By Gianmarco Segato, Adult Programs Manager
Like Don Giovanni which came before it, Mozart’s Così fan tutte is identified in its libretto as a dramma giocoso, an Italian term for operas that contain both comic and tragic elements. Conventionally thought of as light, frothy and joyful, Così is also shot through with a decidedly poignant, sad and cynical edge. Our responses are always being played with: the two sisters are clearly devastated when their fiancés must go off to war and the men join in on their sorrow… and yet, we know the latter two are just play-acting. This constant state of ambivalence might partly explain the opera’s difficult critical history.
Unlike Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro – Mozart’s two previous successes with the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte – Così fan tutte does not follow the normal pattern we expect in a play or an opera: there is no hero nor any one character who grabs the audience’s immediate attention the way, say, the scandalous Don Giovanni does. The other stumbling block which plagued this opera for the first 100 years of its existence is the manner in which audiences reacted to what they perceived to be its controversial subject matter (two sisters falling in love with each other’s fiancés). Even once Così had finally re-entered the standard repertoire in the 1930s it was treated with little respect, suffering brutal cuts, including Dorabella’s short Act I aria “Smanie implacabili,” (“implacable restlessness”) one of only two arias she gets to sing in the entire opera!
Mozart uses an astonishing variety of instrumentation in Così resulting in a sound-world particular to its Italian setting in a villa just outside the coastal city of Naples. For example, the extensive use of the clarinet creates a languid, voluptuous atmosphere meant to evoke the sunny southern landscape with its bracing sea air, precipitous sea vistas and lazy afternoons on the beach.
Musical Excerpt #1
Act I, terzettino: “Soave sia il vento” (“May the wind blow softly”)
Connection to the Story
Fiordiligi, Dorabella and Don Alfonso wish Ferrando and Guglielmo a safe voyage.
Mozart achieves a startlingly realistic effect at the start of this trio by using the upper string section of the orchestra to imitate the sound of the rippling sea – very appropriate as Fiordiligi and Dorabella send their fiancés off to war on a boat! The harmonious union of the voices at 00:07 produces a sweet effect which telegraphs their sincere, heartfelt wishes that Ferrando and Guglielmo be blessed with good weather on their journey. However at 1:24, Mozart introduces a dissonance within all this tonal gorgeousness, specifically on the word “desir” (“desires”), as if to say “be careful what you wish for.” The girls want their fiancés to return but the mild discord in the harmony indicates perhaps the men will come back changed or that the women will be terribly deceived in their wishes. The beauty of this trio is further soured by its underlying sense of irony: its scintillating strings and heart-tugging harmonies are powerful enough to make us believe that even the cynical Don Alfonso (the mastermind of the plot to test the two girls’ constancy) is emotionally affected by this “heartfelt” farewell. However, listen at 1:51 as his vocal line snakes up and down, hinting at a repressed deviousness, even though he expresses the same “calm sea and prosperous voyage” sentiment as the women.
Musical Excerpt #2
Act I, aria: “In uomini, in soldati” (“In men, in soldiers”)
Connection to the Story
Despina pours scorn on the notion that men can remain faithful.
Generally, it’s possible to divide the type of music Mozart wrote for Così into two categories: there is the sublime, grand music of the ensembles (excerpt #1) and virtuoso arias (excerpt #3). But between these two general types we can find buffa (comic) elements, embodied in the character of the servant, Despina. Her role fits into a category of soprano characters collectively known as the “soubrette,” usually sung by lighter, lyric voices. Other soubrette characters written by Mozart include Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Zerlina in Don Giovanni. The orchestration for Despina’s music tends to be a little thinner than in other parts of the opera: in this aria we hear Mozart using just one flute, one oboe and one bassoon (rather than the expected two). The aria starts out with a frank reflection: “You look for fidelity in men, in soldiers? Don’t tell me that, for pity’s sake!” and continues on in this expository manner until 1:34. At this point, Despina’s playful nature comes to the fore with a more jaunty melody, and then some appropriately coy interplay with the orchestra as she sings “let’s love them to suit our convenience and our vanity!” (2:02 – 2:08).
Musical Excerpt #3
Act I, aria: “Come scoglio immoto resta” (“Steady as a rock”)
Connection to the Story
After being introduced by Don Alfonso to his two “Albanian” friends (really Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise), Fiordiligi dismisses their advances, declaring that her constancy is as firm as a rock.
This is decidedly the biggest solo aria in the opera and probably one of the most challenging in the history of the genre, barring some arias in later bel canto works and the stamina-testing, heavily orchestrated music of German composer Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883).
From a technical point of view, this aria makes huge demands: the singer must be able to encompass the extreme highs and lows of her range, often with very little time in between (0:19 – 0:40); there are several passages that are difficult to negotiate, full of scales, trills and leaps (1:46 – 2:06) and, the piece also demands plenty of spitfire temperament!
It’s generally agreed that in “Come scoglio,” Mozart was taking on the tradition of the grand showpiece aria, which would have been treated with dead seriousness in the earlier period of opera seria. Here though, it’s almost as if Fiordiligi is being mocked: just as she is saying “I’m like a rock that remains unmoved,” musically, the rock has already fallen and we, the audience, know she is doomed. Listen from 3:03 where the vocal line becomes extremely unstable with the singer having to sing scale after scale, never really settling into any kind of melody – all the while protesting her absolute steadfast commitment to Ferrando!
Musical Excerpt #4
Act II, duetto (“duet”): “Il core vi dono” (“I give my heart to you”)
Connection to the Story
Guglielmo pursues Dorabella, giving her a heart-shaped locket. He asks for hers in return.
This is the only true love duet in the opera (which perhaps speaks to a cynical strain running through this opera, given that it’s supposed to be entirely about amorous relationships.)
Even though they have yet to discover their love, the piece begins with such a lovely melody for Guglielmo that there is little doubt where their relationship is headed. Again, as in the excerpt #1 trio, Mozart laces this duet with a bit of irony: it is traditional to view Dorabella as the light-hearted sister, and Guglielmo as the frivolous ladies’ man, but here, they sound very serious in their expressions of love. As we heard in Despina’s aria (excerpt #2), the vocal lines are given the simplest orchestral support until we come to the long coda (that is, the end piece, starting at 3:10) when we hear delicious frissons from the violins and some tremulous flutterings from the woodwinds which are entirely appropriate to the couple’s burgeoning feelings. There are also onomatopoeic elements in the orchestration: listen at 1:24 for the detached figures in the strings which mimic heartbeats just at the point they sing the words, “ei batte così” (“and that’s what’s beating so”).
The tracks listed above are excerpted from Così fan tutte, Decca 478 3050. Chamber Orchestra of Europe; London Voices, Sir Georg Solti, conductor. Renée Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, Olar Bär, Frank Lopardo, Adelina Scarabelli, Michele Pertusi.
Photo: (banner) Preliminary costume sketch by set and costume designer Debra Hanson, for the COC's new production of Cosi fan tutte, 2013.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001