INKPOT#72 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: MOZART Cosi fan tutte – An Inktroduction
Cosi fan tutte
ossia La scuola degli amanti Drama giocoso in Two Acts (1790) to a Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
by Chia Han-Leon
Beethoven thought the libretto immoral, Wagner hated the music. Cosi fan tutte is the name of one of Mozart’s last operas, the phrase which – once all you male readers learn the meaning of – will become the most irresistible Italian phrase you’d use in front of your female friends (just to get them to give you a dirty look and hit you).
And that’s part of the “problem”. Written in 1790, one year before his death, Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte sets a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. The full name of the work is Cosi fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti – “Women are all alike, or The School for Lovers”. Contrary to popular belief, it is not exactly a comic opera, but is classified as a dramma giocoso (“jocular drama”), which has a tendency to mix characteristics of opera seria (serious opera) and opera buffa (comic opera). Die Zauberflöte, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte are supreme examples of dramma giocoso.
The short version of the plot is this: two men test the fidelity of their fiancs (sisters) by disguising themselves as foreign suitors. The women not only fail, but each decides to marry the other man, not their original beau. The test is revealed and they are forgiven; everyone lives happily every after.
Or do they? That is the question the opera does not answer.
Two young officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are praising the constancy of their fiancs, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, who are also sisters. Don Alfonso, an “elderly cynic”, wagers that he can prove their infidelity. Accepting the challenge with chagrin, Ferrando and Guglielmo agree to pretend that they have been called to war. Brokenhearted, the sisters lament their misfortune and loss. Don Alfonso enlists (buys) the help of the sisters’ maid, Despina, to persuade her mistresses that their loss is no big deal. She sings to them a particularly anti-Romantic aria on the inconstancy of men, of how they “do not love us except for their own pleasure, /then they despise us, deny us affection”.
Not long after, the two guys return dressed as Albanians (I don’t know why, don’t ask me) and begin wooing the girls. (Note that all this is part of Don Alfonso’s plans). Much to the amusement and cheer of Ferrando and Guglielmo, the sisters refuse their Albanian advances. Undeterred, a new plot is hatched as the Albanian suitors pretend to drink poison and are on the edge of death. Sympathetic, the sisters care for them while Don Alfonso returns with Despina disguised as a doctor. The guys are revived and immediately begin tooting their lovesongs for the women, who again leave in a huff.
Act 2. Finally, the barriers show weaknesses. Gossiping in their room, the sisters finally admit that maybe it’s OK to indulge in some innocent (undetected) amusement… Dorabella, who is bethrothed to Ferrando, chooses the disguised Guglielmo; and Fiordiligi goes for the Albanian version of Ferrando. Now think about the sexual and social irony of this.
The couples meet and Dorabella falls for her Albanian “lover”. Meanwhile the other lover is having a hard time winning Fiordiligi. Amusingly, Guglielmo (having won Dorabella) notes that yes indeed, all women are inconstant – except his own fianc Fiordiligi! But oops, Ferrando makes a last-ditch effort by threatening to kill himself before her – and she succumbs to his “heroism”. While the two men fume, Don Alfonso sings in trimph that “that’s what all women do”, or “women are all alike”: Cosi fan tutte.
It’s not over yet! The women have decided to marry the Albanians, and a wedding is prepared immediately. Just as the marriage contracts are signed, a fanfare of military music announces that Ferrando and Guglielmo have returned! The Albanians are quickly whisked out of the room – and of course they do a quick costume change and come back as the husbands-to-be who discover the betrayal. Enraged, they rush out of the room, “kill” the Albanians and return with their costumes. The plot is revealed, and all are forgiven as the couples are asked to “embrace and be silent”. The opera ends in happiness.
In the real world, this would be a very awkward situation indeed. Imagine you are Ferrando. Now that you’ve married your Dorabella, do you think it’s all over between her and her Albanian experience/Guglielmo? Can you live with the knowledge that she fell for him just like that? Of course, all is not about women – Ferrando utters confidently to Don Alfonso in the latter part of the opera: “Do you think men like us will go short of women?” It is this moral dissonance that disturbs many, including a Romantic such as Beethoven, who would understandably see Love as a great, redeeming and divine force. Nevertheless, this exchange of lovers theme is not uncommon in literature (a famous one being Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream); the bet on a lover’s fidelity is itself another frequent idea, one which forms the propulsive force for the entire plot.
Paying full tribute (and probably more) to the term “Neo-Classicism”, Mozart cast Cos with astonishing structural, harmonic and orchestrational unity. For example, the first five numbers of Act I have been written in keys progressively a third apart: G, E, C, A, F. What this means to those of us who don’t analyse scores is that when you listen to the opera, the sequence of music is astonishingly seamless in its progression from number to number.
by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1781.
This sense of cohesion is an important factor in appraising performances. The beauty of this is that the unity comes about despite (or perhaps it it precisely because) the disparate elements in the opera. In terms of the voices for example, Cos demands six voices which must be able to sing as an ensemble and yet be individually distinct. This is compounded by the idea, as forwarded by Jacobs, that Mozart had intended to cast in Cos three couples of different vocal types: two of opera seria (serious “noble” roles – Fiordiligi and Ferrando), two of opera buffa (comic roles – Despina and Don Alfonso) and two in-betweens (mezzo carattere or “in-between character). This variety alone gives Cosi potential for much contrast, characterisation and fun.
The three women and three men each have an aria in each act, but more than that, the work is well-known as an ensemble opera, with a delicious array of duets, trios and quintets exceeding the solo arias in number. Many are rightfully famous. There is, for example, the serene beauty of Soave sia il vento (No.10, track 12 “May the wind be gentle”) for the sisters and Don Alfonso: against the gentle rippling of muted strings, the trio sing a delicate prayer to nature to spare the two officers’ ship. In addition, and not surprisingly, Cosi is an example of Mozart’s wit at work. Granted some credit must go to the librettist, I think most of the witticisms are only fully and more effectively explored through the music. For example, the recitative of the wager ending with the gleeful sequence of “Tutto!” – “Tuttissmo!” – “Bravissimi!” – “Bravissimo, Signor Don Alfonsetto!” – there is such a sense of poetic humour and musical fun about the composer’s setting! On the other hand it can be quite cruel, as when Don Alfonso is trying to suppress his laughter in the middle of the moving Di scrivermi quintet where the sisters are virtually dying of grief at their fiancs’ departure.
In the notes to his recording, Rene Jacobs calls Cosi “one of the most ‘symphonic” operas Mozart ever wrote” – indeed, the substantial scoring for the orchestra often calls to mind the composer’s symphonies as well as the operas of the later 19th century. The ending chorus concludes with an orchestral passage a la the “Jupiter Symphony”. Even the recitative passages sometimes abound with bursts from the orchestra – this is no longer the harpsichord flourish-blah-blah-blah of the 18th century, but a great progression towards the greater fusion of orchestra and singers of later operas.
In terms of orchestration, as mentioned above, Cosi is a prime example of the clarity and concision of instrumental scoring favoured by Neo-classical ideals. More than that, much has been said about Mozart’s own brilliantly balanced and controlled employment of instruments in Cosi. The clarinets for example, his favourite woodwind instrument, are held back in the overture and first scene until the sisters appear to accompany their lovely duet.
Analysis of long stretches of music in Cosi have revealed Mozart’s brilliant development of thematic references. More generally, the beautifully sounding and logically progressing recitative passages link the colourful and unfalteringly appealing sequences of songs throughout the opera with remarkable unity. Listeners new to Cos will find that it is not only easily digestible on first listening (Mozart at his best), but will probably also find this scintillating vocal kaleidoscope – arias, trios, quintets – all adding up as an endless stream of surprising delights.
Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte – Recommended Recording:
Klner Kammerchor Concerto Kln
directed by Rene Jacobs
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 951663.65Includes bonus Interactive CDROM
Chia Han-Leon said “Cosi fan tutte” to his beloved and received a strange look.