Cosi fan Tutte- Fiancee swapping, Mozart style

by Addie Appelbaum, SPOG Vice President - Programs

St. Pete Opera Jan 2010 Cosi fan Tutte

When Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte decided to create the opera Cosi fan Tutte , they took what was essentially a frivolous farce: two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are egged on by their older friend Don Alfonso to capture the hearts of each others fiancees, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. With the connivance of their maid Despina ( in cahoots with Don Alphonso), the boys leave town, return as exotic “Albanian” soldiers, and promptly swap fiancees. The girls fall hard for “the wrong man”, and while there is a wedding, it’s left up in-the-air as to who-marries-who.

Originally titled La Scuola degli Amanti ( The School For Lovers), the opera has a subtle suggestion of lessons being taught to the “Enlightened” society.

This was the Era of Enlightenment….the intellectual movement which had swept Europe, turning society away from religion, and instead towards reason as the chief tool for understanding human life. Mozart and da Ponte had become disenchanted with the Enlightenment, and so they presented an opera which plays instead on the fragility of love, honor and duty. Reasoning is thrown to the winds, and honor falls prey to love and emotion.

Was this the first time audiences witnessed a fiancée-swapping plot?

Hardly…remember Shakespeare’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream? It was essentially the same story, but with a supernatural twist… the two couples are under an enchanted spell spun by fairies! But here, the “good fairies” are replaced by two self-serving, scoffing cynics-the world-weary Don Alphonso, and the equally jaundiced maid Despina.

Although da Ponte’s libretto has Despina has a tough and embittered servant ( she’s only 15 years old!), Mozart’s music lightens up her coarseness and makes her a character of some complexity and fun.

Don Alphonso’s character is not funny…Mozart gives him some bitingly cruel arias, but he has no redeeming features.

Of the two sisters, Dorabella (originally engaged to Ferrando), succumbs fairly easily to the blandishments of Guglielmo; however Fiordiligi ( originally engaged to Guglielmo) overflows with guilt and remorse in her great aria “Per pieta” as she tries to resist Ferrando. In the end, although she is beset with guilt and remorse, she falls hard for Ferrando.

Essentially, Cosi fan Tutte is an ensemble opera…there are fewer individual arias than in either The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni … but Mozart blends the combination of voices to superb effect in giggly duets for the women, combinations of comedy and competitiveness for the men, devastatingly cruel musical asides by Don Alphonso and Despina, and superb finales in both acts.

A theatrical note on the role of Don Alphonso: Francesco Bussani, who created the role of Don Alphonso, was loathed by da Ponte. He had risen in the Viennese theatrical hierarchy to become the Director of Spectacle; neither Mozart nor Da Ponte trusted him to stage the opera properly. In fact, Mozart and da Ponte devised a musical ending whereby Bussani would have to assume the shameful responsibility for the operatic chaos that unfolded. Bussani sang the role, but he never forgave either Mozart or Da Ponte for the “insult”.