One of the greatest artistic partnerships in musical history reached the last of its great trio of operas with the composition of Cosi fan Tutte (‘Thus do all Women’) in 1790. Mozart had met Lorenzo da Ponte at the home of Baron von Wetzlar in Vienna in 1783 and the two were immediately intrigued by each other’s genius. Da Ponte was Court Poet to Emperor Joseph II in Vienna and his duties included writing operatic plays (libretti) for Court Composer Antonio Salieri, who had introduced him to the Emperor; we have become familiar with a version of the rivalry between Salieri, a workaday composer who nevertheless retained the Emperor’s favour, and Mozart, the maverick genius, through Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, which of course became an Oscar-winning film in 1984.
Following the huge, overtly subversive success firstly of Figaro (1786) then Don Giovanni (1787) da Ponte wrote a third Italian Opera Buffa (comic opera) libretto, probably on his own initiative rather than having been commissioned, and, it is thought, nevertheless showed it first to Court Composer Salieri, who made an attempt but gave up. Mozart took on the project in1789 and the opera was premiered on 26 January 1790 in the Burgtheater in Vienna. Unfortunately, its initial run was curtailed after only five performances by the death of the Emperor. A handful of further performances followed that summer after the period of national mourning, but after that the opera was not performed again before Mozart’s death on 5 December 1791.
Figaro and Giovanni had covered controversial subjects, and Cosi was no exception; its action concerns a scurrilous, and nowadays unacceptable, wager between Don Alfonso and two military officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that within a day he can prove that no woman can stay faithful to her lover. Ferrando and Guglielmo confidently challenge the bet, agreeing that they will feign being called up to war but reappear almost immediately in what they hope will be impenetrable disguise and woo their own lovers, Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They duly return disguised as full-bearded Albanians and begin the wooing; the ladies’ maid Despina is bribed into helping with the plot by Don Alfonso, and, sadly, the ladies within a short while agree to marry, unwittingly, each other’s original lover. Finally, Ferrando and Guglielmo engineer their return in part-disguise and the ladies realise how they have allowed themselves to be tricked. All is put right, with each sadder and wiser in realising that they have, in the end, at least coped with life’s vagaries.
The opera contains many musical gems, perhaps the most sublime being Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle), a vocal quintet, including Alfonso, sung as the officers leave their lovers for the ‘war’. Before the resolution of the opera the three men bitterly reiterate the Cosi fan tutte motto, which appears twice in the overture, first as the forte chords at the end of the introduction, and again just before the coda. The body of the overture comprises busy, conspiratorial material in the strings – in similar style to the opening of Coriolan – which is complemented in the woodwind and punctuated by military fanfares in the full orchestra.
One interesting sidelight: Mozart was constrained to write the role of Fiordiligi for da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, whom he disliked; apparently, according to the 20th century critic William Mann, it was her habit to drop her chin on low notes and throw back her head on high ones, so Mozart filled her showpiece aria Come scoglio (Like a rock) with constant leaps from low to high to low with the result that in singing the aria her head bobbed up and down like a chicken!
Notes by HDJ 27 January 2018