Così fan tutte: In Focus
Premiere: Vienna, Court Theater, 1790
The third and final collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte is a fascinating paradox: a frothy comedy of manners with an intensely dark take on human nature; an old story (it has antecedents in Boccaccio, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, among others) with a startlingly modern tone; and a beautiful score depicting questionable behavior. The premise is simple: two friends brag that their fiancées, who happen to be sisters, are incapable of infidelity. An older, more philosophical man bets that he can prove them wrong in 24 hours and enlists the help of the sisters’ devious maid to help him in his practical joke. He coerces each young man to seduce the other’s fiancée, which they do successfully. Although the bet is lost, the philosopher advises his friends to forgive their fiancées and to learn from the experience—after all, “all women act like that”
(to paraphrase the opera’s title, which is famously difficult to translate).
The opera is set in Naples. With its natural beauty and abundant sunshine, the city became the equivalent of a tourist destination in the 18th century. It has been suggested that the preponderance of woodwinds in the score is meant to evoke the breezy atmosphere of the seashore.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was the son of a Salzburg court musician and composer, Leopold, who was also his principal teacher and exhibited him as a musical prodigy throughout Europe. His works continue to enthrall audiences around the world and his achievements in opera, in terms of beauty, vocal challenge, and dramatic insight, remain unsurpassed. The extraordinary Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749–1838) led an adventurous life in Venice and Vienna. He converted from Judaism as a youth and joined the Catholic Church, where he took Holy Orders. He supplied librettos for the prominent composers of his time, including Antonio Salieri, and collaborated with Mozart on works that included Così fan tutte, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Don Giovanni. Da Ponte migrated to America and eventually settled in New York, where he was granted the first chair of Italian at Columbia College (now University), and where he was instrumental in developing an audience for Italian opera.
The score of Così is elegant and refined on its surface and dramatically insightful on closer inspection. The Act I trio, “Soave sia il vento” (“Let the breeze be gentle”), for example, is widely recognized as one of Mozart’s most ravishing creations, but the contrary shape of Don Alfonso’s and the two women’s vocal lines clearly depicts divergent thoughts. In fact, it is often possible in this opera to tell who is siding with whom, and to what degree, in the various ensembles. The characters’ development is apparent in the diversity of their solos: there is melodic simplicity in Guglielmo’s Act I aria, in which he describes his own physical charms. Dorabella’s self-pity in her Act I aria, “Smanie implacabili” (“Implacable torments”), is followed in the second act by the remarkably cheerful “È Amore un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”), as she adapts to the new situation. Fiordiligi’s progress is even more extreme: her Act I solo “Come scoglio” (“Like a rock”) is highly dramatic, with leaps, drops, and runs up and down a two-octave range. It is both a supreme example of the show-stopping arias of 18th-century opera, and—in the context of the piece—a parody of the form. Unlike the more frivolous Dorabella, Fiordiligi’s heroic posturing gives way to the genuine human pathos of her extended Act II lament “Per pieta” (“Have pity”). Conversely, the maid Despina’s arias are intensely word-driven and less about noble melody, while the lack of extended solos for Don Alfonso is appropriate to the enigma of his motivations and personality.
Così fan tutte at the Met
The Met gave the opera’s U.S. premiere in 1922, in a production designed by Joseph Urban, with a cast including Florence Easton, Frances Peralta, and Giuseppe De Luca. An English-language production by Alfred Lunt, starring Eleanor Steber and Richard Tucker, was unveiled in 1951. Among those who appeared in this staging over the following years were Teresa Stich-Randall (1961–62) and Leontyne Price (1965) as Fiordiligi, Blanche Thebom as Dorabella (1951–56), and Roberta Peters as Despina (28 performances from 1953 to 1965, and an additional two in 1975 to mark her 25th anniversary with the Met). This same production later moved to the new Met at Lincoln Center, where it was given in Italian with artists such as Teresa Stratas as Despina and Walter Berry as Don Alfonso (in 1971–72). A new production by Colin Graham appeared in 1982 with James Levine conducting Kiri Te Kanawa, Maria Ewing, Kathleen Battle, David Rendall, James Morris (as Guglielmo), and Donald Gramm. Revivals featured Pilar Lorengar, Ann Murray, Tatiana Troyanos, Hei-Kyung Hong, Håkan Hagegård, Thomas Hampson, and Cornell MacNeil. The current production debuted in 1996, with James Levine conducting and Carol Vaness, Susanne Mentzer, Jerry Hadley, Dwayne Croft, Thomas Allen, and Cecilia Bartoli in her Met debut as Despina. Other notable appearances in this production have included Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, Paul Groves, and Dawn Upshaw. The current season’s run marks Music Director James Levine’s return to the Met after a two year absence due to injury.