The online opera guide to COSI FAN TUTTE
When Mozart wrote “Cosi fan tutte” in 1790, he was economically devastated. He wrote this opera in an incredible 2 months in his penultimat year of death. Mozart again offers us an abundance of melodies. Especially the ensemble scenes like the love duets “soave sia il vento” or “il mio cor vi dono” remain immortal.
OVERVIEW & QUICK ACCESS
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
ROLES AND SYNOPSIS OF COSI FAN TUTTE IN 4 MINUTES
Lorenzo Da Ponte
THE MAIN ROLES
Don Alfonso, old philosopher (bass) - Guglielmo, officer and fiancé of Fiordiligi (baritone) - Ferrando , officer and fiancé of Dorabella (bass) - Fiordiligi, lady of Ferrara (soprano) - Dorabella, lady of Ferrara, sister of Fiordiligi (mezzo-soprano) - Despina, chambermaid of the ladies (mezzo-soprano)
Warner Classics with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman, Lisa Otto, Léopold Simoneau, Ronaldo Panerai and Sesto Bruscantini conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus.
A libretto without a literary model
Da Ponte wrote this opera without a literary model. An anecdote says that the emperor himself told da Ponte a story where two men were said to have put their fiancés to the test after making a bet with a third. There may have been inspiration in literature as well, but whatever the case, the libretto must be considered its own. Throughout history, there were many art experts and artists who considered it too frivolous (including Wagner and Beethoven), and the opera’s success suffered as a result. “Cosi fan tutte” basically became popular only in the 20th century and since then it has been considered an important part of the so brightly shining triumvirate of Mozart – Da Ponte operas.
The history of the composition of “Cosi fan tutte”
When Mozart began writing “Cosi fan tutte” at the end of 1789, he was economically down. His finances had been in bad shape for almost four years, without him having cut back on his lifestyle for any length of time. The desperate trips to Frankfurt of 1789 and 1790 did not help, so he wanted to write the opera in the shortest possible time in order to get money into his empty pockets quickly. He began work on the score in November 1789 and on New Year’s Eve showed excerpts from the opera to various friends (including Joseph Haydn, whose opinion Mozart held in high esteem) and on January 26, after only 2 months, the premiere took place. The reception of the Viennese public was friendly but lukewarm. Mozart remained dogged by bad luck, for shortly thereafter his patron Emperor Joseph II died and after the fifth performance, due to the decreed state mourning, performances ceased.
No other opera by Mozart offers so many ensemble pieces as “Cosi fan tutte”, there are 13 pieces in total. The plot of the opera cries out for duets, trios, etc. Mozart was able to draw from a wealth of material, as his mastery of chamber music forms, such as string quartets with their polyphonic forms, provided the ideal foundation. As in all later operas, the orchestral treatment is virtuosic; the winds in particular are used in immense variety, creating magnificent colors. Mozart even uses a pure wind ensemble in one piece (“Secondate, aurette amiche”).
It is particularly striking how Mozart differentiated the singer roles. Fiordiligi calls for a dramatic coloratura soprano, Dorabella corresponds to the exact opposite, namely a lyrical mezzo-soprano. It is similar with the male counterparts: we meet a lyric tenor (Ferrando) and a buffo baritone (Guglielmo). In addition, there is the buffo bass (Alfonso) and a lyric coloratura soprano (Despina). For Mozart, the division of the roles into seria (F, F), mezza-buffa (D, G) and buffa (D,A) was extremely important in order to have a great musical diversity and to provide for variety. He could trust the audience to understand the codes of roles and to be able to correctly interpret the ambiguities that often make up the text and music of Mozart.
COSI FAN TUTTE ACT I
Shortly before beginning work on “Cosi fan tutte,” Mozart had composed his three grandiose last symphonies and was at the peak of his creative powers in the symphonic field. It is therefore not surprising that the overture is one of the absolute highlights of this opera. A respected musicologist even considered Cosi fan tutte to be “the most beautiful orchestral work of the entire 18th century.”
Ouverture – Marriner
Guglielmo, Ferrando meet Don Alfonso
Synospsis: Guglielmo and Ferrando, two officers of the Neapolitan army, are sitting in the coffee house. They are joined by the old philosopher Don Alfonso. The two young men rave about their fiancés and sing of their virtues and fidelity to them. Don Alfonso, who has become cynical through life, claims that no girl is eternally faithful. Indignantly, the two officers deny this to their lovers.
Mozart leads us right into the middle of the action with the effervescent motif of the violins. The experienced Don Alfonso (a retired Don Giovanni?) is faced with two impulsive young men.
Listen to this terzetto from Karl Böhm’s superb 1964 recording, which we will encounter several more times. Alfredo Kraus, Giuseppe Taddei and Walter Berry sing.
La mia Dorabella capace non è – Kraus / Taddei / Berry
Synospsis: But Alfonso sticks to his judgment: fidelity of women is like the Phoenix, everyone talks about it, but no one has ever seen it. The two young men are indignant and demand a duel. Whereupon Alfonso offers them a bet, they only have to let him have one day.
E’ la fede delle femmine – Lima / Monarsolo / Furlanetto
Synospsis: Guglielmo and Ferrando go for it. The three have set a betting sum of 300 zechines. The two men are already imagining what they will do with the money they have won.
The music begins with fiery military music. Mozart now differentiates the characters of the officers; he gives the passionate Ferrando a cantilena and the pleasure-seeking Guglielmo sings an all too worldly melody.
Una bella serenata – Araiza / van Dam / Allen
The sisters are in anticipation of the wedding
Synopsis: The two sisters, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, are in the garden. They rave about their fiancés and are already dreaming up their wedding.
It is simply magnificent how Mozart draws this scene of the two women in the garden to the sea. A soothing rhythm and delicate motifs of strings and winds evoke a painting of Arcadian tranquility and mild swells of the sea. The duet of the two women is exquisite, especially the coloratura in the thirds interval of the second part is beautifully composed.
Listen to the duet of the two Yankee divas (the term comes from Di Donato) Renee Fleming and Joyce di Donato in a wonderful concert excerpt.
Ah guarda sorella – Fleming / di Donato
Synopsis: Then Don Alfonso joins the ladies and, still in shock, tells them the terrible news that their fiancés must go to war. Ferrando and Guglielmo join the shaken women and confirm the conscription order.
The comedy begins. Mozart alternates contrapuntal and concurrent passages in the lively quintet, and the five singers meet vocally four times on the comedic “chi?”.
In the following recording we hear many protagonists of the famous Viennese ensemble, which was famous for its Mozart recording of the fifties. What was the philosophy behind it? “The conductor Josef Krips put it in the accepted formula that only an instrumentally led voice is a Mozart voice. That accuracy and flexibility, elegance and nobility were the foundations of Mozart singing” (Kesting). Listen to some of the protagonists of this permanent ensemble of the Vienna State Opera. Christa Ludwig, Lisa della Casa, Anton Dermota, Erich Kunz and Paul Schöffler sing.
Sento o Dio – Ludwig / della Casa / Dermota / Kunz / Schöffler
Synopsis: The two women are inconsolable and want to die. The two men are able to comfort them and they say goodbye to each other tenderly, Don Alonso stands by and smiles. He even has villagers dressed as soldiers escort them to their ship.
This farewell scene is so poignantly written that Don Alfonso listens intimately at the beginning, but then can no longer contain himself from laughing.
Di scrivermi ogni giorno – Lima / Furlanetto / Gruberova / Ziegler / Montarsolo
The great farewell scene – “Soave sia il vento”.
Synopsis: Wistfully, Alfonso and the two women look after the ship, which slowly moves away from them.
This trio is one of Mozart’s absolute greatest vocal pieces; he carries us off into a supernatural world. Mozart accompanies the three voices with muted violins imitating gentle waves. In addition, the quiet pizzicati of the low strings and long lines of the viola draw the tranquility of the landscape.
You will hear this terzetto in an interpretation by Christa Ludwig, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Walter Berry. This recording comes from the legendary Cosi fan tutte recording produced by Walter Legge.
Soave sia il vento (1) – Schwarzkopf / Ludwig / Berry
You will hear a second version in the Solti recording with von Otter, Fleming and Perrusi.
Soave sia il vento (2) – Solti / Fleming / von Otter
The arias of Dorabella and Despina
Synopsis: Dorabella is agitated. Relentless storms rage in her heart.
In her aria “Smanie implacabile,” the romantically inclined Dorabella gives expression to her anguish, the pain of which will lead her to her death. Mozart sets this aria to music dramatically, Dorabella repeating the ending “col suono orribile dei miei sospir” (the terrible sound of my sighs) several times until she sinks down exhausted. However, the notes seem a bit overly dramatic and pathetic, so this scene should be interpreted as overly comedic.
Listen to Elina Garanca in this aria of Dorabella.
Ah scostati … smanie implacabile – Garanca
Despina – a realist appears
Synopsis: The housekeeper Despina joins the two. She cannot understand the grief of the two. If their fiancées fall in the war, a replacement can be found quickly. And anyway, one should not expect fidelity from men in general and from soldiers in particular.
Mozart offers us a splendid portrait of Despina. She has learned in life that one should not expect fidelity in love and this aria is the unvarnished list of male flaws. So in her aria she plays with the word “fedeltà”, repeating it three times with more and more coloratura, so that anyone who believes in it must feel like a naive person. In the second part she complains, with acted indignation, that the men want to take the women for their pleasures with hypocritical tenderness and finally she asks the women to pay back the men in the same coin.
This piece gives a Despina, who is at the top of her profession, the opportunity to show in a short time the many comedic and singing aspects of this short aria. Cecilia Bartoli accomplishes this task with a wonderful blend of charm, elegance and cunning. Watch her acted indignation in “Non vi fate sentir per carità” or her mischievous facial expressions in “Chieder pietà”.
In uomini in soldati – Bartoli
The sextett «Alla bella Despinetta»
Synopsis: Don Alfonso bribes the housekeeper Despina to join in the game. Already Ferrando and Guglielmo enter disguised as Albanians and rave about the two beautiful ladies. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are indignant and want to have the two strangers thrown out of the house.
As the disguised Albanians step in front of Despina, a motif from the opening trio is heard in the woodwinds, revealing Ferrando and Guglielmo to the audience behind the disguise. After Fiordiligi and Dorabella appear and reject the two, the sextet begins that is musically divided into three duet parts.
Hear another great ensemble piece from the 1955 Karajan recording.
Alla bella despinetta – Schwarzkopf et al.
Come scoglio – Fiordiligi’s aria «Come scoglio»
Synopsis: Then Alfonso gets the idea to greet the two as old acquaintances. But Fiordiligi declares that her heart is as solid as a rock.
This piece of Fiordiligi is one of Mozart’s most difficult arias ever. The tonal range of the aria is large at nearly two octaves, and often several leaps fall into the same phrase. For example, in the first part, right at the beginning in the second line in “Contro venti e tempesta” to underline the dramatic nature of Fiordiligi’s statement “like a rock unshakable” (“Come scoglio”). In the second part (“Cosi ognor”) we hear the romantic, rapturous Fiordiligi. In the third part she sings with greater determination the “Come scoglio” passage (“death alone is able to turn the sentiment”). The aria ends with a beautiful but demanding passage with many coloraturas, which must be sung at a fast tempo and with much intensity and partly in a very high register.
Fiordiligi was one of the five central roles Elisabeth Schwarzkopf played in her life (along with the Marschallin, Donna Elvira and the two Countesses in “Le nozze di Figaro” and “Capriccio”). Her singing style and voice were perfectly suited to these roles. Perhaps there was no greater Fiordiligi than Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Come scoglio (1) – Schwarzkopf
A second recording you will hear is by Kiri Te Kanawa. It is more expressive than the one by Schwarzkopf, whose interpretation seems more inward-looking.
Come scoglio (2) – Te Kanawa
The arias of the Albanians in disguise – “Un aura amorosa”.
Synopsis: Guglielmo tries it with Dorabella, but is unsuccessful with his advances. The two men triumph over the steadfastness of their fiancée. Ferrando says that a heart nourished by love needs no other food, and therefore they need not fear that their betrothed will weaken.
This aria is a lyrical resting point. Accompanied by muted violins and warm bass sounds, Ferrando sings a romantic aria.
Ferrando’s aria “Un’aura amorosa” belongs to the exclusive circle of highlights of the opera. Listen to the aria interpreted by Léopold Simoneau from the Karajan recording. Kesting (“Grosse Stimmen”): “The Karajan recording is one of the great Mozart recordings of the century. It is more than technically perfect, namely miraculous in its liveliness and subtlety. Simoneau sings his part with indescribable tonal sweetness.”
Un aura amorosa (1) – Simoneau
A second recording you will hear is by Jonas Kaufmann, recorded in 1998 at the very beginning of his career. Kaufmann describes in his book “Jonas Kaufmann” (by Thomas Voigt) how this recording came about. He got a call from the great director Giorgio Strehler. A first audition was excellent and the engagement almost a foregone conclusion. But a little later Strehler found Kaufmann too old. Kaufmann was only 27, but a few weeks later Strehler approached him again and the collaboration worked. Kaufmann was highly impressed by Strehler, the man of the theater, precisely because he did not dictate everything, but asked the singers to think along with him. Unfortunately for Kaufmann, Strehler died a few weeks before the first performance of this Milanese Cosi fan tutte.
Un aura amorosa (2) – Kaufmann
Fiordiligi and Dorabella are disturbed
Synopsis: Fiordiligi and Dorabella sit in the garden, distressed.
Introduced by a painfully sweet motif in the violins and an elegant flute motif, the enchanting duet of the two women begins, reminiscent of the Arcadian duet of their first appearance. However, a touch of melancholy hangs over the scene, which the two women nostalgically evoke in beautiful singing in thirds.
You are listening to a beautiful recording of this duet with the dream cast of Christa Ludwig and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf with the delicate but never cloying accompaniment by Karl Böhm.
Ah, che tutta in un momento – Ludwig / Schwarzkopf
The finale of the first act of Cosi fan tutte
Synopsis: Don Alfonso and Despina do not give up and Don Alfonso comes up with an idea: the two Albanians pretend to take poison out of desperation because of unrequited love. They swallow arsenic in front of the women. Despina, disguised as a doctor, is called in to save them. This suicide attempt moves the two women, but they are not (yet) ready to accept the kiss of thanks from the rescued men.
Si mora, si mora – Gruberova / Ziegler / Stratas / Furlanetto / Lima / Montarsolo
The first act ends with a lively sextet accompanied by a coarse minuet and with a comedic Despina (listen to Despina’s great trill) taking the mickey out of a quack known in Mozart’s day.
We listen to the recording from the Karajan recording.
Eccovi il medico – Gruberova / Ziegler / Stratas / Furlanetto / Lima / Montarsolo
COSI FAN TUTTE ACT II
In the chamber of women
Synopsis: Despina is with the two women and explains how to wrap men around one’ s finger.
In this aria of Despina’s, we repeatedly hear the somewhat awkward use of the horns, which prophesies the future action and thus the “horned” fiancées.
See Cecilia Bartoli at the age of 24 in a recording from 1990.
Una donna da qunidici anni – Bartoli
Synopsis: Dorabella, already fickle, sees no breach of faith in merely having a little fun rather than dying of boredom. It quickly becomes apparent that both have their favorite.
The mood of the two sisters has turned. This piece is a light-footed but demanding duet with many coloraturas, some of which are parallel.
Listen to the recording with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Nan Merriman from the Karajan recording.
Prendero quel brunettino – Merriman / Schwarzkopf
The magical serenade
Synopsis: In the garden, the two men serenade their beloved.
The two men change their strategy and use the weapon of a serenade. Mozart accompanies the yearning song only with wind instruments and lets it fade away quietly from a distant choir. It is a moment of peace, a brief, enchanted pause in which lyrical tranquility reigns, making us forget the deceptions and malignancies we have experienced.
Secondate, aurette amiche – Simoneau / Panerai
The beautiful adoration of Dorabella
Synopsis: Don Alfonso asks the ladies to make their choice. Separately, the couples go for a walk. Dorabella is the first to be caught. Guglielmo’s courtship is effective, and he quietly pities Ferrando. He even succeeds in exchanging Ferrando’s medallion, which Dorabella wears around her neck, with his own.
This seductive duet has been poetized by Da Ponte with ambiguous verses, but Mozart seems to elude it. He writes another beautiful love duet with beating hearts.
Hear a wonderfully languorous, romantic Bryn Terfel in duet with Cecilia Bartoli.
Il cor vi dono – Bartoli / Terfel
Fiordiligi’s internal struggles and Ferrando’s futile attempt
Synopsis: Ferrando also tries his luck. But Fiordiligi remains steadfast.
This aria calls for a vocally agile tenor who masters the coloratura of this aria and is secure in the high notes: the melody is repeated three times, spiraling each time higher.
Listen to Francisco Araiza, a proven Mozart tenor.
A lo veggio – Araiza/Marriner
Synopsis: Fiordiligi must secretly admit to herself that her heart beats for this romantic suitor, and in her mind she begs her absent fiancé for forgiveness.
Probably Da Ponte had assigned two arias each to both sisters, one of which was to be serious, and the other comedic. In Dorabella’s case, we can observe it this way. But Fiordiligi’s second aria (after the serious “Come scoglio”) remains reflective. If “Come scoglio” was rather dramatic and designed with coloratura, in “Per pietà ben mio” the singer must be able to hold the tension of the cantilenas over the comparatively long duration of the aria. Large, dramatic leaps of tone characterize the first, recitative-like section. The following Allegro captivates with the beautiful dialogue of the voice with the lovely sounds of the horns.
“Singing with soul” was an attribute with which Irmgard Seefried was always associated. She never spared herself or her voice. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who often sang with her, said “with her you could hear how far you could go in expression.” Listen to this aria as interpreted by Irmgard Seefried.
Per pietà ben mio – Seefried
Dorabella assigns the blame to Cupid
Synopsis: Guglielmo shows the shocked Ferrando the amulet and is delighted with the steadfastness of his Fiordiligi. Ferrando is devastated. Jealousy and vindictiveness eat away at him. In the room, Despinetta congratulates Dorabella on her catch. Dorabella does not take the blame, but elegantly assigns it to Cupid, the god of love.
Mozart portrays a young carefree Dorabella in this aria.
Listen to the interpretation by Elina Garanca.
È amore un ladroncello – Garanca
Mozart’s great love scene of Fiordiligi and Ferrando
Synopsis: Fiordiligi confesses to Dorabella that she has fallen in love. But she wants to remain firm. She orders Despinetta to fetch her men’s uniforms. She wants to fight her way to her fiancées with Dorabella and die in battle if necessary. But the next time she meets Ferrando, she too weakens when he pretends to kill himself with a dagger out of lovesickness. She finally gives herself to the wooing Albanian.
This passage has a prominent place in the opera. Mozart and Da Ponte conceived it unusually. We first meet Fiordiligi in thought. She is in anticipation of her imminent reunion with her fiancé. Her aria is suddenly interrupted by Ferrando, who takes up her melody and then makes a slow, romantic declaration of love to her (“Volgi a me”). Accompanied by a romantic oboe cantilena, Fiordiligi is smitten; three times she repeats “Giusto ciel!” (“God in heaven”), with a crescendo from the orchestra she cries “Crudel!”, and after a languorous oboe passage she cries “Fa’ di me quel che ti par” (“Do with me what you will”). Then the two end the piece with a wonderful, harmonic duet (the metaphor of the consummated act).
Astonished, we rub our eyes. Wasn’t this a serious love duet? Mozart writes such heavenly music for the “wrong” couples. Remember the love duet of Guglielmo and Dorabella with the beating heart (“Il mio cor vi dono”), wasn’t that also heavenly? Is that what comedy is all about?
Listen and see Edita Gruberova and Luis Lima in this soulful duet.
Fra gli amplessi – Gruberova / Lima
Synopsis: Now it is up to Ferrando to get angry with his fiancée.
Listen to Thomas Hampson in Donne mie la fate a tanti.
Donne mie la fate a tanti – Hampson
Synopsis: For Alfonso, the fall of Fiordiligi was not a surprise, because “Cosi fan tutte”.
Now we understand the overture better and recognize the musical motif from the overture:
Tutti accusan le donne – Montarsolo
The dramatic finale begins
Synopsis: Now nothing stands in the way of a marriage and hectic preparations of the wedding feast are on the agenda.
Fate presto, o cari amici – Stratas / Montarsolo
Synopsis: In seventh heaven, the four await the wedding.
Before the intricacies of the ending, Mozart wrote a rapturous canon for three voices. Only Guglielmo withdraws from the singing; he is too disappointed in his Fiordiligi.
E nel tuo, nel mio bicchiero – Gruberova / Ziegler / Furlanetto / Lima
Synopsis: Alfonso arranges a double wedding with Despina disguised as a notary. No sooner is the ink dry under the marriage contract than the surprise arrival of the officers announces itself. The two gentlemen flee and the two women have to confess in shame everything to the two returnees . But the comedy is not yet finished. Guglielmo and Ferrando dissolve the masquerade and reveal themselves as the former Albanians. The women almost lose their minds. Don Alfonso pockets the money and reconciles the wiser couples.
The unmasking is comedic, accompanied by musical quotations such as Ferrando’s love motif or Despina’s long trill as former “Medico”. With a final concertato this great comedy ends.
Sani e salvi – Gruberova / Ziegler Stratas / Furlanetto / Lima / Montarsolo
WARNER CLASSICS, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman, Lisa Otto, Léopold Simoneau, Ronaldo Panerai and Sesto Bruscantini conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus.
Peter Lutz, Opera-inside, the online opera guide to COSI FAN TUTTE by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.