Così fan tutte

Mozart and Così fan tutte

The commission for Così fan tutte came from Emperor Joseph II in 1789. Le nozze di Figaro had just been revived at Vienna's Burgtheater to great success and Mozart was most likely itching to repeat that success with a new opera buffa. Little is known of his collaboration with Da Ponte on this opera, as there is no mention of the work in either Mozart's collected letters or in Da Ponte's memoirs. And although it seems as if the libretto is entirely original, there are precedents in Ovid, Shakespeare (Love's Labours Lost, Cymbeline), Ariosto, Marivaux and Choderlos de Laclos (Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Franz Joseph Haydn was present at a rehearsal of Così in early January of 1790 and it was finally presented at the Burgtheater on January 26. (As the revived version of Figaro was in August of the previous year, that makes the composition of Così come in at somewhere near four months!) Unfortunately the emperor died in February; the theatres closed for a mourning period and the scramble by composers, impresarios and dramatists to ally themselves with Leopold II began. Così was soon forgotten by the Viennese public although it continued to have some life in the early nineteenth century through usually bowdlerized productions in various European cities. (The most common 'correction' in these productions was to have Despina reveal Alfonso's plot to the sisters mid-way through Act I so that they could turn the tables on their boyfriends.)

The general assessment of Così during the nineteenth century was that the libretto was weak, the story immoral or at the very least frivolous, and that the great music of Mozart was wasted on it. Even Beethoven and Wagner had negative views of the work. It wasn't until the twentieth century that the subtleties of the opera and the rather 'modern' exploration in the text and music of the human psyche that it came to have an equal position with Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni in the Mozart canon. It is now frequently produced and regarded as Mozart's great comic masterpiece.

The Libretto & Source of Così fan tutte

Certainly the greatest of Mozart’s operas were the three operas that he wrote with the poet-librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Da Ponte was a fascinating character, and he had many careers during his extremely long life. He was a priest, a poet, a philosopher, a stage director, a professor of languages, and at one point he was even a grocer. Let's take a closer look at this fascinating character.

Da Ponte was born Emanuele Canigliano in the Jewish sector of Venice, now the Vittorio Veneto. After the early death of his mother, his father, wanting to marry a young Catholic woman, insisted on having the whole family convert to the Catholic faith so that they could all worship together. He also insisted that his three sons all become priests in thanksgiving to God for what he considered the blessing of this marriage. So the young Lorenzo (so named to honor the bishop who brought them into the faith) went into training and indeed, became a priest. But according to his journal, Lorenzo felt that there was only one vocation that he felt he was completely unsuited for, and that was the priesthood! The problem was that he was a very free thinker during a time when the church didn’t appreciate that kind of thinking. And he was constantly falling in love with beautiful women, something else the church didn’t really appreciate in its priests. He was eventually run out of Venice for his bad behavior, left the priesthood and began to wander through Europe looking for a home. He spent some time in Dresden working with Caterino Mazzolà translating and arranging libretti and eventually landed in Vienna where he not only became the royal playwright, but met Mozart and began to collaborate on those three wonderful operas for which they are now world famous. (Early during his stay in Vienna, Da Ponte had the opportunity to meet the earlier great librettist of the day, Pietro Metastasio, who approved of the younger man's verses and praised him before the court.)

It is interesting to wonder how Mozart and Da Ponte were able to get along. These were, after all, two geniuses, one in music the other in poetry and theatre, great artists each in their own right and both with very large egos. But from everything we know from Da Ponte's autobiography it must have gone rather smoothly. After all Da Ponte understood music very well, and Mozart understood poetry very well. There is every reason to believe that they worked very closely together on these operas, each artist making certain demands on the other as the process unfolded, and most certainly making compromises along the way. Mozart mentions Da Ponte only once in his correspondence, not with much flattery, in a letter to his father dated May 7, 1783: "Our poet here is now a certain Abbate Da Ponte. He has an enormous amount to do in revising pieces for the theatre and he has to write per obbligo an entirely new libretto for Salieri, which will take him two months. He has promised after that to write a new libretto for me. But who knows whether he will be able to keep his word -- or will want to? For, as you are aware, these Italian gentlemen are very civil to your face. Enough, we know them! If he is in league with Salieri, I shall never get anything out of him! But indeed I should dearly love to show what I can do in an Italian opera!"

After his collaboration with Mozart and other composers (Martin y Soler and Salieri among them) in Vienna Da Ponte lived in London, where he managed the King's Theatre, Haymarket and married an Englishwoman, Nancy Grahl. Having to declare bankruptcy in 1800 he and his growing family left London for New York in 1805 where he was involved in many different occupations. But he was the first teacher of Italian and the classics at Columbia University and helped build the first Italian opera house in New York City where he acted briefly as manager. He died in 1838 at the ripe old age of 89.

Così fan tutte is the only opera that Mozart wrote which is not based on some other source like an event from history, or a play or a novel. Even his other two operas with Da Ponte were based on earlier sources…The Marriage of Figaro was based on the French play Le mariage du Figaro by Beaumarchais (written only a few years before the premiere of the opera), and Don Giovanni was based on the old Spanish story about Don Juan, the famous lover, and which during Mozart’s lifetime had been traveling around Europe as a puppet play. But Così fan tutte, although the story had roots in classical literature, was a completely original story. There's been a rumor ever since the opera was written in 1790 that the plot was based on something that actually happened in the royal court of the Hapsburg family at the time of the premiere in 1790, but there is no evidence to support this theory. If it is true, when the opera was finally performed the royals in the audience must have had a field day trying to figure out who was who, and what was what

If one is new to this opera, the title takes a bit of explaining. Così fan tutte means “All women are like that”, referring to Don Alfonso's belief that the women (Fiordiligi and Dorabella) will be proven unfaithful and, ultimately, that all women are flighty, superficial and incapable of fidelity. This is a harsh judgment that cannot be measured against contemporary standards. And it must be accepted that the women are entrapped, tricked and put in a very unfair position. But the title is misleading. If one pays close attention to what happens at the end of the opera, no one comes out of this story squeaky clean. At the end, everyone has egg on their faces, not just the women but the men as well. This author prefers the sub-title provided by Da Ponte and Mozart: they called it “The School for Lovers”. There’s a lot to be learned from this opera about relationships, about the constant struggle between the sexes and how to laugh at yourself, how to ‘keep things light’ when you think you’ve fallen in love. Mozart and Da Ponte succeed in getting us to laugh at our imperfections and that, of course, is the essence of comedy.

The Music of Così fan tutte

One of the problems with Mozart's operas is that we're so familiar with the style of his music, with the sound of it; it's so elegant and beautiful on the surface and we tend to forget that the music in his operas is there to express exactly what's happening in the drama. If a character is melancholy, or joyful, or vengeful, or confused…Mozart is able, with an incredible amount of specificity, to communicate all of those feelings or characteristics in the music in a highly stylized way. Often he is successful in even giving us the sub-text of a character's words or actions, of expressing simultaneously both the superficial meaning of a character's words and the character's true feelings underneath. The greatness of Mozart's operatic music lies in this ability to musically portray human beings through beautiful, but ultimately human music.

The conjoining of Mozart's music and Lorenzo Da Ponte's intuitive and sensitive poetry provides a theatrical experience of the highest order. There are literally hundreds of moments throughout the score of Così where we hear the composer commenting on the text or the drama. One obvious example is the use of lengthy trills in the woodwinds to accompany the 'doctor's' use of the mesmeric magnet in order to restore the poisoned 'Albanians' back to life in the Finale to Act I. But there are more subtle points of comedy, such as in the Quintet, "Di scrivermi ogni giorno". Having been informed that the boys are going off to war, the girls admonish them in long, elegant phrases, to write every day; and in equally poignant vocal lines, the boys agree. On the surface, this is a perfectly gorgeous example of an 18th century 'addio' ensemble. But remember: this is a quintet. The fifth singer is, of course, Alfonso who, underneath the beautiful surface, is laughing at the overwrought emotions of the lovers, right down to a quiet little 'chuckle' of eighth notes in the last couple of bars of the piece. This is Mozart at his best. Using very economical means he has three levels of emotional communication occurring simultaneously: the girls, seriously thinking that the boys are going to war, are bidding them farewell, possibly for the last time. The boys, knowing this is all a ruse, are bidding the girls farewell but with tongues placed firmly in their cheeks. Alfonso, who put the entire farce in motion with his jaded view of women, is commenting on the action from the sidelines with his cynical wit intact.

As for musical characterization, a couple of examples will suffice. Note the use of regular phrases and a pastoral, or folk-like, quality to the arias of Despina. This know-it-all housemaid is not of the same social class as any of the other characters in the comedy, and so Mozart chooses to treat her music as if it comes from another world, the world of peasants, shepherds, milkmaids and farmers. They are an earthier bunch than the Fiordiligis and Guglielmos of the world, and we find that Despina is much more in touch with the vagaries of romantic (and probably physical) love. On the other hand we have the higher-toned, noble sisters whose musical world is borrowed directly from the contemporary vogue for Italian opera seria in Vienna at the time. Listen to Dorabella's adolescent outburst "Smanie implacabili" with its orchestral flourishes and angular vocal line. Mozart deals with her sister Fiordiligi in a similar way in the aria "Come scoglio" with its cruel leaps and two-octave range as the orchestral accompaniment tells us that she stands as a small skiff against a raging sea. These are Mozart's personal jabs at the operatic establishment, making fun not only of the characters' over-the-top emotions but of an art form that took itself perhaps a little too seriously.

In summary, it is best to try to listen beyond the exquisite beauty on the surface of Mozart's operatic scores to re-capture a sense of what it was that made the Da Ponte operas such a radical departure for the time. Yes, we see these very methods of musical communication in the operas of the great Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer much admired in his day and beginning to get more recognition in our own. But Mozart went further and musically plumbed the depths of the psyches of his characters in a far more insightful way.

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