Così fan tutte or the School of Lovers

Article adapted from an original piece by A Venetian in Toronto


With the Carnival time approaching and the production of Così fan tutte in town, I have taken the chance to pen a few lines about this interesting opera by the genius duo of our very Italian librettist and libertine Lorenzo Da Ponte and Austrian musical prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The opera premiered on 26 January 1790 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the capital of the Hapsburg Empire and of the musical theatre of the time, following the two masterpieces of Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Mozart composed the score to the libretto by Da Ponte for the amount of 200 ducats, after another Italian musician – court composer Antonio Salieri – had refused to set the lascivious libretto to music.

The Characters

Set in Naples at the end of the 18th century, we find 6 characters, all equally important:

Dorabella and Fiordiligi, sisters, young ladies, have to bid farewell to their betrothed
Ferrando and Guglielmo, fiancés of the above
Don Alfonso, an old philosopher
Despina, the witty and coquettish maid of Dorabella and Fiordiligi

Picture from a production at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste, Italy

The Plot

The whole idea of the opera stems from one of Don Alfonso’s first lines: “È la fede delle femmine come l’Araba fenice: che vi sia ciascun lo dice, dove sia nessun lo sa!” (Women’s faith is like the Arabian phoenix: everybody claims its existence, whereabouts it lies nobody knows!).

The plot is simple and geometric. The love game is based on a four-player tournament, involving two couples of lovers (Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella e Ferrando). In addition, there is an old philosopher that triggers the game, questioning the two girls’ faith towards their fiancés. Despina, the young ladies’ maid, helps Don Alfonso make the scheme work out.

The title Così fan tutte roughly translates into English as ‘this is the way they (women) behave’ or, I daresay, ‘(they were) born this way.’ Of course, it is always the women, the gentle or weaker sex, as it was known in older times (but not too long ago), that has to be probed. Hence Guglielmo and Ferrando pretend they leave to go to war but come back in disguise, as Albanian aristocrats, to put to the test their girls’ faith.

The COC production

This production has been signed by Atom Egoyan and presents some valuable points: the director literally translates onto the stage the idea of the school of lovers. As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in a boarding school from the turn of the past century where Don Alfonso has become its headmaster and teacher of ‘Philosophy of Love’. His students – the chorus – are supposed to observe what happens to Fiordiligi and Dorabella as their faith is put to the test. Some gigantic butterflies tower above the stage and the set design from the end of the first act onwards, symbolizing the troubled male souls, since they are – as Guglielmo sings – like pining butterflies close to death, fleeting from flower to flower (“Farfallette amorose agonizzati”) because of the flame of female beauty.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Così fan tutte, 2019. Conductor Bernard Labadie, director Atom Egoyan, associate director Marilyn Gronsdal, set and costume designer Debra Hanson, and lighting designer Michael Walton. Photo: Michael Cooper

What to look forward to

Undoubtedly, without Mozart’s music, Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte would have been a flop, little more than a mediocre play to be soon forgotten given its uneventful plot line and its unexcused length. But Mozart did the magic and composed an unforgettable collection of beautiful and bewitching melodies and arias, to showcase the singers’ vocal skills and to highlight the characters’ emotions.

Here below I lay out a few musical pieces and arias you should definitely listen to and look forward to, may you be going to see this opera in the near future:

  • the overture
  • the trio “Soave sia il vento”
  • the aria “Come scoglio immoto resta”
  • “Una donna a quindici anni”
  • “Tradito schernito”
  • “Tutti accusan le donne ed io le scuso”
  • the finale.

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