered and undercut by a disturbing intensity of emotion and a seemingly deliberate refusal to resolve or answer the issues and questions it raises.

Fittingly for an opera so riddled with ambiguities, we know little of its genesis, and even less of what its creators might have meant by it. It was written in the autumn of 1789, but Mozart’s letters for the period make scant mention of it, while da Ponte, in his flamboyantly inaccurate memoirs, tells us nothing beyond the fact that the work was intended as a vehicle for his then mistress, the soprano Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, who created the role of Fiordiligi. Mozart may not even have been the initial choice as composer: the libretto was most probably first offered to his rival Antonio Salieri.

There is also considerable uncertainty about the work’s source. The much-repeated tale that the plot was suggested to da Ponte by the Emperor Joseph II and founded upon an incident at court is unquestionably spurious: da Ponte is now thought to have been variously influenced by the tale of Cephalus and Procris in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (in which a husband tests his wife’s fidelity by attempting to seduce her in disguise); by Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (where we find characters called Fiordiligi, Doralice and Fiordespina); and by Marivaux’s plays Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard (1730) and La dispute (1744), in both of which, two pairs of lovers exchange partners in circumstances that suggest they are subjects of some kind of experiment, philosophical, scientific or otherwise.

Whatever its sources, Così fan tutte presents us with a narrative of seduction, a major theme not only of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas, but of 18th century literature in general, and its erotic writing in particular. The frankness with which the 18th century dealt with sexual matters has often been commented on, though this widespread explicitness often conceals radical differences in ethics. The period is invariably characterised as one in which an emerging bourgeoisie gained dominance over an aristocracy in terminal decline, and in which a bourgeois ideal of sexual contentment in monogamy was brought into sharp contrast with libertine codes of behaviour perceived as aristocratic. Mozart, in some respects, embodies the former in his relationship with his wife Constanze, from whom he is never known to have strayed, and to whom his letters contain frank expressions of his sexual needs and fantasies. Da Ponte, in contrast, numbered Casanova among his friends, and lived a rather public, self-consciously transgressive life as a frequenter of brothels and lover of a succession of mistresses, many of them married.

In literature we find the same concerns. The novel of libertine manners reaches its apogee with Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) and then plunges into pornography in the works of the Marquis de Sade. Bourgeois sexual ideals arguably find their strongest expression in the epoch-making novels of Samuel Richardson and in Sophie von La Roche’s Die Geschichte des Fräulein von Sternheim (1771), which was hugely successful in the German-speaking world in the 1780s. Occasionally, we find compromise. John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, in his novel of 1748, retires from a life of bisexuality and prostitution for the bourgeois, moneyed comfort of marriage with Charles, the man she genuinely loves.

This is a literature in which the idea of seduction as an expression of the clamorous nature of sexuality is omnipresent, despite contrasts in attitudes, plot and narrative resolution. Richardson and von La Roche, as one might expect, find seduction emblematic of moral failure. Richardson’s Pamela (1740) eventually tames and marries her well-to-do employer and would-be seducer Mr B. by resisting his persistent attentions until his desire is tempered by genuine love, while Lovelace, the libertine anti-hero of Clarissa (1748), destroys both himself and the novel’s heroine by turning to sexual violence when attempts at persuasion fail.

Sophie von La Roche – who takes over many of Richardson’s tropes and sets her novel for the most part in Scotland – allows Fräulein von Sternheim to yield voluntarily to the unscrupulous Lord Derby, only to become aware that his glamour hides deep cruelty, a realisation which in turn impels her to search for fulfilment and genuine love elsewhere. Les liaisons dangereuses, in contrast, examines an amoral world in which seduction is invariably successful, but brings unforeseen emotions in its wake. The novel’s crisis is provoked by Valmont’s failure to acknowledge that what he feels on seducing the married, deeply religious Présidente de Tourvel is true love.

Così fan tutte not only shares its preoccupations with the literature of its time, but also absorbs some of its imagery. The action is predominantly contained within the single setting of a house and its gardens in Naples, reminiscent of the confined worlds of houses, palaces and brothels in which much 18th century fiction takes place. At the start of the second act, Despina, talking dirty – to which, one notices, neither Fiordiligi nor Dorabella by this stage take exception – remarks that every woman of 15 should know “where the devil keeps his tail”. 15 is the age at which 18th century male writers generally thought female erotic experience should begin. It is the age which Pamela is first noticed by Mr B. and at which Fanny Hill enters Mrs Brown’s brothel. It is also the age at which Laclos’s Cécile de Volanges is released from her convent school only to be seduced by Valmont, and at which Eugénie de Mistival, the central character of Sade’s La philosophie dans le boudoir (1795), undertakes the terrible education that will turn her into a sexual monster.

Così fan tutte’s alternative title (da Ponte uses it in his memoirs in place of the original), is La scuola degli amanti, usually translated as ‘The School for Lovers’, though it could also be rendered as ‘The School for Men in Love’. Central to the narrative, of course, is a philosopher who conducts what is effectively an experiment, the aim of which is to educate and enlighten Ferrando and Guglielmo about the presumed nature of women. In so doing, the opera tackles another major theme of 18th century literature – the idea of education, sexual or otherwise, as the gathering of knowledge or understanding through experience.

The portrayal of sexuality as an educative process is by no means exclusive to the 18th century: the description of a naïve protagonist’s initiation into experience, followed by a dawning understanding of the nature of pleasure, is found throughout the history of erotic writing. Fanny Hill’s bawdy account of her growing acquaintance with penile size and function is among the most notorious examples, though the underlying idea can be found in works as far apart in time and style as Longus’s 2nd century Daphnis and Chloe, the exquisitely homoerotic Teleny (1893 – often ascribed to Oscar Wilde, though its exact authorship remains unknown) and D.H. Lawrence’s lyrical descriptions of his protagonists’ physical sensations in Women in Love (1920) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928).

But the 18th century novel often immersed its portrayals of sexuality in the wider context of the discussion of the integration of the individual into society, often depicted as an educative process that negotiates the relationship between the two. In a century in which the French word philosophe was closer in meaning to the modern ‘intellectual’ or ‘thinker’ rather than ‘philosopher’, the novel, still an experimental genre, frequently took on a didactic purpose and was able to incorporate elements of the moral tract or philosophical disquisition.

Philosophers such as Diderot and Rousseau wrote novels – Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse (1761) sold more copies than any other book in the 18th century – while novelists tackled what they perceived to be philosophical themes. Richardson and von La Roche considered themselves to be essentially moralists, though we would now probably argue that it is the element of prurient ambivalence in their work that renders it so vital. Libertine literature is awash with theory: Laclos’s seducers endlessly seek justification for their actions in analyses of the nature of sexuality and social relationships.

Sade, though basically a pornographer, viewed his philosophical utterances as being of considerable importance. His characters deliver constant harangues about the nature of freedom in a godless universe. La philosophie dans le boudoir is written in the form of a philosophical dialogue that darkly parodies Plato, while its characters at one point break off from their choreographed orgies to read ‘Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains’, a supposed revolutionary pamphlet that advocates a future republic founded on libertine rather than libertarian ideals.

The names of Rousseau, Sade and Laclos have all been variously associated with Così fan tutte, which shares their preoccupations with the relationship between desire, emotion and reason. Rousseau’s educational ideal of reason tempered by ‘sensibility’ (a refined awareness of feeling in self and others), and his view of the natural nobility of man irrespective of class or social position, informed the perspectives of 18th century Freemasonry, to which Mozart was, of course, famously drawn. Da Ponte had probably read Les liaisons dangereuses, and Mozart may also have been familiar with it, since the book was for many years the talking point of artistic and intellectual Europe.

Neither, however, would have been aware of Sade, to whom they are in some respects also antithetical. Sade’s idea of ultimate freedom involves total disregard for anything but pleasure experienced by the self, which in turn becomes his justification for a sexual ethic founded on non-consensuality and violation. In Mozart and da Ponte, in contrast, the human and humane are always paramount. In addition to conveying his sexual feelings, Mozart’s letters to Constanze at times reveal almost obsessive fears that she might be unfaithful to him and hint at the potential for intense anger on his part were she to be. Yet in his music, his innate understanding of human psychology always transcends personal considerations, and in Così fan tutte it is to Fiordiligi, above all, that he extends his deepest compassion.

Alfonso and Despina may indeed be described as “philosophers of the boudoir” in that they sustain rational arguments to the effect that desire has a habit of changing its object, and that ideas of female constancy and the male assumptions that promote it are illusory. They do, of course, prove their point, but at the same time their experiment exposes the failures in their theories by leaving the emotional and existential consequences of desire out of account. As in Laclos, we have a sense of a formal game gradually spiralling out of control.

The score is persistently sensuous, but as the women’s feelings for their new suitors begin to develop, the mood subtly begins to darken. ‘Il core vi dono’, the duet between Dorabella and Guglielmo, strikes a deeper note of erotic expression than anything we have experienced up to that point. Its outcome, however, is to push Guglielmo towards cynicism and Dorabella towards the flippancy of ‘È amore un ladroncello’, the idiom of which steers so close to Despina’s utterances that we are forced to assume the latter’s arguments have struck home. Fiordiligi’s seduction by Ferrando is even more troubling. She is first forced into a hell of indecision by the private acknowledgement that she loves two men at once, then manipulated by Ferrando into submission with the demand that she take his life rather than reject him, though the final sections of their duet suggests a genuine acknowledgement of deep feeling on both their parts.

The ending is arguably the most ambivalent in all opera. The protracted exposure of the truth is followed by briefer requests for forgiveness and reconciliation on the part of the lovers, and expressions of shame and anger from Despina, who now realises she has also been duped by Alfonso, who has withheld from her the true identities of the disguised soldiers. All six protagonists then suddenly turn to the audience to proclaim the moral that only the man who allows himself to be guided by reason will be able to find the blessed peace (“bella calma”) of life. We are, of course, by now well aware that both reason and “bella calma” have irrevocably been left behind.

There is no indication in text or score as to who is now paired with whom, or indeed if any genuine pairing is possible between the lovers. Until recently it was frequently stated that the 18th century would assume that Fiordiligi and Dorabella would return to their original lovers, though this is by no means necessarily the case: in Marivaux’s partner-swapping comedies, it is the second pairings that prove genuine and binding. All we know at the end of Così is that reason has fallen short in its attempts to encompass the totality of desire, and that four people have become sadder and wiser through what they have learnt. Written as the 18th century drew to a close, Così fan tutte probes its values, finds them wanting, and gazes beyond into an uncertain future.

Tim Ashley is a music critic for The Guardian and author of a biography of Richard Strauss (1999)