The Greatest Tox Scene in Opera

April 24, 2014, 1:36 am

Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte has what is, beyond any argument, the greatest and funniest medical toxicology scene in all of opera. On this Saturday (April 26), the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series will broadcast Cosi to theaters around the world,with James Levine conducting. As one who thinks that the 3 operas — The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte — written by Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte represent the greatest works of art in the history of the human race, I can’t wait. In anticipation, I am rerunning this post from several years ago:

There is an amazing toxicology-themed scene in the finale to Act I of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. In the opera, two young friends — Ferrando and Guglielmo — make a bet with an older cynic — Don Alfonso — that their fiances — Fiordiligi and Dorabella — will remain ever faithful. (If you’re having trouble sorting out these characters at home, you’re in good company.  Apparently, Mozart at times confused them in the manuscript to the opera.)  Keeping with the terms of the bet, the two friends disguise themselves as Albanian soldiers and pursue the other’s fiance. Initially unsuccessful, they pretend to swallow arsenic and collapse.  A doctor is summoned and appears, but it is actually Despina the maid in disguise.  The libretto continues:

DON ALFONSO:  . . . look at these poor fellows; they’ve taken poison; what can be done?

FIORDILIGI AND DORABELLA: Yes, doctor, what can be done?

DESPINA: First I must know the nature of this potion and reason it was taken; whether it was swallowed hot or cold, a little or much, in one draught or in several.

English Translation: Lionel Salter

After the doctor (Despina) determines the route and dose of the poison, and whether it was an acute or chronic ingestion, she pretends to cure the Albanians with a magnetic device discovered by Dr. Mesmer in Germany.

As often in Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte intermingles the broadest farce with the most exquisite emotions.  Just like real life.



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