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All is fair in love and war, until love stops playing by the rules.

In Così fan tutte, lust and loyalty go head-to-head as two adoring and devoted couples embark on a holiday that will change their lives forever.

THE WORK

Così fan tutte (koh-ZEE fahn TOOT-eh) is the third opera by dynamic duo W.A. Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. It is an opera buffa (or a comic opera, today’s equivalent of a rom-com hit) sung in Italian. The work is also known by two subtitles, The School for Lovers and All Women Are Like That, each indicating a very different take on its themes.

Rumour has it that as Emperor Joseph II lay dying of tuberculosis in Vienna, he demanded that Mozart and Da Ponte, already well known for The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, write an opera about an amusing incident which had recently scandalised Viennese society.

They obliged and Così fan tutte was first performed on 26 January 1790 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the day before Mozart’s 34th birthday.

Così, as it is colloquially known in the English-speaking world, was performed only five times before the emperor died. Vienna went into official mourning and all the theatres were closed. Rarely performed over the next two centuries, Così has since found rejuvenation and is one of the most widely performed operas around the world today. Its appeal probably lies in how it tackles an array of topics that are still relevant today – infidelity, coercion, jealousy and lust to name a few – with a tongue in cheek manner which makes the subject matter somewhat approachable. The genius of Mozart and Da Ponte creates tension between the story and music lending depth to a frivolous tale.

THE COMPOSER

Boy genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was born into a musical family in Salzburg, Austria. A keyboard whiz by age four and a composer by age five, he was proficient in countless instruments and spoke 15 languages.

He travelled and performed throughout much of Europe, eventually settling in glorious Vienna as a freelance artist. He wrote over 600 works in his lifetime, 22 of which were operas. Unlike most teenagers who were hanging out in taverns with their friends at the time, he wrote 10 of those operas before the age of 20!

Mozart died aged 35 in December 1791, only 2 years after Così fan tutte’s premiere. If you are to believe some scandalous rumours, speculation is he was poisoned by his arch-nemesis Antonio Salieri. Truth is, however, that after a life of poor health Mozart died much less eventfully of kidney disease.

THE LIBRETTIST

Italian clergyman-turned-party boy-turned-poet librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838) was one of the most significant librettists of his day and a key figure in the rise of the Viennese opera buffa. Today he is best known for writing the librettos in the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy.

He trained for the priesthood and was ordained in 1773. However, he was a bit of a naughty boy and in 1779 was exiled from Venice for his politics and adultery. In 1783 he was appointed poet to the court theatre in Vienna where he met best buddy Mozart. Da Ponte had an ease with writing in verse, a wicked wit and a brilliance for languages which made him the ideal librettist. He had a fruitful year in 1786 when he wrote five librettos, including The Marriage of Figaro.

WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

State Opera presents director Patrick Nolan’s take on this classic opera. While holidaying at a luxurious Italian resort, cynical bachelor Don Alfonso places a bet with friends Guglielmo and Ferrando that their girlfriends, sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, will not remain faithful in the face of temptation. Whoever’s girlfriend gives in first loses the bet.

After Guglielmo and Ferrando leave their fiancées to “go to war”, Fiordiligi and Dorabella meet two handsome Albanian strangers. Despite their great upset at their boyfriends’ departure, the girls fail to notice the Albanians’ resemblance to Guglielmo and Ferrando, who have in fact arrived in disguise to start their game of deception.

Don Alfonso recruits maid Despina to help in his dirty battle of the sexes. As the schemers up the ante and throw the lovers into increasingly absurd situations, unforeseen feelings and emotions begin to surface and each character goes on a journey of self-discovery, realising who they really are.

THE LOVERS AND SCHEMERS

Fiordiligi (fior-dil-I-gi), a wealthy young woman (soprano Sky Ingram)
Dorabella (dor-a-BELL-a), her sister (mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley)
Ferrando (ferr-AN-do), a soldier (tenor Kyle Stegall)
Guglielmo (gu-li-EL-mo), a soldier (baritone Nicholas Lester)
Don Alfonso (don al-FON-so), a gentleman (baritone Christopher Hillier)
Despina (des-PI-na), their maid (soprano Jessica Dean)

WHAT ARE THE THEMES?

Taking place over the course of one day, Così takes a deep dive into the nature of human relationships, strength of character and the innate human concept of fidelity. The dramatic quadrangle sees the lovers plunged into a whirlwind of self-discovery as they come to understand that what they believe of themselves, their own loyalty and infallibility, may not pass the test.

As they graduate from The School of Lovers, they learn that love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and are left facing the cold harsh reality of their own and their partners’ decisions.

Much of Così fan tutte’s critique is stemmed from antifeminist reaction to the title, inferring the women are to blame for the events and infidelity which transpire in the plot. However, it is in fact the men who initiate the deception and put in motion the womens’ downfall, provoking an interesting question of how perspective, blame and guilt manifest in human behaviour.

Though written in the eighteenth century, the pursuit of love, lust and fidelity depicted in Così transcends time periods. The themes are seamlessly translated into a modern setting and are all too real in the gamut of human emotion.

THE MUSIC

Mozart was a clever boy. Così uses techniques from the opera buffa (comic) and opera seria (serious) genres, giving some characters music to sing that sounds ridiculously grand or snobbish, whilst others stick to lighter, sweeter melodies helping to portray the different character types to the audience.

Mozart also employed musical sound effects to help tell the story. The orchestra is cleverly used to evoke the hot and lazy feel of a summer holiday whilst certain instruments are used to mimic natural sounds such as wind, waves, and human heartbeats.

In ‘Soave sia il vento’ (‘May the wind be gentle’), Don Alfonso, Fiordiligi and Dorabella ask the wind and waves to stay calm and protect Guglielmo and Ferrando on their (pretend) journey to war. Rippling effects in the strings create sounds like soft breezes or gentle waves.

In Fiordiligi’s showstopping aria ‘Come scoglio’ (‘I am like a rock’), her words “like a rock we stand immobile against the wind and storm, are always strong in trust and love” are meant to denote her steadfast fidelity. A steady beat and imposing brass are contrasted against the melody line which leaps and falls suggesting uncertainty and lack of conviction. (Incidentally, Da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, whom Mozart hated, created the role of Fiordiligi. Mozart filled her showpiece with fluctuating high and low notes to make her head ‘bob like a chicken’ on stage!).

Mozart was also great at ensemble pieces and in Così we hear a composer at the height of his powers. Much like his other Da Ponte works, Così features arias, duets, trios, quartets and sextets, allowing the performers to shine in solos, share intimate moments or depict the chaos and confusion of the events unfolding onstage with a fusion of multiple voices. Mozart’s use of ensembles  cannot be underestimated. Before Mozart, a character emoted in beautiful arias but suddenly there was action in the music!

In a trademark chaotic Act I ending, ‘Dammi un bacio’ (‘Give me a kiss’) features all six characters weaving in and out of each other’s melodies. As the disguised soldiers ask the sisters for a kiss, the sisters’ distress is announced by rapid fire notes, while the men express romantic and sweet music with echoes of laughter (Ferrando even sings “Ha ha ha”). Mean boys.

Così also features ‘recitative’, sung word performed with harpsichord accompaniment, which allows the plot to develop and evolve without taking precious moments away from the show-stopping numbers.

WHAT TO WATCH

The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni The two other operas from Mozart and Da Ponte.

The White Lotus HBO’s smash hit where anything goes when you’re on holiday.

Cosi (1996) Australian film in which Lewis (Ben Mendelsohn) is tasked with directing patients in a psychiatric hospital (including Toni Collette and Barry Otto) in an adaptation of Così fan tutte.

The Magic Flute Mozart’s final and possibly most famous opera.

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Production images by Visual Poet’s Society from Opera Queensland’s 2023 season of Così fan tutte