Music by Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

World premiere Jan. 26, 1790, in Vienna

Santa Fe Opera production directed by R.B. Schlather, conducted by Harry Bicket

The story

Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry; Dale Travis on July 17) wagers Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Guglielmo (Jarrett Ott) that he can cause Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski) and Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo) to fall in love with other men. With Despina’s (Tracy Dahl) help, he launches a charade in which the men pretend to be called to the front. They return disguised as Albanians and woo each other’s fiancées. The sisters reject them at first, until the “Albanians” attempt suicide (with fake poison), awakening some attraction. Encouraged by Despina, the women begin a flirtation as the men redouble their pursuit. Fiordiligi resists longer than Dorabella, but both surrender to the dashing foreigners. On the brink of marriage, the “Albanians” slip out and return as themselves. When the truth comes out the women are chagrined, but Alfonso says the men are just as much to blame. Everyone vows to lead a life ruled by reason and a sense of humor.

The composer

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart is one of the few composers to have written masterpieces in every musical genre extant during his lifetime. Born into a musical family in 1756, he was a child prodigy as a keyboard player and improviser, giving public performances from the age of six. Mozart wrote his first stage work at age 11, with 18 more to follow before his untimely death in 1791. Beginning in 1781, he composed six incontrovertible operatic masterpieces, beginning with Idomeneo and continuing with The Abduction From the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, in addition to Così fan tutte. Mozart was also an enthusiastic theatergoer, a perceptive critic of actors and authors, and a would-be playwright, undertaking at least two scripts of his own.

The librettist

Lorenzo Da Ponte was the finest librettist active in Italian opera during the late 18th century, thanks to his theatrical sensibilities, facility with verse, sharply observed comedy skills, and encyclopedic knowledge of drama and classical poetry. He had originally trained for the priesthood, which proved incompatible with his passions for radical politics and married women. Most of his nearly 60 librettos were adaptations of existing works; Così fan tutte is one of two exceptions. He also collaborated with Mozart on The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Late in life, Da Ponte moved to America, obtained U.S. citizenship, and became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian.

The historical context

Così fan tutte can be viewed as the quintessence of the Enlightenment, the 18th-century movement that believed “The proper study of mankind is man,” as Alexander Pope put it in An Essay on Man. Da Ponte’s text framed the test of lovers’ fidelity within contemporary values of rationality, clarity, vigor, and self-awareness. The opera is subtitled “The School for Lovers,” with Don Alfonso personifying the spirit of scientific inquiry and man as his experimental subject. The superficially perfect world of the lovers is deconstructed, examined, and then reassembled. But underneath the structural symmetries and Enlightenment values in Così fan tutte, real human drama and deep emotions are at work, especially as Act 2 progresses. Ferrando and Fiordiligi, in particular, display a musical and emotional gravitas that would be at home in the coming Romantic era. The score and text are silent on who partners with whom romantically in the Act 2 finale. Theatrical conventions of the era would mandate that the original pairings are restored, but regardless of which choice a director makes today, there is a sense that newly unleashed feelings and emotions may lead to further surprises. The opera must end but the drama may be just beginning.

The critics

Frustratingly little information exists about the opera’s premiere and reception, in part because musical journalism didn’t exist in Austria at the time. Mozart mentioned Così fan tutte just twice in letters relating to his promised fee, and Da Ponte mentioned it only in his semi-factual autobiography, written decades later. A German journal referred to the opera simply as “excellent,” with few further details, and a contemporary Viennese diarist found the music “charming” and the story “rather amusing.” The Burgtheater’s box office records show that its premiere was the best-attended performance of the 1789-1790 season. The Romantic era didn’t know what to make of the opera, viewing the text as simultaneously deplorably frivolous and dangerously erotic. For nearly a century, it was performed in truncated, bowdlerized, or heavily adapted versions far removed from the original. One adaptation even replaced Da Ponte’s entire text with a version of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Conductor Harry Bicket on what excites him most in this production

“For me, it’s the cast. They’re young, they’re brilliant onstage, and they understand that the technical aspect of singing the music well is just the beginning of getting to the heart of this piece.”

Emily D’Angelo on the characteristics that describe Dorabella

“She’s fun-loving, impulsive, curious, rebellious, and at times, explosive. This is her first time being in love, and she’s especially confounded by the physical attraction she feels.”

Keyboardist Clinton Smith on playing for the semi-spoken parts, called recitatives

“It’s a blast! There’s no written score for what I do, so I improvise, following Mozart’s harmonies as they change. The timing and delivery of the lines is all created during rehearsals.”

Rod Gilfry on performing Don Alfonso after many productions as Guglielmo

“I think Don Alfonso is a 40-year-older version of Guglielmo. They have similar histories, with a deeply rooted pain caused by someone they loved. He and Despina go back a long time, and this is definitely not the first time they’ve wised up some young lovers.”

FYI

The opera’s title comes from The Marriage of Figaro, which was also written by Mozart and Da Ponte. During a trio in the first act of Figaro, one of the characters claims, “Così fan tutte le belle” (“Women are all alike”).

Mozart used “Amadeus” as his middle name only when jokingly referring to himself as “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus.” In everyday life, he most often used Amadè, and occasionally Amadi or Amado. (Consistency in spelling names was not a hallmark of the 18th century.)

Setting the opera in Naples was not a random choice. Then, as now, Naples had a reputation as a city where hedonistic pleasures and romantic or sexual assignations flourished.

The smoldering Mount Vesuvius, just across the Bay of Naples, was a frequent metaphor for passion barely suppressed. When Dorabella succumbs to Guglielmo’s wooing in Act 2, she says, “I seem to have Vesuvius in my breast.”

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