April 15, 20, 22, and 24, 2010, at 8 pm
Matinée April 17 at 3 pm
Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti (Thus Do All Women, or The School For Lovers; Da Ponte wanted the latter title, but Mozart's preference for the former won out) is an opera buffa, the last of three Mozart operas for which Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the libretto. It was written and composed at the suggestion of the Emperor Joseph II (some scholars insist that it is based on an actual contemporary scandal, but there is no definitive evidence to support this tantalizing claim). The libretto was originally offered to Mozart's contemporary Antonio Salieri who began but then broke off work on the opera.
The first performance of Mozart's setting took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna on January 26, 1790 and was conducted by the composer. The subject matter seems not to have offended Viennese sensibilities of the time, but the 19th and early 20th centuries considered it frivolous and/or amoral, and the comparatively few performances given during those years were frequently presented with severely bowdlerized texts.
During the late 1930s and after World War II, Così fan tutte began to establish itself in the standard operatic repertoire, until Opera America could place it 15th on their list of the 20 most-performed operas in North America (ironic considering that its first American performance was not given until 1922).
Mozart and Da Ponte took as a theme "fiancée swapping" which dates back to at least the 13th century, with notable earlier versions being those found in Boccaccio's Decameron and Shakespeare's play Cymbeline. Elements from Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew are also present. Furthermore, it incorporates elements of the myth of Procris as found in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book vii. The libretto is, however, considered an original one in that it is not based on a single source, and as such is one of only two original libretti amongst Da Ponte's output.
In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice British literary critic Tony Tanner summarized the plot of the novel thus: A man changes his manners, and a young lady changes her mind.
No more succinct way can be found of saying that, in a great novel, the plot is the least important feature. We don't read on to found out what happens, but why, and how.
This is equally true of operas and, alas, the plot of Così fan tutte has prevented many people from appreciating a work that is without question one of the most compassionate and profoundly moving examinations of human behavior that the world of opera has ever given us. Without ever resorting to didacticism, it depicts love both real and idealized, and ultimately suggests that life and love are perhaps more rewarding if experienced honestly and with eyes open, no matter how unsettling, untidy, and challenging.
Certainly our willingness to suspend disbelief is necessary when confronted with certain theatrical conventions, but if we are to dismiss as unrealistic the age-old device of impenetrable disguise in Così, shouldn't we also dismiss it in As You Like It and Twelfth Night? And wouldn't we be the poorer for doing so? As director Jonathan Miller notes, within such an idiom the awkward improbabilities of the plot can be seen as a device that helps to make the opera more, rather than less, serious.
The comedy begins in mid-conversation, as two young officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, proclaim the virtue of their sweethearts, insisting that these paragons are incapable of infidelity. Their older friend Don Alfonso – more experienced in the ways of the world and somewhat cynical – maintains that no woman on earth is capable of fidelity, and proposes a wager: if the brash lads will do anything and everything he says for the next 24 hours, he will demonstrate that the two young ladies in question are just as fickle and untrustworthy as the rest.
Meanwhile the girlfriends – Fiordiligi and Dorabella, two sisters living in Ferrara apparently without a chaperone – revel in their love for Guglielmo and Ferrando, respectively. Don Alfonso enters with sad news: war has been waged and the young men have been called to their regiment. They appear, and the five make elaborate farewells. After the young men leave, the sisters and Don Alfonso wish them Godspeed in an ethereal Terzetto, justly one of the most celebrated numbers in all Mozart:
Soave sia il vento, Tranquilla sia l'onda,
Ed ogni elemento Benigno risponda
Ai nostri desir.
Gentle be the breeze, Calm be the waves,
And every element Smile in favor
On our wish.
Left alone on stage, Don Alfonso delivers one last jeer at women's inconstancy.
As the girls' maid Despina prepares chocolate for her mistresses, she remarks wryly about a world in which she does all the work and they enjoy the luxuries. The sisters sweep in, loudly bewailing their torment at being separated from their lovers; Dorabella even proclaims that anguish such as hers has never before been experienced.
Despina listens unmoved; she is another worldly type who's been around the block a few times, and offers advice that complements Alfonso's perfectly: men, especially soldiers, aren't and never will be faithful; it's just the way things are. So the girls should take advantage of the situation and have an amorous adventure or two of their own. The sisters react with outrage to their maid's inability to comprehend their heroic suffering and to her capricious approach to love. Dramatically, they storm out of the room.
Alfonso then steals in and persuades Despina (with the help of a bribe) to introduce to her mistresses two foreign friends of his who have long loved the ladies from afar. He then ushers in two exotically attired strangers (none other than Ferrando and Guglielmo disguised as Albanians). The sisters are scandalized to encounter the strangers and firmly reject their protestations of love. In an aria that parodies the extremes of opera seria, Fiordiligi likens her fidelity to a rock.
Once again the sisters storm off, and the men, considering the wager as more or less won, laugh and tease Alfonso. The wily older man reminds them of the 24 hours agreed upon. In a beautifully tender and ardent aria, Ferrando reiterates his passion for Dorabella.
Despina suggests to Alfonso a plan to win the ladies' sympathy.
Alone, the sisters lament the absence of their lovers. Suddenly the "Albanians" stagger in, pretending to take poison in despair over the ladies' cruelty. Alfonso and Despina run for a doctor, leaving Fiordiligi and Dorabella alone with the strangers. Just as compassion is beginning to weaken their resolve, Despina returns, disguised as a doctor and uses Dr. Mesmer's invention, the magnet, to draw out the poison, while urging the sisters to nurse the patients.
The men revive and ardently demand kisses, to the alarm of the women. Ferrando and Guglielmo begin to wonder if the girls' fury is indeed genuine.
Despina chides her mistresses for their obstinacy and explains how a woman ought to handle a man (Any woman of fifteen years should know well the ways of the world). Dorabella is gradually persuaded that there could be no real harm in a little flirtation, and surprisingly, Fiordiligi agrees. Dorabella chooses Guglielmo, the dark one, while Fiordiligi prefers Ferrando, the blonde (each, of course, choosing the other's original sweetheart).
The young men have arranged a serenade in the garden. Don Alfonso and Despina bring the new couples together; they are tongue-tied and unsure of their feelings. Committed to seeing their wager through, Guglielmo ardently pursues Dorabella, who responds quite readily. Ferrando continues to encounter resistance from Fiordiligi, but after she sends him away he reflects that she may not be able to resist his pleading much longer.
Alone, Fiordiligi admits that the stranger has touched her heart and prays that her absent lover will forgive her.
When the men compare notes, Guglielmo is glad to see Fiordiligi standing fast, but Ferrando is dismayed that Dorabella has given in to Guglielmo who, in a spirit of compassion for his injured friend, comments angrily on the waywardness of the fair sex. Left alone, Ferrando again expresses his love for Dorabella, though he feels betrayed.
Even as she rebukes Dorabella for being fickle, Fiordiligi admits that she has fallen for the stranger. Dorabella coaxes her to give in, saying love is a thief, a little serpent who gives peace to our hearts and takes it away. Alone, Fiordiligi decides she and her sister will disguise themselves in their lovers' uniforms and go off to the front to join their sweethearts. But when Ferrando appears and threatens suicide, Fiordiligi gives in.
Now Guglielmo is enraged, but Alfonso advises the men to just marry the women – they're all like that, he claims. The words Così fan tutte are sung to a tune first heard in the opera's overture.
A double wedding is arranged between the sisters and the "Albanians." Alfonso brings in the notary – Despina in another disguise. The lovers sing in canon of their happiness – except for Guglielmo, who is barely able to control his rage and therefore does not join in the ardent melody.
Just as the ladies have signed the marriage contract, military music is heard outside. This can mean only that their former lovers have returned, and the sisters go more or less to pieces. The men reappear without their Albanian mufti and, on discovering the marriage contract, rage at the ladies, before they reveal their identities as the Albanians.
Alfonso explains that the deception is all for the best, that they are now wiser and should say no more about it. The young people reconcile with their original lovers, and, as in The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, the entire cast brings the drama to a close with a kind of moral:
Lucky is he who takes
The good in all
And through chance and events
By reason is led.
What is wont to make others weep
For him is cause for laughter
And in the turmoil of the world
He will find peace.