Major Operas | Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Classical Era

That’s Women for You

While Don Giovanni was the nineteenth century’s favourite Mozart opera, Così fan tutte, premiered on 26 January 1790, was widely considered frivolous, immoral and (not least by Beethoven) an insult to women. Today we can see it as perhaps the most ambivalent and disturbing of Mozart’s three Da Ponte comedies.

In the composer’s hands the ‘laboratory experiment’ of the elegant, geometrically structured libretto becomes an unsettling commentary on the unpredictability and alarming power of human feelings, and on the need for mature self-knowledge, cloaked in the most sensuously beautiful music Mozart ever wrote.

Of the quartet of lovers it is Fiordiligi who makes the most far-reaching journey to self-discovery. Both her arias exploit the virtuosity of the original singer of the role, Adriana Ferrarese. ‘Come scoglio’ in the first act is at once serious and parodistic in its extravagant leaps and heroic posturing. But her Act II rondò ‘Per pietà’ uses wide vocal leaps and the singer’s rich low register to express the deep disquiet of a woman torn between her passion for the ‘Albanian’ and the mingled guilt and tenderness she feels towards her fiancé Guglielmo.

Fiordiligi then reveals a newly awakened understanding of her sexuality in her duet with Ferrando. Convention demanded that the original pairings should be restored. However, the emotional journeys undertaken by Fiordiligi and, to a lesser degree, Ferrando make this an unconvincing ‘happy end’, a feeling reinforced by the finale’s hollow burst of C major.

Composed: 1789–90
Premiered: 1790, Vienna
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

Act I

Don Alfonso discusses women with his two friends, the young officers Ferrando and Guglielmo. The young men profess the virtue and constancy of their sweethearts, but Don Alfonso maintains that all women are fickle. He lays a wager that if the officers do everything he asks of them, he can prove it to them by the end of the day. Meanwhile, their sweethearts, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi, proclaim their love for Ferrando and Guglielmo as they gaze upon their portraits. Alfonso enters, with the news that the young men must leave to join their regiment. Sure enough, the officers arrive and the lovers sing a heartfelt farewell. Alfonso remains sure of his impending victory.

The sisters’ maid, Despina, tells them that all men are fickle and suggests that they find solace in courting others; she is scolded by the indignant sisters. Alfonso then persuades Despina to introduce the sisters to his two ‘Albanian’ acquaintances; she does not realize that they are in fact Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise. The two ‘foreigners’ attempt to woo the sisters, each taking the other’s sweetheart, but Fiordiligi and Dorabella declare their fidelity to their lovers and leave. The officers boast of their lovers’ constancy but Alfonso warns them that there is still plenty of time. Ferrando sings of his love for Dorabella while Despina helps Alfonso devise a plan to make the sisters fall for the ‘strangers’.

Fiordiligi and Dorabella...

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