Così's Main Characters
- Don Alfonso, a gentleman (bass)
- Ferrando, a soldier (tenor)
- Guglielmo, a soldier (baritone)
- Fiordiligi, a wealthy young woman (soprano)
- Dorabella, her sister (mezzo-soprano or soprano)
- Despina, their maid (soprano)
Flighty and fickle or faithful and true?
Mozart poses this classic question in his famous comedic opera Così fan tutte (pronounced KOH-zee fahn TOOT-eh), a tale involving the misadventures of two sisters and their soldier boyfriends. For these starry-eyed young couples, romantic illusions are given a nasty wakeup call when they decide to test the boundaries of love, loyalty, and friendship in a complicated game of “boys vs. girls.”
Place your bets…
Così fan tutte or La scuola degli amanti (pronounced lah-SKWO-lah DEL-yi an-MAHN-tee; translates to “Women Are Like That” or “The School for Lovers”) marks the final collaboration between the dynamic duo of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Italian clergyman-turned-party boy-turned-poet Lorenzo Da Ponte. Its timeless story draws on a variety of myths, plays, poems, and early operas, but also offers some unique twists on older themes of love and fidelity.
Act I “Class in Session”
Wily old gentleman Don Alfonso (pronounced don al-FON-zoh) listens as soldiers Ferrando (feh-RAN-doh) and Guglielmo (gool-YELL-moh) brag about their respective girlfriends, sisters Dorabella (dor-ah-BELL-ah) and Fiordiligi (fyor-dee-LEE-jee). When the young officers declare their sweethearts are the most faithful in the land, Alfonso laughs, saying no woman could be that virtuous. He suggests they bet on it. The three hatch a plan: The boys will pretend to go off to war, then return disguised as mysterious “Albanians” and woo each other’s girl. Whoever’s girl gives in the fastest loses the wager.
Dorabella and Fiordiligi are heartbroken at the idea of being separated from their beloved soldiers. Still, their sassy chambermaid, Despina (pronounced dess-PEEN-ah), reminds them they don’t have to be faithful, since they can’t expect men to keep their promises. Despina suggests the girls enjoy themselves and have fun while their men are away.
With some help from Despina, Don Alfonso presents his two “Albanian” friends to the sisters. When these exotic strangers pledge their instant love to the girls, Dorabella and Fiordiligi stand firm, claiming nothing will make them stray from their boyfriends. The boys then choose a different approach and swallow fake poison, saying they’d rather die than be rejected. Despina arrives disguised as a doctor and the men are revived, but the sisters are disgusted when the Albanians ask them for a “thank you” kiss.
Act II “Class Dismissed”
Dorabella and Fiordiligi secretly admit they find these strangers rather attractive and decide to flirt a little. Don Alfonso and Despina arrange for a romantic rendezvous for the two new couples and, though Guglielmo succeeds in winning Dorabella’s affection, Ferrando has no luck with Fiordiligi. When the two soldiers reunite, Ferrando is furious to hear his Dorabella has betrayed him, and resolves to make Fiordiligi fall for his charms.
Fiordiligi, aware that her resolve is weakening, decides to run away with Dorabella. Before she can do so, however, Ferrando appears and once more pledges his undying love. Fiordiligi succumbs and agrees to marry him.
The stage is set for a double wedding. However, just as the sisters are about to sign marriage contracts with their new suitors (issued by Despina, disguised as a notary), a military march is heard. Alfonso breaks the news that the soldiers are returning, and Dorabella and Fiordiligi scramble to hide their Albanian fiancés.
All six characters face off in one final battle of the sexes. Fingers are pointed, names are called, and all sorts of threats are made. Do things get resolved? Do our four lovers get a happy ending? You be the judge. La scuola (school) is out for the day!
Meet Mr. Mozart
Boy genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was born in Salzburg, Austria, to a family of musicians (his father was a well-known composer and his sister was an accomplished instrumentalist). A keyboard whiz by age four and a composer by age five, Mozart traveled and performed throughout much of Europe, eventually settling in Vienna as a freelance artist. Mozart mastered a variety of musical forms from concertos to symphonies to operas and beyond, and his unique and unmistakable sound is a trademark of Western music’s Classical era.
If you like Mozart’s Così fan tutte, try listening to some of his other operatic masterpieces, such as:
- Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) - a slapstick comedy, also with lyrics by Lorenzo Da Ponte
- Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) - a mythical ride through the fantasy lands of “night” and “day,” and Mozart’s final opera
Mozart was also a giant in the world of instrumental music. Some of his more famous orchestral pieces include:
- Symphony No. 40 in G minor
- Symphony No. 41 C Major (known as the “Jupiter” symphony)
- Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major
- Serenade for Strings No. 13 in G Major: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
Essential musical moments in Così fan tutte
Most operas of Mozart’s day were divided into types: seria (meaning serious or dramatic) or buffa (meaning light-hearted and funny). Così uses techniques from both of these genres, which means some characters sing music that sounds almost ridiculously “grand” or snobbish, while others stick to lighter, sweeter melodies. In addition, Mozart also used musical “sound effects” to help tell the story. Some scenes include musical tricks that are meant to mimic natural sounds such as wind, waves, and human heartbeats. Listen for these unique features in the following Così highlights:
“Soave sia il vento” (“May the wind be gentle”)
Here, Don Alfonso, Fiordiligi, and Dorabella ask the wind and waves to stay calm and protect Ferrando and Guglielmo on their (fake) journey. Notice the “rippling” effect in the strings—sounds a lot like soft breezes or gentle waves, right?
“Smanie implacabili” (“Relentless anxiety”)
In this aria, Dorabella panics at the thought of living without her love, Ferrando. Listen for the fast-moving strings as they slide up and down, accompanied by little outbursts from the woodwinds—it’s as though the instruments are sobbing with Dorabella!
“Come scoglio” (“Like a rock”)
In this piece, Fiordiligi explains her intention to always stay faithful to her boyfriend, Guglielmo. “I will stand like a rock against winds and tempests,” she says. Check out the way in which the steady beat and imposing brass instruments make her music sound stately and serious.
“Dammi un baccio” (“Give me a kiss”)
All six characters gather for this chaotic ending to the first act, in which the disguised soldiers ask the sisters for a kiss, while Don Alfonso and Despina look on. Listen as the sisters express their distress in rapid-fire notes, while the men move back and forth between music that’s sweet and romantic and music that sounds like laughter (Ferrando literally sings the phrase “Ha ha ha.”)
In Washington National Opera’s (WNO) 2012 production of Così fan tutte, world-renowned director Jonathan Miller has placed the story in a modern-day setting. The show features several 21st-century touches designed to make audiences feel right at home. Here are a few of the ways in which WNO’s Così gets a digital-age makeover.
Sets and costumes
The Dorabella and Fiordiligi of this production are successful businesswomen rather than wealthy owners of an Italian villa (which was Mozart’s original plan). The action therefore takes place in and around a present day living room, complete with modern couches, pillows, and desks. All of the main characters also wear 21st-century clothing and accessories (plenty of jeans, sunglasses, and high heels).
The world of WNO’s Così is full of cell phones and laptops (sometimes cell phone ringtones even interrupt the action!). Characters frequently call, text, and snap photos of each other using their iPhones, and the faulty “marriage contracts” in the final act are written out and signed on a computer.
Jonathan Miller also includes several references to current media and brand names in his production. For example, when Despina brings her ladies hot chocolate in the first act, she hands it to them in Starbucks coffee cups. In addition, when Don Alfonso arranges a fake goodbye for the soldiers, he hires a CNN cameraman to capture the farewell.