Opera Buff in 20 Minutes: Così Fan Tutte

Setting: Naples, late eighteenth century, but has been set all over time and space.

Plot in three sentences: Ferrando and Guglielmo have a bet with old cynic Don Alfonso that their fiancées, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, are faithful. Alfonso makes them pretend to leave Naples and return disguised as Albanians (of course). Despina the sisters’ maid, works to help Alfonso prove his point about women’s fickleness, and everyone falls in love with the wrong person, until all is put right and there’s moralising about forgiveness.

Reputation: The nineteenth century saw it as immoral; now rated alongside Figaro and Don Giovanni, the other Mozart/da Ponte operas, as integrated, psychologically acute opera.

What was special about da Ponte? His sympathy with Mozart, above all his selfless way of tailoring a scene so it fitted Mozart’s musical plan exactly, and his sense of ensemble pieces, made the three operas they wrote together an arguably unequalled achievement.

Critical reaction: Mixed. It had to stop immediately because of an official period of mourning for Emperor Joseph II. Typical double-edged review: ‘As to the music, I think all is said in observing that it is by Mozart.’

Highlights: ‘Soave sia il vento’, Act 1 trio (used in Mercedes and the film Sunday, Bloody Sunday); ‘Come scoglio’, Fiordiligi’s Act 1 aria.

Death toll: None, of course – this is a da Ponte comedy in which everything works out alright.

What to say in a loud voice in the interval bar:Così is an opera without a leading character – six equal partners, equally significant, given equal musical weight.’

What to say quietly in the pub: ‘Those disguises wouldn’t fool a child of three.’

Rob Ainsley, Classic CD magazine, 1995


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