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Composed: 1789
Length: c. 180 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, strings, chorus, and soloists

It was not until he was 14 years old that Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) actually became Lorenzo da Ponte, in a purely nominal sense. Previously he had been Emanuele Conegliano, the oldest son of a Jewish tanner in Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto, then a small town in the Republic of Venice). But in 1763 his father converted to Christianity, had his three sons baptized, and took a second wife, giving his sons an 18-year-old stepmother. As was customary, the new converts took the surname of their sponsor, Bishop Lorenzo da Ponte, and the oldest son also adopted his first name. The new Lorenzo da Ponte was soon in seminary training and was ordained in 1773.

Da Ponte taught in seminaries himself, but in December 1779 he was exiled from Venice after taking rash political sides and becoming involved in a marital scandal. He found refuge in Dresden with a friend, the poet and librettist Caterino Mazzolà, who put him to work translating plays and librettos. Mazzolà recommended Da Ponte to Antonio Salieri, then one of the leading opera composers, and in late 1781 Da Ponte travelled to Vienna to meet Salieri. Da Ponte’s personal charm and knowledge of languages helped ingratiate him to Salieri and to the emperor, Joseph II. When Joseph dropped German opera in favor of Italian opera buffa in 1783, Da Ponte was named poet for the court theater, translating and reworking old librettos as needed.

That was how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) first knew Da Ponte. In May 1783, Mozart wrote from Vienna to his father in Salzburg: “We have a certain Abate da Ponte here as a text poet; he has an incredible number of revisions to do at the theater – he also has to do per obligo a whole new libretto for Salieri – which he won’t be able to finish for two months. He promised to write me something new after that; but who knows whether he will keep his word – or even wants to! You know, these Italian gentlemen, they are very nice to your face – enough, we know all about them! – and if he is in league with Salieri, I’ll never get a text from him – and I would love to show here what I can really do with an Italian opera.”

Da Ponte eventually did write a libretto for Mozart, although he made the composer wait three years. When he came through, however, it was with a masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The new opera was a major success in its premiere run in May 1786, the kind that created a broad demand to be met by other productions elsewhere. One of those was by an Italian opera company in Prague headed by Pasquale Bondini, in December 1786 and January 1787, when Mozart himself was in town. The composer ended up conducting one of the performances, leading an orchestral concert featuring his new “Prague” Symphony (the nickname came later, owing to the work’s enormous popularity in that city), and improvising on the piano on the Figaro aria “Non più andrai” (a local favorite, which would have implications for his next opera). When he left, he had a commission from the company for a new work for the following season.

That would be Don Giovanni, which had its premiere in Prague in October, 1787. Mozart then went almost two increasingly desperate years without a major commission of any kind, until a Viennese revival of Figaro in August of 1789 prompted the Emperor to ask Mozart for a new opera, with Da Ponte again the librettist.

Neither Figaro nor Don Giovanni was original in its plot and characterization, although the crisp language and pacing was pure Da Ponte. The librettist did not rework a current play or libretto for Così fan tutte, but the basic idea of disguises and testing lovers had ample precedent, both ancient and contemporary.

“If you need to steal a diamond necklace from an apartment you hire a second-story man; if you need someone to follow literary tradition into a dark alley, knock it on the head, rifle through its pockets for plots and tropes, and sprint away, you go to Da Ponte,” wrote lawyer and opera aficionado Ken White recently, in a long and acutely funny post about Così on his Popehat blog. “Da Ponte threw together a cross between a morality play, a farce, and a disguise comedy quickly, and Mozart scored it with immortal music with astonishing speed.” (White’s post is also musically sensitive and sensible, guided by Denis Forman’s A Night at the Opera.)

That process actually took place over about four months, beginning in September 1789, with a first rehearsal in Mozart’s apartment on New Year’s Eve. The new opera opened in the Burgtheater January 26, 1790, with the same company that had done the recent Figaro revival and the Vienna version of Don Giovanni. It had four more performances before the death of the Emperor in February closed all the theaters for a period of public mourning. Five more performances took place that summer in Vienna, followed the next year with performances in Prague, Leipzig, and Dresden in the original Italian, and in Frankfurt, Mainz, and Amsterdam in German.

After Mozart’s death the opera largely faded from the repertory during the next century, except in Germany, where it occasionally appeared, usually in highly edited versions, under different titles, and even with entirely new librettos. The opera did not reach the U.S. until 1922.

The full title of the opera is Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti, usually translated as something like “All Women Behave That Way, or the School for Lovers.” Da Ponte took that cryptic first phrase from Act I of The Marriage of Figaro, where Don Basilio sings “Così fan tutte le belle.” The overture to Così echoes that musical phrase in fleet and flickering woodwind exchanges in its main Presto section, a quicksilver sonata-form movement. More important, the overture has a short, slow introduction that ends with a soft-loud cadence that is later sung to the title words. This cadence forms a motto of sorts for the opera, and Mozart repeats it at the end of the overture, bringing the flutter back down to earth.

Ever the neoclassicist, Da Ponte faithfully observed the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action in Così. The opera’s events take place in a single day in Naples (originally roughly contemporaneous), and everything drives the single plot line. He kept the active roles to six, in three pairs: the two sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella; the young military officers who love them, Guglielmo and Ferrando; and the worldly connivers Don Alfonso (“an old philosopher”) and Despina (the sisters’ maid). Mozart and Da Ponte play with this symmetry in an opera filled with stunning ensembles, breaking down and recombining the groupings in almost every permutation.

The opera opens with a morning scene in a coffee shop, with Ferrando and Guglielmo hotly praising the virtue and faithfulness of the sisters that they love, already apparently in response to some cynical remark by Don Alfonso. The latter dismisses their claims as naïve fantasies, with the first reference to that motto from the overture. Alfonso wagers that the women’s faithfulness would not last even a day without them, which he will prove if they obey him by attempting in disguise to seduce each other’s sweetheart. Ferrando and Guglielmo are happy to take that bet, and each describe how they will spend the money they are confident of winning. The whole scene is essentially three revolving 2+1 trios in the best buffo style, ending with a vivacious orchestral coda.

The next scene, of course, offers the flip side of that coin, as Fiordiligi and Dorabella walk in a garden extolling the operatically exaggerated wonders of love, in rapturous thirds set up by the orchestral clarinets. Then Don Alfonso enters “to club the baby seal of love with the crude implement of plot contrivance” (Ken White again), with the agitated minor-mode announcement that the two men have been suddenly called away to active military duty. The first of the scene’s two superbly characterized quintets ensues, the two young officers solemn about their duty, the sisters highly distressed. At that, Ferrando and Guglielmo cannot resist making self-satisfied asides to Alfonso, who is not at all persuaded by the freely flowing emotions. The chorus sings a catchy march, to stress the military motivation, and a fresh quintet of leave-taking begins, the ecstatically miserable lovers promising daily letters while Alfonso makes sarcastic comments and tries not to laugh. The military chorus carries off the officers, and Alfonso supports the sisters in an urgent and moving prayer for safe travel. Once they exit, however, he launches into a summary of his plans that grows into a tirade about trusting women, with a bitterness that suggests some unhappy experiences of his own.

The following scene introduces Despina, who is preparing chocolate for Fiordiligi and Dorabella in a room of their house. The sisters, however, are still lamenting the departure of their lovers. Despina offers them a different take on Alfonso’s worldly philosophy: since the men cannot be expected to be faithful, their absence should be an opportunity for the women to enjoy themselves with others. The sisters leave, repulsed by this advice. Alfonso seizes the moment to recruit Despina in the effort to win his wager, without telling her all the details. Ferrando and Guglielmo enter, disguised as mustachioed Albanians. Turks were the go-to comic exotics for Viennese audiences, but Austria was at war with the Turks at the time, so Da Ponte went with Albanians as a close approximation. Despina has some fun with the over-the-top ethnic charade, although she does not recognize them. When the sisters come back into the room, they are outraged to find these strange men in the house, with Fiordiligi vigorously asserting that she stands firm as a rock in a tempestuous parody aria with astonishing leaps over a huge range. Guglielmo tries to make an impression, but the sisters flounce out again before he is finished. The three men share a laughing trio, the lovers certain they have won the bet, Alfonso insisting that the more the women protest, the more certainly they will succumb. Ferrando is left alone for a sweetly sentimental reflection, with the muted strings and clarinets suggesting its relationship to Fiordiligi’s earlier aria.

The Act I finale finds the sisters in the garden, picking up Ferrando’s yearning mood. But the men burst in, and Ferrando and Guglielmo dramatically swallow poison, overwhelmed by being rejected. Panic ensues, and Alfonso and Despina rush out to find a doctor. They return with one – Despina in disguise – who treats the men with then-trendy Mesmerism and a magnet. The revived men declare that they must be in paradise, and demand kisses from the resident goddesses. They are again refused, and the act ends with the sisters defending honor and constancy, to the approval of their disguised lovers and the jeering asides of Alfonso and Despina. Mozart defines each character and mood swing with marvelous acuity and loving invention.

By this time it is mid-afternoon. Despina opens Act II, persuading her employers that a little flirtation could do no harm. Fiordiligi and Dorabella each choose one of the Albanians, unknowingly opting for the other’s real lover.

The scene shifts to the garden by the sea, where Ferrando and Guglielmo have prepared a voluptuous serenade for them. With encouragement from Alfonso and Despina, the new couples stroll around the garden. Guglielmo rather quickly succeeds with Dorabella, getting her to replace Ferrando’s locket with one of his own. Fiordiligi is horrified by the temptation Ferrando presents, ending almost in despair, with more vocal leaps and coloratura demonstrating her agitation, in a rich, wind-dominated orchestral context. Ferrando is furious when he hears of Guglielmo’s success with Dorabella, and resolves to try harder with Fiordiligi.

Back inside, Dorabella defends her incipient affair with the disguised Guglielmo against her sister’s protests. Left alone, Fiordiligi decides to spurn her new suitor and to join her old lover at war. She is secretly being observed by the men, however, and Ferrando comes in to change her aria into a duet, gradually taking it over with great musical intimacy and seemingly sincere affection. After, it is Gugliemo’s turn for anger; Alfonso tells the two that the best revenge (for their own seductions) is to marry the “plucked crows.” The three of them sing the Così motto, Alfonso leading, Ferrando and Guglielmo responding.

The finale begins with choral-infused preparations for the wedding. Fiordiligi, Dorabella, and Ferrando sing a toast in canon, with Guglielmo left muttering bitter asides. Alfonso brings in a notary – Despina in another disguise. The women sign the marriage contract, but then the military march from Act I is heard again, creating sudden consternation as it signals the apparent return of Ferrando and Guglielmo. The Albanians are sent out, allowing them to reappear in their true guise and pretend confusion, then outrage, about the situation. After much posturing, recrimination, and pleading (to superbly characterized music), all is revealed and forgiven.

The anticlimactic obligatory moral, sung by all six, is the ironic wisdom of Alfonso: laugh when the world gives you cause to cry and find peace in reason. Succeeding generations did not find this a compelling rationale for the (mostly implied) licentiousness of the proceedings, the cruelty of the misguided hoax, and/or the double standard so casually accepted. The ending does not specify exactly how the lovers are now united, and many modern productions suggest that all of the confused seduction has revealed true love, leaving the couples in their “Albanian” pairing.

Mozart lavished an overflowing measure of his musical gifts on vivid psychological and emotional characterization that humanizes the actors, no matter how much they are pushed by plot contrivances. “Così fan tutte is likely to remain a disturbing experience because of, not despite, its aesthetic attractions,” writes Julian Rushton in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera. “The libretto may be Da Ponte’s most original, but its superb pacing does not mask its potential triviality. Mozart found in it ways to seek out hitherto unplumbed depths in the human psyche, making the uncut whole, for an increasing number of commentators, the profoundest of his Italian comedies.”

 

John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.