With over 4 million instances of fraud bringing untold misery in the UK every year, scams are a scourge on our modern society. And yet, despite the need for art to address the key issues facing its audience there are few operas with much say about scams. Few, that is, apart from Cosi fan Tutte.
When I first encountered Cosi as a member of the audience, da Ponte’s plot felt like a fun and entertaining scaffolding on which to hang Mozart’s gorgeous music; returning with my director’s hat on, I saw so much bafflingly irrational behaviour and such improbable turns of chance that this scaffolding looked at serious risk of collapse. However, trusting these ‘flaws’ hadn’t escaped the notice of one of opera’s greatest librettists, I decided I had probably misunderstood something. Sure enough, after plenty of head-scratching the penny dropped with such a clang I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. For here in a 1789 storyline are the elaborate con-tricks we usually see being delivered by scammers and hustlers on film and TV, all carefully planned and professionally executed by the opera’s puppet-master general, Don Alfonso, and his band of servants who I’d never noticed before but who are effectively his Scam Team in this glorious operatic ‘long-con’.
First, Don Alfonso provokes a heated argument with Ferrando and Guglielmo, before offering them the chance to win the equivalent of around £10,000 each on an apparently unlosable bet, i.e. that their girlfriends (Dorabella and Fiordiligi respectively, who are sisters) will remain faithful for the next 24 hours. They can’t believe their luck at being able to deprive a cynical old misogynist of a crazy amount of money and shake on the deal without realising this was not some random encounter in a café but actually a brilliantly laid trap with only one probable outcome. When Don Alfonso (and we can’t be sure this is even his real name) reveals each must try to seduce the other’s girlfriend, they agree without hesitation and treat the whole thing as a hilarious practical joke, confident that the certain financial reward justifies their shocking deceptions.
Then, Don Alfonso tricks the sisters’ maid, Despina, into becoming his “inside man”. He taps into her previous experience as a Madame by playing the role of a pimp seeking to procure the sisters for two wealthy noblemen (the boys in disguise of course), in return for a success fee that would have been around a year’s wages for Despina at the time.
Adopting the persona of a kindly gentleman, he then subjects the sisters to a romance scam with the aid of his servants and these gullible assistants. To make the sisters more emotionally vulnerable he sends the boys off to supposed mortal danger before staging several bruising encounters with the ‘wealthy strangers’, whilst Despina encourages them to take new lovers. This culminates in a medical emergency straight out of the modern romance scammer’s handbook that exploits the sisters’ natural empathy, leaving them completely emotionally drained by the end of Act 1.
With the sisters now highly vulnerable, Don Alfonso sends the boys back into the fray, this time in a more conciliatory mood. This causes the sisters to let down their guards and before long they find themselves falling in love, to the anger and astonishment of the boys who are forced to concede the bet and with it £10,000 each. Don Alfonso insists on one final scene that brings everyone together in a fake double wedding, with Despina in yet another disguise as a Registrar. Once Despina and the four lovers have signed the marriage contract, Don Alfonso unwinds the deceptions and cleverly reveals all their misdeeds in such a way that no one can denounce anyone else without incriminating themselves, thereby preventing the sisters (who are the ultimate victims) from public humiliation. And thus Cosi plays out as a modern-day morality tale warning us of how people like us are tricked into doing crazy things for love or money. As in popular culture today (but sadly, not in life), this scam is ultimately more about the message than the money, leaving everyone much wiser and in the boy’s case, significantly poorer.