Così fan Tutte

Paul F. Zweifel

(Copyright 2006)

Così fan tutte was the last of the three operas to which Mozart wrote the music and Lorenzo Da Ponte the libretto. The first of these three "Mozart-Da Ponte" operas, The Marriage of Figaro, made its premiere appearance at Vienna’s Burgtheater on May 1, 1786, but it was far from successful. In fact after only eight performances it gave way to Martín y Soler’s Una Cosa Rara. However the opera moved to Prague in autumn of the same year where it met with resounding success; so resounding in fact that Mozart received a commission to write a new opera buffa especially for Prague. And so Mozart turned again to Da Ponte, and Don Giovanni came into being.

The premiere of the new opera took place on October 29, 1787, but the response was not as enthusiastic as Mozart had hoped for. In fact, he was pessimistic about a Vienna production’s even being mounted. But at the command of the Emperor the opera did appear in Vienna in 1788 and was repeated 15 times (but never again during Mozart’s lifetime). Perhaps to get in a sly dig at Martín y Soler, Mozart introduced some of the music from Una Cosa Rara into the final (banquet) scene. This music was/is supposed to be played by a stage band which presumably makes it sound somewhat amateurish. (Mozart also introduced some of the music from Figaro into the same scene, so his sense of humor must have been quite broad.)

Così fan tutte was written during the autumn of 1789, and had its first performance on Jan. 26, 1790. The prima donna role of Fiordiligi (renamed Abigail in Opera Roanoke’s English-language production) was taken by Da Ponte’s mistress, Adriana Ferrarese, perhaps explaining why although the action takes place in Naples (Philadelphia in our production) the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella (our Susanna) are said to be from Ferrara. Since Mozart detested La Ferrarese and had a very low opinion of her voice, he wrote an especially difficult aria for her, "Come scoglio" ("Like a mountain" in our production). It is a parody of everything an operatic opera should be not, with immense intervals (beginning with a downward-leaping octave) and continuing with a downward tenth and an upward twelfth! Furthermore, it ranges from Bb above the staff to A below, an interval of more than two octaves. It is believed that Mozart was trying to make the audience laugh at Ferrarese, but even so the aria has become something of a show stopper because of its virtuosity. Listen for it in Act I, Scene xi.

The maid Despina (our Eliza) is a Figaro-like character in that she master minds the plot, showing throughout her superior ability at intrigue. Her famous aria in Act I, Scene ix, "In uomini, in soldati" (our "In common men...in two soldiers") is usually just called "Despina’s aria" (although she has a lesser aria in Act II). "In uomini" is a paean to free love, certainly shocking to not so much the Viennese of the late 18th century as to the respectable citizens of the 19th and early 20th centuries. For this reason, Così fell out of the standard repertoire for many years, and when it did appear at all it was likely to be presented in one of several Bowdlerized versions.

The topic of the opera is "fianceé swapping" and was supposed to be based on an actual case of wife-swapping which titillated Vienna in the 1780’s, a supposition now known to be false. The story is actually made up of two threads, each having a long literary history. The first is the "wager theme" concerning a man who declares his confidence in his wife’s fidelity and wagers that she cannot be seduced by a supposed admirer. After the wager, the seducer approaches the wife, and is usually successful (as in our opera, in which, however, actual intimacy does not occur—only fake marriages). This theme goes back to the 13th century, the most famous versions being those of Boccacccio’s Decameron (ninth novella of the second day) and Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline.

The second theme is based on the myth of Procris. Ovid wrote that Cephalus had only recently married the beautiful Procris when the jealous Aurora incites him to test her virtue. He pretends to leave but returns in disguise as a supposed admirer. The plot thickens after that, and I will leave it to you to dig out your own copy of  Metamorphoses to find out what happens.

Finally we ask the question, what do the words "Cosí fan tutte" mean?  Literally "Thus (or so) do all the women" which is a little clumsy in English. Often it’s translated "Women are like that" and in our production is rendered "They are all women." These words are sung in Act II, Scene xi, immediately before the finale (by all three male singers) to the Così fan tutte theme, heard originally in the overture. It actually consists of two themes in the key of C major, C-A-F-G-A followed by E-F-A-D-E. This theme brings an air of finality to the action before the (anti-climactic) Finale actually begins. To help the audience identify the Così fan tutte theme, it will be identified on the supertitle screen whenever it appears.