Go inside this production of Così fan tutte with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
TIME: August 1914
PLACE: A hotel at a Mediterranean resort
Don Alfonso is trying to enlighten Ferrando and Guglielmo as to the true nature of women. He places a bet that he can prove their fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are not the icons of purity the men believe them to be. Both sides are confident of victory within twenty-four hours.
Sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella are celebrating the perfection of their lovers. Don Alfonso arrives and tells them that their men have been called up and must leave immediately for the battlefront. The men enact a farewell scene and “go off to war.” The women are devastated, but the maid Despina tells them to look on the bright side and have a good time in their absence – in other words, behave exactly as men would.
Don Alfonso and Despina work together to this end. Don Alfonso introduces two Albanian friends whom Despina in turn introduces to the sisters. None of the three women penetrate the disguises of Ferrando and Guglielmo.
Fiordiligi and Dorabella are offended to see the strange men and repelled by their advances. They declare fidelity to their lovers. The young men are delighted, but Don Alfonso is quite relaxed.
The sisters continue to grieve. The two rejected strangers return to them, swallow “poison” and collapse. The terrified girls call for Despina, who goes with Don Alfonso to find a doctor. Fiordiligi and Dorabella try to help the “dying” strangers. Don Alfonso returns with Despina disguised as a doctor who claims to cure everything by magnetism. The men revive, and believing they are in heaven, demand a kiss from their “angels” Fiordiligi and Dorabella. The sisters manage to resist again.
Despina persuades the sisters to befriend their new admirers. They decide on preferences — Dorabella chooses Guglielmo; Fiordiligi, Ferrando. Each has instinctively chosen the other’s partner. Don Alfonso and Despina cement the new love affairs in the context of a masquerade. The couples pair up and Dorabella yields to Guglielmo. Fiordiligi rejects Ferrando, for the time being. Ferrando and Guglielmo exchange notes on their progress. Ferrando is furious, and Guglielmo is triumphant but brutally dismissive of the fallen Dorabella.
Despina and Dorabella put pressure on Fiordiligi. Fiordiligi decides she must run away to join Guglielmo at war, but Ferrando confronts her again and she too yields. Agonized, Guglielmo witnesses it all. Don Alfonso has proven his point and won the bet. Don Alfonso and Despina arrange for the new couples to be “married” by Despina disguised as a notary. As the girls sign their names, a military band is heard. Apparently the soldiers have returned unexpectedly. In the confusion, the two men disappear, re-emerging without their disguises. Shocked at the evidence of a wedding they swear vengeance on their rivals.
The plot is revealed. All four lovers’ certainties have been destroyed. No one quite knows what to feel, except that certainly human nature has been at work.
(Synopsis reprinted by permission of San Francisco Opera.)
Love in a Time of War
We are told next to nothing about the six characters who populate Così fan tutte. (Even the two sisters’ hometown being Ferrara is a piece of opportunistic flattery by the librettist, who at the time was the lover of the soprano nicknamed “La Ferrarese.”) Apart from Despina being a maid, the only useful fact is that Ferrando and Guglielmo are soldiers.
Yet the audience hardly sees them as real soldiers, men whose business is to go forth and kill or be killed, because this identity is quickly suppressed. As part of Don Alfonso’s fictive stratagem they become “Albanians,” performers in a masquerade that deceives their lovers, the aforementioned sisters. By this means, the realities of war are forced out of the story and our two killer heroes are transformed to mere actors.
For the sisters, however, the war is an actuality and its possible outcomes must be faced. Their fiancés, one or both, might be killed, maimed, or never return. Some interpretations of constancy would forbid them to accept other offers of love should the worst happen. Meanwhile, they owe it to their loved ones to be steadfast as a source of strength. This much they know about love from their education.
Under pressure from the “Albanians” and Despina, they discover that war can give to love a sudden urgency. Faced with the likely mortality of their fiancés, they find after all that the erotic fulfillment of love as proffered by the Albanians is a surer route to their happiness. They are invited into, perhaps entitled to, that last-chance embrace. Their lovers may never return, but the Albanians are here now.
As an alternative reading, suppose that the war is not a part of the masquerade, that events in the outside world that Alfonso cannot control ironically convert his fiction to fact, thus vindicating the sisters’ credulity and inflicting a well-deserved sting on their fraudulent men.
The conclusion of Così has always struck me, and many others, as smug (Don Alfonso) and craven (everybody else) – in short, unsatisfactory. None of the four lovers is the same person at the end as at the beginning. The truth, revealed by fiction, is that they are all changeable. Can the original pairings be restored when there has been such a betrayal of trust? It’s clear that both men love Fiordiligi and that Dorabella is despised by the volatile, male-chauvinist Guglielmo, whose friendship with Ferrando must be seriously damaged by mutually inflicted wounds. Any reconciliation founded on such demonstrable fault-lines would be short-lived. Alfonso’s experiment may have won him his bet, but it only answered one question. It leaves a host of others unaddressed.
By bringing the war in from the outside, by moving it from fiction to fact, by refusing to judge the sisters’ choices as immoral and by rejecting Don Alfonso’s glib reconciliation, we can open up the spurious closure of the text and keep the search for truth in motion.
The sisters have learned much about love in a time of war. So, unexpectedly, have the men, who must now become soldiers again. Don Alfonso’s 24-hour masquerade has been a dress rehearsal for the real thing.
John Cox, Director
Reprinted by permission of San Francisco Opera
Opera thrills us to our depths not simply through great music and great theater, but through the brilliance with which those elements reveal the truth of human emotion. The greatest opera composers aren’t simply peerless musicians – they’re also brilliant psychologists who bring us the hearts and souls of their characters with unique, astounding insight. In the entire history of opera, no composer merits this description more than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, especially in his Così fan tutte.
A great Così performance gives an audience satisfaction of a very rare kind, since the challenges are so overwhelming. The piece requires, first of all, true singing actors – an ensemble of six star performers, all of them superbly accomplished musically and vocally. Mozart has given them many opportunities to make their presence felt in solo passages (for example, there’s nothing more moving in the Mozart operas than Ferrando’s love song in Act One or Fiordiligi’s private examination of her feelings in Act Two). Thanks to Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, each of these six individuals onstage undertakes an emotional journey in the course of the opera, in which each of the five other characters plays a significant role. These are all intensely human figures, very specifically defined: dignified Fiordiligi and flighty Dorabella, lovestruck Ferrando and exuberant Guglielmo, earthy Despina and world-weary Don Alfonso. The miracle of the opera is the musically and dramatically enthralling interplay among them.
The great question applied to any Così production is how the director chooses to treat the ending: will the young women return to their fiancés, or will they go off with their new partners? The answer to that question is something I always look forward to, and of course, I won’t reveal here the direction we’ll take for this finale at Lyric! The suspense will make that moment all the more rewarding for everyone in the audience.
Fiordiligi in Così, one of Mozart’s most exacting soprano roles, has been closely associated with Lyric favorite Ana María Martínez throughout her career, and I’m thrilled that she can now bring this much-acclaimed portrayal to Lyric. I anticipate a captivating stage partnership between Ana María and Marianne Crebassa (Dorabella), who so delighted Lyric audiences in Romeo and Juliet two seasons ago. The same can be said of the dashing pair portraying their fiancés, Joshua Hopkins (Guglielmo) and Andrew Stenson (Ferrando), and of the opera’s two schemers: Elena Tsallagova (Despina) in her Lyric debut and Alessandro Corbelli (Don Alfonso), whose mastery of comic repertoire we’ve been privileged to witness frequently at Lyric over the past three decades.
It’s always a joy for us to introduce an outstanding young American conductor to Lyric audiences. James Gaffigan, still less than a decade into his international career and already praised for his Mozart at Glyndebourne and the Vienna State Opera, is making an indelible impression with other major opera companies and orchestras worldwide. At Lyric he’s collaborating with the gifted Bruno Ravella, who is reviving John Cox's marvelous production. John’s extraordinarily perceptive response to both the humor and the sheer humanity of the Mozart/da Ponte operas has produced innumerable glorious performances of this repertoire at every leading house internationally, including our previous Così revival in 2006/07.
Refresh your spirits and enrich your hearts with Così fan tutte, one of the true masterpieces of opera.
General Director, President & CEO
The Women’s Board Endowed Chair
Così fan tutte, “Thus Do All Women” (subtitled “The School for Lovers”), has now finally entered the Mozart canon. First performed on January 26, 1790, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, it was initially well received, but had only five performances during Mozart’s lifetime, on account of the death of the emperor Joseph II only a month later, and the ensuing mourning period. (Mozart died on December 5, 1791.) During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it endured a long eclipse, being considered offensive and immoral. Sometimes, loving the music, people attempted to provide it with a totally different libretto: in one version, the text was that of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost in French! By now, however, the opera in its original form has won its way into the repertory, and is always in the top twenty of most-performed operas worldwide, though ranking slightly below three other Mozart operas: The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, and Don Giovanni. The beauty of its music has won the hearts of audiences.
Producers, critics, and audiences, however, continue to find Così a deeply problematic work. The great critic Joseph Kerman goes so far as to write, “Even the most devout Mozartian will have to admit that there is something unsatisfactory about Così” – which he calls “Mozart’s most problematic work.” What is the problem? In essence, it is a felt dissonance between the heartless spirit of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and the remarkable emotional expressivity of the music, especially in the second act. This dissonance is then rendered more problematic still by the neat cookie-cutter ending in which everything snaps back to the way it was before Act Two.
Da Ponte’s libretto is polished, well-constructed, witty, and cynical. Don Alfonso, the opera’s resident philosopher/observer/ cynic, who creates the plan to test the fidelity of the young women, opines that emotions are short-lived and fickle, but the libretto ultimately goes yet further, suggesting that they are altogether unreal and factitious. Much of the work’s humor, in Act One, derives from the fact that the women take their own emotions seriously, but we are urged to see that they are only play-acting, imitating literary expressions of passion. (Singer-actresses have a challenge: while acting they must create the impression of mere play-acting, and later on show how different that is from genuine feeling.) Throughout Act One, Mozart’s music serves Da Ponte’s cynical purpose quite well, creating an artificial comedy with characters who are essentially cardboard cutouts and objects of knowing laughter (by Don Alfonso and the knowing Despina, and by us). We know very little about the nature of Mozart and Da Ponte’s collaboration, but we certainly have no evidence that, like Verdi, Mozart controlled the process and insisted on getting his way; Da Ponte’s letters suggest just the opposite, rightly or wrongly.
But Mozart cannot help taking emotions seriously, and by Act Two his genius for emotional insight, range, and particularity takes over, breaking the clever mold and subverting its purpose. In the other Da Ponte operas, it is also true that Mozart supplies emotional depth to texts that might have been set otherwise. (Just imagine, for example, in how many ways the text of Cherubino’s aria “Voi che sapete” in The Marriage of Figaro might have been set, and how completely it might have lacked the tender longing that it in fact expresses.) In Così, however, the music doesn’t just render emotionally determinate a text that is indeterminate; it actually subverts the entire point of the libretto. No, Don Alfonso, emotions are not just a game, they are real, and people have deep, interesting, and highly individual emotional lives.
In Act One, the girls are not very different from one another, and both play-act at emotions with a grandiosity that signals an absence of authentic self-knowledge and real erotic experience. In Act Two, both discover depths of emotional response in themselves – in highly particular ways. Both Kerman and philosopher Bernard Williams focus on the duet between Fiordiligi and Ferrando, “Fra gli amplessi” (“In the embraces”), which shows Fiordiligi discovering love, and so discovering new capacities in herself. Emotions strike both of the lovers as mysterious, but also as totally real and urgent, as real as anything in the world can be. (And this is so, whether the emotions actually last or not: so long as they exist, they are both real and at the core of the person’s humanity.) The contrast between Fiordiligi’s Act One aria, where she is playing around with ideas of constancy like a would-be drama heroine, and this duet, with its soaring phrases and tremulous expression of passion, could not be more striking – and moving, too, as if we are seeing a mature woman being born. Kerman seems to prefer the emotions of the serious pair to those of the comic pair simply because they are serious. Williams’s preference for the serious pair must be understood in connection with his often-expressed preference for Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde as the operatic paradigm of genuine love. (In introducing the posthumous collection in which his article on Così appears, Williams’s widow notes that he tested their budding relationship by taking her to a performance of Tristan, to see how much she loved it!)
But this is Mozart, the same Mozart who shows again and again that playfulness and humor can be a supreme expression of love’s reciprocity. (And isn’t this an important truth in real life?) So I propose (contra Williams and Kerman, who are a bit contemptuous of the more light-hearted lovers) that we also do justice to the other pair. The moment in all opera that most unfailingly makes me weep for sheer joy at the precariousness and lovability of the world is Dorabella and Guglielmo’s Act Two duet, “ll core vi dono” (“I give you a heart”). The usual staging has him give her a heart-shaped locket as a token of love. She accepts it, and they then joke that the heart that was in one breast is now beating in the other’s: his heart (the locket) is now on her breast, and (she says) hers has now gone over there and is beating in his. The music first expresses tender playful alternation, and then, with the delicate staccatos of the line “E batte così” (“And beats just so”), they are suddenly together. (That’s where I cry, invariably.) “O cambio felice,” “O happy exchange.” Dorabella has already said that she chooses Guglielmo because he seems more playful – and one is painfully aware that Ferrando, her original fiancé, was therefore utterly wrong for her (and right for Fiordiligi), since he is all lofty sentiment and no play. And now, with Guglielmo, she suddenly finds what she wanted all along: in the intimacy of joking and play she finds love’s reality, as the hearts change places and then somehow beat in harmony, though from the opposite place.
In effect, as Kerman wittily puts it, the second act belongs not to Don Alfonso but to “Don Wolfgango,” who, being himself, took emotion very seriously – including its soaring heights but including, as well, its capacity for tender play – and probed the characters’ depths with varied and aching effect. By offering the maid Despina no corresponding individuality in passion, Mozart allows us to see that in this world emotional individuality requires leisure and may be incompatible with labor.
Act Two belongs to Mozart, but it must end as Da Ponte wrote it. Although the work has been staged in multiple ways, we are evidently supposed to think that the girls go back to their original partners. (Alfonso tells the lovers to marry the girls in spite of their fickleness, which implies that they take their original partners back. This is also the “lesson” intended from start to finish, in the libretto that is.) According to the libretto, there is no loss, because all is convention and emotions are factitious anyway. But given the music of Act Two, the ending is deeply disturbing, and the message finally conveyed a very unpleasant one: as Williams puts it, “the idea that emotions are indeed deep, indeed based on reality, but the world will go on as though they were not, and the social order, which looks to things other than those emotional forces, will win out.” We might even see in the work a critique of the institution of marriage, as inimical to genuine love, at least for women.
Williams thinks that Mozart and Da Ponte collaboratively create this dark and disturbing insight. I find more persuasive Kerman’s suggestion that the libretto is one thing, the music in some respects quite another, and Mozart is trapped by the contrivance of the libretto, creating an ending that turns out jarring and unsatisfying.
And what of the war to which the men march off, to cheerful choral song in praise of the military life? Is that part of the comic contrivance, or is it all too real? Might war not be another way in which the conventions of the world treat human emotions as if they do not matter? The present production suggests that the reality of a real war lies behind the comedy, and that this reality, leaving nothing as it was before, renders the ending yet darker. John Cox, original director of this production, writes me that, as he sees it, the entire comedy “is played out on the edge of this abyss,” and that the darkness of the ending derives from this background reality. This suggestion (whether it’s about the libretto or the music, or both) dovetails with the ideas I have been exploring, though it also suggests a different orientation for our attention. Such layers show the work’s multivocal richness. And they surely do not negate the music’s astonishing capacity for the expression of love’s risks and delights.
Martha C. Nussbaum