Well, did you ever?
Home sweet home Latest site info Poetic stuff Serious stuff Funny stuff Topical stuff Alternative stuff Shakespearian stuff Musical stuff
  click here for a "printer friendly" version

Because We are all Like That: Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte


Wayne H.W Wolfson



Have you heard it’s written in the stars, come next July we collide with Mars….



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 Mozart’s 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 contemporaries.

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 Mozart’s time Italian opera was still the reigning genre even in the Germanic kingdoms, Gluck’s 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 Mozart’s body of work but opera as a whole, it was far from a culmination of da Ponte’s 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 poets.

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 father’s 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 age’s 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 Rousseau’s (1712-1778) “Discourse on the Sciences and Arts” as basis of his students’ recitations for the end of the school’s academic year closing ceremonies.

Da Ponte’s interpretation of the main thrust of Rousseau’s 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 Cosi’s 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 authorities.

Again, his life mirroring his friend Casanova’s, 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 craft.

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 Mozart.

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 Mozart’s 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 d’Ormus 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 couple’s 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 security.

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 Mozart’s aversion to too much rhyming verses in the arias which he felt was unnatural. Da Ponte’s knowledge of poetry and literature allowed him to give more naturalized rhyme schemes temporarily changing Mozart’s 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 Ponte’s 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 the Don.

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. Despina’s 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 slightly.

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 other’s fiancé without knowing it.

Gugliemo breaks down Dorabella’s resistance fairly quick, getting her to remove the locket with her fiancée’s 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 it’s 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. Despina’s aria as the notary is one of the opera’s 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. Arisoto’s Fiorgigli dies to maintain her wavering fidelity where as da Ponte’s decides to give in to her new suitor.

On the opera’s 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 Shakespeare’s Tempest (1610-11) where he forsakes his library with its forbidden knowledge in favor of a moral salvation.

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 Cosi’s message’s 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.


© is reserved by the author. Please do not reproduce it without consent.

© Winamop 2009