Spotlight on: COSÌ FAN TUTTE

Così fan tutte

At Seattle Opera January 2018

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

The Story

Long Story Short

An old skeptic, assisted by a sassy servant girl, teaches four naïve young people an important lesson about love.

© Rozarii Lynch

Who’s Who?

Ferrando and Guglielmo are young soldiers: good-looking, full of themselves, and hard to tell apart. Ferrando (the tenor) is more the poet; Guglielmo (the baritone) relies more on sex appeal when it comes to attracting ladies.

Don Alfonso is an older friend of theirs. A cynic who doesn't believe in notions like "true love" or "soulmates," Alfonso wants to prove to his friends that just because their fiancées mean well and are adorable, they aren't necessarily faithful.

Fiordiligi and Dorabella are sisters: young, beautiful, rich, and bored. Fiordiligi (the soprano) is older and bossier than her little (mezzo) sister Dorabella.

Despina works for the two sisters. She has a hard-headed, practical approach when it comes to sex.

What's Going On?

Don Alfonso is having breakfast with Ferrando and Guglielmo, who insist their girlfriends are models of chastity and constancy who never in a million years would be caught looking at any other men. Alfonso proposes a bet: Ferrando and Guglielmo will do whatever Alfonso says for the next 24 hours, and Alfonso will prove that Fiordiligi and Dorabella are in fact unfaithful.

When Don Alfonso tells Fiordiligi and Dorabella their boyfriends' regiment has been summoned to the war, the women are devastated. Their maid, Despina, decides she must talk some sense to the sisters. She points out that the soldiers are bound to fool around while they are out on the battlefield, so the girls ought to have fun and flirt with all the guys they want.

© Rozarii Lynch

Don Alfonso asks Despina to introduce the sisters to two handsome young men he knows (Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, of course). When the strangers declare their passionate love for Fiordiligi and Dorabella, the women are outraged and offended. The men pretend they have taken poison, since death is preferable to rejection from such beautiful ladies. (Despina, disguised as a doctor, "heals" them with a new-fangled miracle-cure procedure.)

That afternoon, Despina convinces the sisters that it won't do any harm to flirt with the new men in their lives. Eventually the young people pair off, with new partners. It doesn't take long for Dorabella to succumb to Guglielmo's charms. The handsome soldier seduces her, and they exchange lockets shaped like hearts. Fiordiligi rejects Ferrando, but later she admits she is attracted to him—and berates her inconstant heart. He implores her to look upon him kindly; in melting tones, he sings that she can find everything in him: husband, lover, friend, and more if she wants. Unable to resist, she finally falls into his arms.

Don Alfonso has proved his point. Guglielmo and Ferrando swear they will never again speak to their unfaithful lovers, but Alfonso tells them to grow up. The women marry their new sweethearts in a mock ceremony, whereupon the guys remove their disguises and reveal the hoax. Alfonso urges wisdom and temperance, and at the end all join hands to read the moral of the story: it's best to take life as it comes.

Listen For

The Cast

One of the most complicated ensemble comedies ever created, Così fan tutte demands not only six superlative singing actors with great voices and splendid comic timing; the musical and psychological chemistry between all the possible pairings becomes part of the story as they try each other on for size. Which configuration of partners makes the most sense, given the personalities of the performers involved? Any one of the characters could "steal the show," under the right conditions.

Individual Characters Emerging

Mozart's music, paradoxically, is both supernaturally perfect and deeply human. He was great at depicting flawed human personalities in breathtaking music. Psychologically, Così chronicles the development of the four young lovers; they gradually stop being clones as they figure out who they are and what they're looking for in love. Listen for the difference between characters who are smug, confident, and self-satisfied, and those who are hurting, changing, and growing.

Tongue-in-Cheek Musical Jokes

One of the delights of Così is the gulf between the naive and often ridiculous characters and the dazzling wit and intelligence of the words and music. Mozart and Da Ponte mock the military, the church, the law, science and medicine, east-west politics, and most of all serious eighteenth-century opera. (They imply that everything the four young people know about romance they've learned from absurdly over-the-top tragic operas.)

Mozart, Master of the Ensemble

They had ensembles in opera before Mozart. But his musical genius really developed the potential of these wonderful scenes, in which everyone sings at the same time and the music continues to differentiate their characters and tell their separate stories. Mozart's ensemble finales (the extended, recitative-free passages that conclude his acts) created the standard musical forms for modern opera.

Where, When, & Why was this opera written?

Mozart and Da Ponte had previously collaborated on two groundbreaking operas, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), both big hits in Prague (more so than in Vienna, where they both lived). In terms of his pragmatic philosophy, Da Ponte himself had much in common with the wise old Don Alfonso, who "wins" the wager of the story. Mozart, however, had something in common with the heroes: he married the sister of his first love (and when he wrote this opera, their marriage was on the rocks). Thus, perhaps, the curious paradox that has driven the history of complicated reactions to this opera: Da Ponte's text is cynical and witty, Mozart's music is heartfelt and impassioned.

The Name

Così fan tutte means "All Women Do It." The librettist Da Ponte actually preferred the subtitle, "The School for Lovers," but the irresistable musical motto Mozart wrote for the words of the title, and its prominent placement at the beginning and end of the opera, gives that name pride of place.

Where'd they get the story?

Invented by Lorenzo Da Ponte, the librettist. Some have said he was inspired by a real-life wager that had amused the gossipy population of 1780s Vienna and ticketed the fancy of Hapsburg Emperor Josef II. Others have pointed out Da Ponte's debts to French farce, Italian epic poetry, commedia dell'arte, even an ancient Chinese folktale.

Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte

The Così Controversy

"Love condemns my heart, and with good cause; I burn with a love that has no virtue. it is madness, torment, remorse, punishment, frivolity, false treachery."

- Fiordiligi, Act II

Così fan tutte basically wasn't performed in the nineteenth century. The Romantic era that put female chastity on the highest possible pedestal found this opera deeply objectionable, because the two sisters aren't chaste, nor are they punished at the end. People endlessly tinkered with the opera, or wrote new words in the hopes of "redeeming" Mozart's wonderful music from Da Ponte's "immoral" libretto.

Among the various reworkings of the libretto are operas with titles such as: The Two Aunts from Milan, The Girls from Flanders, The Magic Test, The Guerillas, The Imp Woman, The Chinese Laborer, and Tit for Tat; or The Tables Turned. In some versions, Despina and Don Alfonso have magic powers; sometimes, Ferrando and Guglielmo send friends to seduce their girlfriends. There's even a version in which Despina tells the sisters about the bet, and the girls play along in order to teach the men a lesson.

Beginning after World War II, and expanding greatly after feminism, audiences started appreciating Così fan tutte for the complex tragicomic masterpiece it is. Today, however, there's no consensus on the outcome of the story. The score doesn't indicate how the couples are paired at the conclusion, which opens the door to every possible creative solution invented by performers and directors.

© Rozarii Lynch

What kind of production is coming to Seattle?

In 2018, Seattle Opera revives our 2006 Così fan tutte, conceived, designed, and directed by British polymath Jonathan Miller. An influential figure in late-twentieth century comedy, theater, and ideas, MIller set the opera squarely in contemporary Seattle. A simple set and extreme costumes (and speedy costume changes!) clarified each intention of Da Ponte and Mozart's bewildering, fascinating exploration of the human heart.

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