Masterful Mozart: Così fan tutte Program Notes

The late H. C. Robbins Landon, a world authority on Viennese classicism, called Mozart’s decade in Vienna (1781-91) his “golden years” in the title of an insightful book on the composer.  In the first five or six years of that decade, Mozart was in the center of the imperial capital’s musical life.  His works, pouring forth from his pen at an astonishing speed, were widely admired.  He made many friends among the influential Viennese aristocracy and high bourgeoisie, and even the Emperor, Joseph II, followed his activities with interest (though Mozart never received the court position he hoped for).  In Robbins Landon’s words, “Mozart’s name was on every tongue.”

The present concerto is a product of this glorious period in Mozart’s career.  In Classical music, C major is usually a festive key; works in that tonality almost always include trumpets and timpani, which greatly affect their sound and their whole atmosphere.  The first movement immediately establishes this mood with its march-like opening theme.  As in many Mozart piano concertos, the soloist comes in “through the back door,” as it were, playing virtuoso runs before taking over the melody.  Once this happens, however, the piano always remains in the foreground.  The movement has what seems an over-abundance of melodies—more than the scheme of sonata form would call for.  The movement doesn’t lack its moment of minor-mode melancholy (one moment seems directly to anticipate a passage in the great G minor symphony), yet the overall character of the music is joyful, serene, and majestic.

With the second-movement Andante, we enter the “holy of holies” of Mozart’s art.  Against an even motion of triplets, played by muted strings, the first violins, also muted, play one of Mozart’s most transcendent melodies (once made popular by the 1967 movie Elvira Madigan), filled with wide leaps and great dynamic contrasts.  The delicate minor second clashes and the tender modulations probably played a role in Leopold Mozart’s strong reaction to the work.  As Mozart’s father wrote to his daughter Nannerl, he had been moved to tears by the beauties of the work (and also the enthusiastic reception it received).

The third movement achieves the great feat of not being a comedown after this exceptional Andante.  There are many spirited dialogues between the piano and the wind section and quite a few delightful musical surprises to enjoy.  © 2023 Peter Laki

In the two hundred and thirty-three years since its premiere, many people have thought there was something wrong with Così fan tutte.  Critics and analysts have complained about its allegedly immoral, frivolous and misogynistic libretto, which they saw as being at odds with Mozart’s sublime music.  In fact, the premise of the opera seems cruel and cynical enough.  Who could possibly approve of a plot that revolves around two young men disguising themselves to seduce each other’s girlfriends, in order to prove a “philosophical” point about “all women” being by nature unfaithful?  Yet if one looks beneath the surface, the plot reveals some unexpected psychological insights about both men and women that are reinforced and made even more profound by the music.

What is so extraordinary about Così is that, unlike other operas where the commitment of the central pair of lovers can never be questioned, here you are allowed to wonder which pairing is right:  the original constellation Fiordiligi-Guglielmo and Dorabella-Fernando, or the second one, where the partners are switched.  Da Ponte and Mozart had the audacity to suggest that maybe the “switched” pairing is the right one after all, and the voice types (among other clues) give it all away.  According to operatic convention, the soprano (Fiordiligi) always goes with the tenor (Fernando), and the mezzo (Dorabella) with the baritone (Guglielmo).  When we see the two couples in Act I, everything is fairly conventional between them; the real sparks don’t start flying until Act II, when the men are in disguise.

At the beginning of Act I, the two officers affirm that their girlfriends could never be unfaithful to them.  Their friend, the philosopher Don Alfonso, challenges them to a bet.  In the meantime, the two girls gush over the portraits of their lovers.  

Don Alfonso brings the fake news of the immediate departure of the men to the battlefield.  The women nearly swoon from their distress as the men depart.  Don Alfonso expounds his anti-woman philosophy.  Soon afterwards, we hear the anti-man counterpart from the young ladies’ maid, Despina, who soon takes charge, telling Fiordiligi and Dorabella that men are by nature inconstant and that they might as well take advantage of their grass-widowhood.

Don Alfonso bribes Despina to help him introduce two “strangers” to her mistresses.  Ferrando and Guglielmo enter, disguised as exotic Albanians.  They immediately begin to make advances—each to his friend’s girlfriend, but are vehemently rebuffed by Fiordiligi, and the ladies flee in disgust.  The men are overjoyed; they believe they have already won their bet, but Don Alfonso urges them to wait until tomorrow.  Unlike the somewhat coarse and flippant Guglielmo, Ferrando displays significant depths of emotion in his aria, in which he anticipates the joys of an “amorous hour”—at this point, presumably, still with his official fiancée Dorabella (although who knows for sure?).

The “Albanians” now resort to blackmail, pretending to have taken poison in their despair at having been rejected.  The compassionate women begin to take pity on the strangers.  Their call for a doctor is answered by Despina who appears disguised as a physician, complete with a false mustache.  In a delicious parody of the then-famous magnetic therapy of Dr. Mesmer (who “mesmerized” his patients), Despina pulls the poison out of the “patients” with a big piece of iron.  Emboldened, the men ask the women for a kiss —but once again they have gone too far.  Fiordiligi and Dorabella exit in indignation while the men, once again, feel triumphant, although Despina and Don Alfonso begin to see signs of a change of heart.  © 2023 Peter Laki