Cosi is the third and final work in the trilogy
of operatic collaborations between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and
Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838).
While four years separate the creation of the
first of their collaborations, The Marriage of Figaro (1786) from his previous
operatic outing The Abduction from the Seraglio (1782) and one year from their
final work together and that of the opera which was to be his last, The Magic
Flute (1791) there is a palatable enjoyment to be had from the trilogy which is
not found with such a completeness with all which followed or proceeded in
Mozarts operatic oeuvre.
If Mozart was a genius then da Ponte was
brilliant but it was more than just the innate talent of these two artists
working together which allowed for such a small powerful body of work to be
created. It was a perfect storm of happenstance which also included the climate
of the times both in politics and art in which they lived. Inspiration culled
from both possibilities and the tension of restriction which fostered a certain
amount of greatness out of any artist who wanted their work to last.
Some of the new potentials Mozart and da Ponte
were to draw from were made possible by a small group of Viennese based near
Working with a few like minded opera/ballet
revolutionaries, including poet/librettist Ranieri de Calzabigi (1714-1795)
Christopher Willbald Gluck (1714-1787) had started to modernize and
reinvigorate opera by diminishing the stranglehold of the Metastasian opera
seria style which was then viewed as the only template upon which one could
create a (serious) opera. Together they worked on reform operas
(Orfeo e Euridice 1762/Alceste 1767/Paride e Elena 1770) which included such
new concepts as eliminating secco recitive which allowed for a more natural
transition between an aria and recitive section. Also, more attention was paid
to chorus and orchestration parts and exit arias were shortened which made for
better over all tension.
While in Mozarts time Italian opera was
still the reigning genre even in the Germanic kingdoms, Glucks work at a
sort of revitalization would allow for a more steady evolution of the art form,
added to more and more with each generation and an increasing artistic cross
pollenisation among the different nations .
The best artists are usually the ones who add
something new to their medium and those breaking new ground most often have a
strong knowledge of their artistic predecessors.
Da Ponte was a trained classicist besides which
his knowledge in multiple genres of literature and poetry made him ideally
suited for a collaboration which would incorporate newer aspects of what was
possible for opera without being too radical a departure, built as they were
off of the established Italian tradition(s).
As important as the trilogy is, not only to
Mozarts body of work but opera as a whole, it was far from a culmination
of da Pontes career. Appropriately, his life had as many ups and downs as
a character from an opera.
He was born Emmanuele Conegliano in Ceneda
(Italy) which was near Venice. His father was a tanner/cobbler by trade. While
still a young child (14) his family converted from Judaism to Catholicism
(1773) so that his widowed father could marry the sixteen year old Roman
Catholic whose beauty had caught his eye. The name by which he would become
known came as was the custom then, from the local bishop who performed the
conversion. (Bishop Lorenzo da Ponte)
The newly minted Lorenzo was taken to
seminaries, first in Ceneda and then Portogruaro, where despite initially being
nearly illiterate he excelled at Latin. It was in the seminary he was first
introduced too to the works of Dante. Da Ponte soon fell under the spell of
literature, working his way through the cannon of Roman, Greek and Italian
In Italy during this time there were often more
social and business opportunities for Catholics. Despite this, da Ponte still
had to steal leather from his fathers shop, selling it to a shoe maker in
order to support his book habit.
Such a thing can only be done on the sly for so
long before it can not help but be noticed. Once caught though, his noble
addiction was supported by his name sake.
When there was no belt left for his family to
tighten da Ponte would often have to pawn his beloved volumes. This set up a
life long pattern of feast of famine in da Ponte. He would interact with some
of his ages most interesting people but never manage to hold on
permanently to all of his money nor position. In this way he was an almost
perfect Gemini twin to his friend Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) whose fortunes
and adventures were as epic in their rise and fall.
By twenty one da Ponte was teaching at the
seminary (1770-1773) and at twenty four the once Jewish man of letters was
ordained a priest delivering his first sacraments in 1773.
1776 found him moving to Venice. Venice during
this era had the motto which best illustrated the emphasis placed by Venetian
society on both satiating appetite while also keeping up appearances:
A little mass in the morning, a little
gamble in the afternoon and a little lady in the evening.
Carnival lasted six months with everyone
including priests going around if not all the time, then at least partially in
masks. Da Ponte, a life long liberal began to attract notice of the authorities
including the inquisition. One of his most public subversive acts
was using Jean Jacque Rousseaus (1712-1778) Discourse on the
Sciences and Arts as basis of his students recitations for the end
of the schools academic year closing ceremonies.
Da Pontes interpretation of the main
thrust of Rousseaus idea was Man in a state of nature was more
fully human, whereas civilization offered only false appearance without
reality, without truth. This theme of man in a natural state albeit
appetite not hidden by idealism would later be echoed at least partially as one
of Cosis main themes.
Although he was far from the only one to sire a
brood of illegitimate children (he once said the priesthood fit neither
his temperament nor philosophy.) He was tried and charged with adultery
and for good measure, being contrary to the good order and peace of
society the result of which was that he was forbidden to teach.
Denied his vocation he resorted to making a
living gambling when not involved in his amours. He was only able to live this
high wire act for three years before once again attracting attention of the
Again, his life mirroring his friend
Casanovas, da Ponte too found himself exiled from Venice. The official
charges drawn up were: libertinage, blasphemy, sacrilege and public
concubinage. Exile was bad but it could have been worse, as Casanova faced with
similar charges had had to spend time in the infamous Leads prison from which
he had miraculously escaped.
Ending up in the then Austrian territories of
Gorzia, da Ponte did the first of his many translations for a stage tragedy.
The pay for work which proved easier and far less risky than his other means of
making money convinced him to pursue the life of an author. It was during his
brief stay in Dresden that he took on the job as unofficial assistant to
Caterino Mazzola who was then court poet to the Saxon Dukes. It was while
working with Mazzola who himself would collaborate with Mozart on one opera (La
Clemenza di Tito 1791) that da Ponte learned the art and science of stage
The early part of 1782 found da Ponte in Vienna
where he made the acquaintance of Antonio Salieri (1750-1825). First from the
story "Mozart and Salieri"(1830) by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), then the
opera by Rimsky-korsakov (1897) and in more recent times the play Amadeus
(1979) by Pete Schafer (1926) and the 1984 movie of the same title by Milos
Foreman (1932) Salieri is made out to be a type of jealous arch nemesis to
In truth they were only rivals for
about five years (1785-1790) and that rivalry mostly consisted of both wanting
the same singers for their operas. In general Salieri often based his operas
off of the French model which further kept the two composers from unrelenting
competition. He would spend thirty six years at court composing thirty operas.
It makes for less drama to imagine that while he never reached the artistic
heights of Mozart he was good at what he did, following his own muse. Further
proof that he was not any worse than anyone else in the court is a list of some
of his students who went on to be musical titans in their own rights;
Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt. He even taught Mozarts son, Franz Xaver
(1799-1837) who despite the long shadow of his father, would become a composer
in his own right.
Swimming in the stream of Viennese society
without making too many waves, da Ponte was appointed Poet to the
Imperial Theaters by Emperor Joseph 2nd (1781).
Da Ponte held this position until 1790 writing
many librettos during his tenure including two for Salieri (Tarare 1787, Axur
re dOrmus 1788).
Upon the death of the emperor da Ponte found
himself falling out of favor in the corridors of artistic power. Roving around
Europe he landed in Trieste. It was here he met his wife married in a social
ceremony as technically da Ponte was still a priest. The plan was to make their
way to Paris where da Ponte hoped a letter of introduction to Marie Antoinette
(1755-1793) would gain him entrée into court life and allow him to
recoup his fortunes. En route news of the French Royal couples arrest
reached da Ponte who then thought it wise to change course, heading to London.
London found his fortune at its lowest ebb.
Anglican churches having different rules, he was how ever allowed to now
legally marry his wife. See-sawing finances became too much and da Ponte fled
creditors, heading out on the fifty seven day sea journey, which his wife and
children had already made ahead of him, to America.
Initially the da Pontes lived in New Jersey but
then moved to New York. Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) famous author of
The Night Before Christmas ran into da Ponte in a bookstore and
besides becoming a lifelong friend, facilitated da Ponte becoming a tutor in
Italian to society children including his own son.
Once his reputation was established he founded
The Manhattan Academy for Young Gentlemen. An institute which emphasized a
classical European education and at whose female division his wife taught
languages and art.
While the school was appreciated, it never took
off to the extent da Ponte had imagined. A brief move to Pennsylvania found him
trying his hand at being a grocer, milliner and unlicensed medicines merchant
(notions and potions). None of this brought financial prosperity either and so
he headed back to New York still convinced the big city could provide financial
In New York he was an Italian book importer. He
was able to parley his knowledge of literature into a seat as first professor
of Italian literature at Columbia University. In another first, he also
introduced the writings of Dante to America. By his own estimation he imported
26,000 volumes (and taught 2,500 people) which became the basis after his death
of the Italian Collections of Columbia University, The Library of Congress and
The New York Public Library. During this time da Ponte also became a
naturalized American citizen much to his relief as he felt this would allow him
to more openly express his views.
As a promoter Da Ponte premiered works of
Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) in America and was also progenitor for New York
to get its first Italian/European style opera house. The thirty three years he
spent in America, while not as necessarily well known to the general public
proved to be as equally important as his years of artistic output in the
various European capitals.
Mozart is often now portrayed as a child like
savant but he was exacting in what he wanted out of his librettists and not
afraid to crack the whip. Unlike a lot of his compositional peers he liked to
be directly involved with the writing of the librettos. Part of this had to do
with Mozarts aversion to too much rhyming verses in the arias which he
felt was unnatural. Da Pontes knowledge of poetry and literature allowed
him to give more naturalized rhyme schemes temporarily changing Mozarts
mind on the subject as they run through all three of their collaborations and
inspired Mozart to compose some of his most intricate vocal music.
Mozart believed that Italian operas should have
as much comedic elements in it as possible. Rather than a matter of personal
taste this was more out of commercial consideration. The buffa aspect being the
key populist element along with humable melodies which guaranteed to put bodies
in the seats. Da Ponte was of a different mind believing that moments of
lightness should be interspersed with darker moments as one would enhance the
other with their contrasts.
One of the great appeals of the trilogy is that
there is a more realistic aspect to the characters psychological make up.
Of course there is still plenty of suspension of belief called for as
traditional operatic devices such as costumed disguises are employed but there
is a less static nature to the characters. The bad guys are not
evil merely because they must be to move the plot along, living the existence
of a stock character.
All three of the operas contain subversive
elements dispersed within the plots and characters. It was da Pontes
mixture, tragic with the comic which kept them from always being noticed in
their time. Marriage of Figaro questioned the monarchist class system, wrapping
what some perceived as a call to arms in much mirth and some truly beautiful
arias. Over all it was more revolutionary and dangerous than it may now appear
to modern audiences. Don Giovanni aside from the obvious violence displayed in
the forefront was risky in the presentation of the main character, the Don
himself. An unrepentant anti-hero who would rather go down to hell remaining
true to himself than change. Also during one point in the opera the Don changes
outfits with his factotum Leoporello. Leoporello gets a heady taste of the
appeal of being bad when disguised as his master, enjoying it right
up to the point he, still as the Don, gets caught by some of those wronged by
Cosi Fan Tutte tells the story of two young men,
Ferrando and Gugliemo who sit in a café professing the many virtues of
their fiancées. Their friend, an older bachelor named Don Alfonso, knows
from age and experience no purity as the two young men believe their women to
have exists except for in the idealism of the young.
The two men want to fight duels of honor with
the Don who instead talks them into a wager for one hundred sequins. The men
must agree to do all that he says and are so sure of their victory that they
invite him to the giant feast they will throw to celebrate his defeat.
Don Alfonso goes to the garden where the women
are awaiting their lovers. He acts scared and heartbroken, sending them into a
panic. Their fiancées regiment has been called to war. There is the
beautiful goodbye aria over which a military march and orchestral swell slowly
introduces itself (The beautiful life of the military). Both men
embarking on their faux departure feel the bet is easily won as they witness
the heartbreak of the women.
As Don Alfonso continues his planning the woman
lament the fate of their love as the maid Despina prepares the hot chocolate.
Hot chocolate then is not as we think of it now; it was a sort of short hand to
further emphasize class pedigree. Despinas intro aria also is a litany of
difficulties the lower class must put up with from their masters. It is a
moment of veiled urge for social reform similar to what can be found in Figaro.
The women sing of loss while Despina implores
them to enjoy their temporary freedom. Like the Don her outlook is more of a
practical nature but tempered not by age but class.
The men are disguised as wealthy Albanians. This
allowed for use of a crowd pleasing vogue for all things eastern, anything
non-European being termed Oriental and in much demand throughout
the arts, even in faux form. Of course there is a suspension of belief called
for in regards to neither man ever being recognized, but the tradition of the
workable disguise predates even Shakespeare who often employed it.
To eliminate the risk of her possibly
recognizing the fiancés, Despina agrees to lend a hand to Don Alfonso in
his romantic machinations. As an enticement she gets one piece of gold to
introduce them into the ladies home and twenty if Don Alfonso wins the bet.
Upon initially meeting the Albanians the women
are angry and refuse all advances despite the good word put in by Don Alfonso.
Now with money at stake Depsina takes charge of
steering the ladies course. The women are wrapped up in grieving and do
not care to hear of the Albanians good points. The men pretend to take poison
in despair over their attentions being rejected. They are now
dying. A doctor is sent for which is really Despina in disguise.
Despina is one of the meatier roles in the opera as it calls for not just great
singing but singing in various disguises using cartoony voices first as doctor
then as a notary whose voice Mozart called for to be nasally.
The doctor brings the men back using
giant magnets, that along with mesmerism being in great popularity during the
time of the opera. This act of romantic fatality stirs the women ever so
The women again retreat to their chamber where
Despina basically tells them one man is as good as another. After Depsina exits
the woman begin to rationalize that there would be no real harm in returning
the Albanians attentions within reason. They decide who will take which
Albanian, each choosing the others fiancé without knowing it.
Gugliemo breaks down Dorabellas resistance
fairly quick, getting her to remove the locket with her fiancées
portrait in it, accepting a new heart shaped one from him. Fiordiligi back
tracks from her willingness to play.
The men meet up to compare notes one being happy
with his rejection assuming his friend met with the same thing. Gugliemo
demands his victory money from the Don who reminds him the bet is not over yet.
There is a subtext here. Gugliemo feels bad for his friend but relieved it is
not him much the same one feels when visiting a friend in the hospital, no
matter how sorry you are for them there is always that secret thank God
its not me feeling. Ferando seems to from this point on step up his
game. One gets the feeling the bet was only now part of his motivation, hurt
and revenge romance now also making up part of the equation.
Elsewhere, the women meet. In private
Fiordilligi vacillates between fidelity to her fiancé and the attraction
she is beginning to feel. The other two women try to provide her with
justifications to further her acceptance of the Albanian (Love is a
little thief who robs and gives our hearts peace as he pleases). Aside
from the appeal of the voluptuous there is almost a sense that Dorabella wants
her friend to fall from moral grace too.
Fiordilligi decides to be true and disguise
herself as a man and join her fiancée on the front line, also hopefully
convincing Dorabella to join her. She had been overheard by her seducer who now
appears and once again threatens suicide, this time by sword.
As Don Alfonso and her fiancé watch on
from their hidden spot, she finally gives in.
The two fiancés are a mixture of
heartbroken and enraged. Don Alfonso tries to pass on wisdom to them, it is not
the end of the world and what has happened to them is far from unique
cosi fan tutte (all woman act alike).
There will now be a double wedding that very
night. A notary is sent for to draw up marriage contracts. Despinas aria
as the notary is one of the operas best, not from its beauty but the
sheer technical athleticism which occurs when sung as Mozart had intended it,
through the nose. As the contracts are signed military music, the same as which
had played off their fiancés initially, can be heard (the beautiful life
of the military).
The Albanians are hidden. Now out of sight, the
men change back into their normal clothes and rush in happy for their reunion.
Gugliemo discovers the notary hiding behind the door and Don
Alfonso lets the contracts accidentally fall out of his hands to
the floor. The men rush out to find the Albanians and return again in a
mélange of both their normal clothes and disguises. Don Alfonso
reconciles the couples passing along advice of flexibility and understanding.
It has often been suggested that the plot came
from ideas by Casanova and while both he and da Ponte had often indulged in
eroticism which found people being moved around chess like, it was Don Giovanni
which he had helped with. It was also suggested that the idea germinated from
an anecdote told by the emperor. This often repeated lore is also not true. A
lot of the source material came from Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Arisoto
(1474-1533). (Canto xxvii) All the main characters share the same names as
those in Cosi. There are some differences between the texts though. With
Arisoto the two men learn of their womens infidelity and go around the
world for revenge affairs. Arisotos Fiorgigli dies to maintain her
wavering fidelity where as da Pontes decides to give in to her new
On the operas very surface is what would
appear to be a happy ending. This was often demanded if not by the audience
then the authorities. Various Faust literature would have him repent even when
artistically it made no sense as to not run afoul of the church. The same has
happened with Prospero from Shakespeares Tempest (1610-11) where he
forsakes his library with its forbidden knowledge in favor of a moral
The over all implication though is a powerful
statement only lightly buried. Don Giovanni is more up front in its violence
and Figaro with its satirical barbs but the power of Cosis messages
derives from the fact it is something which happens to most of us, that
idealism of youth, the naiveties, fall by the wayside with age and experience.