Romantic Recrimination: Mozart's 'Così Fan Tutte'

From The Vienna State Opera

fromWDAV

Cosi Fan Tutte

2 min 37 sec
 
Cosi Fan Tutte i i

The main plot device in this darkly comic Mozart opera is false identities, as the the two main characters don disguises to test their fiancees. Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
Cosi Fan Tutte

The main plot device in this darkly comic Mozart opera is false identities, as the the two main characters don disguises to test their fiancees.

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

The Hit Single

The opera's pivotal moments come in two duets, as the young women give in to the pleas of their "Albanian" suitors. First, in "Il core vi dono" — "I Give You This Heart" — Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel) accepts a golden heart from the disguised Guglielmo.

The B Side

The plot reaches full circle when Fiordiligi (soprano Caroline Wenborne) falls for the passionate pleas of Ferrando (tenor Topi Lehtipu) in the duet "Fra gli amplessi" — "Within His Embraces."

In 1989, Madonna released the hit single "Express Yourself," a song urging girls to "put your love to the test" by forcing guys to vent their true feelings, saying, "then you'll know your love is real." Exactly 200 years earlier, Mozart wrote an opera with an almost identical message.

The theme of Mozart's Così fan tutte is almost identical to that of the song because Madonna seems to be turning the tables on the opera — by urging men to test the true depths of their relationships.

A couple of swaggering, macho types hatch a silly test to prove the unswerving loyalty of their girlfriends. But by the time it all plays out, the men are left wondering if the only thing their little experiment actually did was to highlight their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Così fan tutte was the last of the three great collaborations between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte; the others were The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Among the three, Così is the one that has probably attracted the most criticism. Some have said that the music and libretto simply don't match, arguing that simple sentiments in the text are often set to deeply stirring music — and sometimes vice versa — making the whole thing seem weirdly incongruous.

But perhaps that emotional disparity is actually Mozart's way of making sure the opera's unlikely story hits its mark — which may be why this outwardly comical masterpiece often leaves audiences feeling more than a little uneasy. And if you doubt that an opera with such farcical story can truly be unsettling, try a little test of your own: Listen to Così while imagining that your own significant other may be having second thoughts — that is, if you even need to imagine it. Then see how funny the opera seems.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Mozart's Così fan tutte from the Vienna State Opera. The production stars soprano Caroline Wenborne, bass-baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the two couples whose tenuous relationships can lead the opera's audience to interrupt their many laughs with a few sideways glances.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story Of 'Così Fan Tutte'

In Disguise i i

Ferrando (Topi Lehtipu) and Guglielmo (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo) put on diguises to woo their girlfriends — with the help of the servant, Despina (Anita Hartig). Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
In Disguise

Ferrando (Topi Lehtipu) and Guglielmo (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo) put on diguises to woo their girlfriends — with the help of the servant, Despina (Anita Hartig).

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

Act 1 opens in a café where two young officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are bragging about the undeniable fidelity of their fiancées, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. An older friend of theirs, Don Alfonso, tells them that no women are as faithful as all that. He bets the two young men a hundred gold pieces that if they do everything he says, their lovers will betray them. Ferrando and Guglielmo eagerly accept the wager — though their music is so stiff and ceremonial, we have to wonder just how confident they are.

Alfonso's scheme is this: The two men will pretend they've been called away to war. Then, while the women are mourning their absence, the men will return in disguise and try to seduce each other's lovers. If they succeed, Alfonso wins the bet.

Who's Who

Caroline Wenborne ......... Fiordiligi
Stephanie Houtzeel ........ Dorabella
Ildebrando d'Arcangelo .... Guglielmo
Topi Lehtipu .................. Ferrando
Allesandro Corbelli ..... Don Alfanso
Anita Hartig .................... Despina

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Jérémie Rhorer, conductor

In the second scene, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are heartbroken when they find their lovers are about to leave town. The sisters' servant Despina suggests that while the men are gone the two women should entertain themselves — with new lovers. They react with shock and indignation, but the underlying tone of the music suggests something a little different, hinting that the women just might be interested in some extracurricular hanky-panky.

When the sisters leave the room, Alfonso gets Despina to help with his plan — for a fee, of course. He tells her that two wealthy Albanians are in town, and are eager to meet her mistresses. These "Albanians" are actually Ferrando and Guglielmo, wearing outlandish disguises. Despina agrees to introduce them to Dorabella and Fiordiligi. But when the Albanians begin to make their moves, the two women are offended and leave in a huff. The soldiers think they've won the wager, but Alfonso tells them it's not over yet.

In the act's final scene, Alfonso and Despina hatch the next part of their plan. The women are in the garden, again pining for their absent lovers. The Albanians suddenly appear. They both say they can't bear any further rejection, and pretend to swallow arsenic.

Despina goes with Alfonso to find a doctor, and as the women timidly approach the supposedly dying men, Alfonso returns — bringing Despina in disguise as a doctor. Using a dubious magnetic medical device, she revives the Albanians. Fiordiligi and Dorabella had expressed sympathy for their suicidal suitors. But when the men immediately resume their pleas for love, they're rejected all over again.

As Act 2 opens, Despina tells the two women they're being silly. She thinks that any woman over the age of 15 should take advantage of this kind of situation. After all, she says, you can survive without love — but not without lovers. The sisters act scandalized by her suggestions, but they're beginning to think she might be right. Dorabella persuades her sister that it could be fun to lead these guys on. Dorabella says she'll take the dark one — Guglielmo — leaving Fiordiligi with Ferrando. Unwittingly, the women have just agreed to switch lovers.

Despina and Alfonso bring the two couples together, and leave them alone, to let nature take its course. Both men turn on the charm — and one of them succeeds. Guglielmo persuades Dorabella to accept a gift, a small golden heart, in return for the locket she wears — a gift from Ferrando — which he puts around his own neck.

When the two men get back together to compare notes, things start to go sour. Ferrando has had no luck with Fiordiligi, and he assumes Guglielmo has also failed with Dorabella. Guglielmo first hedges a bit, but when he finally reveals that Dorabella has given him her locket, Ferrando is deeply wounded. Disguising his pain as anger, Ferrando resolves to have another try with Fiordiligi.

Meanwhile, the sisters are also conferring. Dorabella has adopted Despina's carefree attitude, and is ready to marry her new lover. Yet it's Fiordiligi who feels most guilty. She rejected her Albanian — but, deep down, wishes she had acted on her passion. As a sort of penance for those feelings, she decides that she and Dorabella must put on soldiers' uniforms and head for the battlefield to be with their true loves.

But Ferrando reappears, still as an Albanian, and Fiordiligi can't resist him any longer. She gives in while Guglielmo is watching. Now it's his turn for anguish.

Alfonso says the two men might just as well marry the women. They were bound to be unfaithful eventually, so why not make the best of it? And just then, Despina announces that the women have agreed to a double wedding.

Kiss And Make Up i i

When the officers reveal their true identities, the two couples kiss and make up. Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
Kiss And Make Up

When the officers reveal their true identities, the two couples kiss and make up.

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

In the final scene, the couples uneasily drink to their future happiness — while the two men are quietly seething. The versatile Despina arrives, this time disguised as a notary, bringing a marriage contract. The women sign it, but before the men can do the same, Alfonso suddenly announces that the sisters' former boyfriends have returned from battle. Frantically, Dorabella and Fiordiligi send the Albanians into another room.

The men sneak out the back, and return without their disguises. They feign shock and horror when they learn that their faithful lovers have signed a marriage contract. Alfonso points to the room where the Albanians are supposedly hiding, and the men go in with swords drawn. When they return carrying the disguises, the women finally realize they've been tricked.

Alfonso tells the four lovers that it's all for the best — everyone is wiser now. They've seen each other as they really are, and can all have a good laugh at their own expense. There are apologies all around and everything is forgiven. But even as the finale rings out, no one seems ready to laugh, and we're left wondering if the couples have the same worry-free future they looked forward to as the opera began.

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