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Così Fan Tutte: Context, Philosophy and Musico-Dramatic Relationships

Così fan tutte was composed during somewhat of a compositional drought for Mozart. He had written only 4 major works in 1789, the year prior to the premiere of this opera (Steptoe, 1988, p.71). This, as well as Mozart’s financial difficulties and reputational difficulties for Da Ponte, meant that much was dependent on Così fan tutte’s success (p.138). The opera premiered on 26th January 1790 to a positive reception by Viennese audiences (Whitfield, 2011, p.23). Although being well received in Vienna, the death of Emperor Joseph II one month later reduced the number of performances to ten; five at the time and five more in the summer. Così fan tutte is frequently regarded as the lesser of the Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations. The subtext of some of this derision stems from the “morally suspect” nature of the libretto (Waldoff, cited by Whitfield, 2011, p.23). However, insight into the philosophical context in which the opera was constructed and the relationships between music and drama sheds light on the merits of this opera.

There are two sets of diametrically opposed concepts in Così fan tutte: the physical versus the transcendental, and reason versus emotion. These philosophies are embodied by symmetrical characters. The two pairs of idealistic, chivalrous, naïve lovers, and the two rational, materialist puppeteers (in the sense of controlling or forwarding the drama), Don Alfonso and Despina (Steptoe, 1988, p.131). Così fan tutte is arranged as a moral experiment, which Nicholas Till (1995) attributes to the influence of La Dispute by Marivaux. Till notes that this experiment is a test of “the Enlightenment’s vision of a world held together by some form of purely secular morality” (p.236). A worthy experiment would limit the variables in order to extract results which demonstrate only those variables under consideration. In the case of Così fan tutte, this is achieved through the Aristotelian 24-hour timespan, the aforementioned symmetrical cast and the limiting of revealed contextual factors (Lütteken, 2009, p.230). For example, we do not know who Fiordiligi and Dorabella are, why they have come to Naples from Ferrara, where their parents are or what their economic or social status is (Till, 1995, p.237). The lack of prescriptive context to these characters facilitates their transference from individual women, to all women; as the title of this opera indicates. Thus, as is discussed by Lösel (2017), the accusation of Don Alfonso concerning the fidelity of Ferrando and Guglielmo’s lovers is not that of a lack fidelity specifically related to Dorabella and Fiordiligi, but that of all women. This, Lösel highlights, resembles the Biblical “wager motif”, that of Satan’s allegation to God in the case of Job (p.133-134). The allegation was not only that Job would be unfaithful, but that all mankind would be unfaithful (pp.133-134). Da Ponte’s position as a former priest, and Mozart’s as a devout Catholic would render this parallel salient. The analogy is taken further by Lösel, just as Job “represents the epitome of human righteousness”, so too do Fiordiligi and Dorabella, “in their lovers’ eyes, represent the epitome of female perfection” (p.134). Thus, the circumstances have been set for the moral and philosophical experiment undertaken in Così fan tutte.

The moral arguments laid out in Così fan tutte regard perception, emotion and action: one is to perceive the world through objectivity and reason; one should not be emotionally distressed by the “way of the world” (Till, 1995, p.229) (in this case that women, like men, are prone to infidelity); one may act in accordance with one’s natural impulses without guilt.  This latter action is due to the materialist notion that natural impulses are indeed natural and, therefore, cannot be conceived as immoral due to morality being located within the body (Till, 1995, p.246). This materialist philosophy is exemplified by both Don Alfonso and Despina, accompanied with a symmetrical, didactic instruction to their own sex, and abetment to their opposite sex (Steptoe, 1988, p.132).

Don Alfonso and Despina teach in the manner of the “Rousseauist programme of education” (Till, 1995, p.240). The lovers are in the “pre-rational stage in their moral development” and can only be taught effectively through practical experience which, according to Rousseau, “precedes instruction” (p.241). Thus, Don Alfonso and Despina teach using a quasi-heuristic method, despite much guidance and manipulation (such as the recitative ‘Il tutto deponete’ and following quartet, 22 ‘La mano a me date’).

Although original in plot, many features of Così fan tutte involve traditional topoi combined with 18th century elements (Steptoe, 1988, p.120). As discussed, the wager theme appears in the Bible book of Job; however, many literary works use this device such as Boccaccio’s Decameron (p.123). Steptoe summarises the wager theme succinctly, “The ‘wager theme’ concerns a man who publicly declares his confidence in his wife’s fidelity, and wagers that she cannot be seduced by a supposed admirer. He thereby sanctions a trial of her affections, giving the seducer permission to approach her, usually with disastrous results”. This does not account for all elements of the plot. The feigned departure of Ferrando and Guglielmo, their subsequent return in disguise and the success of the seduction may have been sourced from Ovid’s Cephalus and Procris from Metamorphoses (p.125). The decision to have two pairs of lovers enabled Da Ponte to explore the varieties of responses, along with the opportunity for Mozart to write many ensembles (p.127). Steptoe even describes Così fan tutte as an “ensemble opera” (p.212), only 14 out of 31 numbers were arias.

An example of 18th century events being referenced in Così fan tutte is that of Mesmer stones. Despina uses Mesmer stones as a cure to the supposed poison taken by Ferrando and Guglielmo in the finale to Act I. This alludes to the physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). His theories included the influence of magnetic waves on human behaviour and the use of magnetic fluid as a panacea (Lütteken, 2009, p.238). His magnetic fluid treatment gained much popularity during 1774-1784 until the leading scientists of the day (including Benjamin Franklin) were royally commissioned to investigate Mesmer’s cure. The four scientists issued a damning report of the curative powers of magnetic fluid (Steptoe, 1986, p.253). This, combined with personal and professional scandals, led to the downfall of Mesmer. The Mozarts were long acquainted with the Mesmer family which may seem dissonant with Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s decision to parody Mesmer’s treatment. However, as Steptoe notes, Wolfgang Mozart may have been fonder of Mesmer’s family, rather than the man himself. Also, the commercial success of Mesmer parodies may have influenced Mozart and Da Ponte’s inclusion (pp.254-255). Furthermore, the magnet’s physical influences on the body tie into the materialist philosophy. Lütteken (2009, p.238) notes that it is unsurprising the Mesmer stones would be the chosen treatment as Così fan tutte “reduces human affective life to the mechanics of a machine”.

In Così fan tutte, physiological changes are brought about by physical substances. Coffee, chocolate (which was “considered a potent aphrodisiac” (Gazzola, 2015, p.118)), poison and wine all induce – to the 18th century audience – behavioural and emotional changes. The opera begins in a coffee house, a place of split reputation. The lower-end coffee houses were places of alcohol consumption, gambling, “games of hazard”, and prostitution (Lütteken, 2009, p.235). Whereas the higher-end coffee houses served coffee, tea, ice cream, hot chocolate and liqueurs in well-furnished rooms. Importantly, coffee houses “abolished the hierarchy of social classes that reigned in the palace hall” (p.235). This is one reason for the Epicurean Despina to proclaim the equality of the taste buds in her entrance recitative (‘Che vita maledetta’). Furthermore, this setting would allow “noble officers” to speak openly with the old philosopher, Don Alfonso, who is someone of “doubtful background” (Lütteken, 2009, p.236). The coffee house, therefore, is an appropriate setting for the substantial wager agreed upon (100 sequins). Also, the coffee house was imperative in the development of Enlightenment philosophies (Rice, 2007, p.303). From the 17th-19th centuries, social interactions moved from the tavern to the coffee house. Caffeine, therefore, acted as a stimulant for lively conversation rather than a depressant (Jonathan Haidt, 2018, 3:44-5:07). Thus, the setting of a coffee house for the instigation of a moral and philosophical experiment seems in keeping with the 18th century zeitgeist.

As with many of Mozart’s operas, he uses tonality for symbolic and illustrative purposes. Aside from connotative references of tonal symbolism typical of the 18th century and before, Mozart chooses keys in Così fan tutte to “delineate the meaning behind actions, and the motivations of the protagonists” (Steptoe, 1988, p.232). C major is the neutral key in Così fan tutte; however, the “extreme dominant” sharp keys, represent truthfulness and sincerity of expression (p.232). Alternatively, moving in the subdominant direction from C major, flattened keys signify false expression and parody. Thus, motivations during numbers may be inferred somewhat before a word is sung. Key associations allow Mozart and the discerning listener to create framework with which to denote meaning through tonality. Table 1 shows three numbers and their associated key and degree of sincerity:

Cosi Table

Mozart frequently uses word painting of Da Ponte’s libretto throughout Così fan tutte. That ordering, Mozart’s music depicting Da Ponte’s libretto, was due to Mozart being second choice for Da Ponte. Da Ponte was a court librettist and as such, the first choice would need to be the court composer, Antonio Salieri (Lütteken, 2009, p.230). Thus, Mozart’s input into the libretto may have been less significant than Mozart and Da Ponte’s earlier collaborations. However, Mozart did alter some of the libretto to better reflect Despina’s character (Goehring, 1995, p.107). Below, I highlight the musico-dramatic relationship of three numbers from Così fan tutte.

No. 4 – Quintet, ‘Sento o Dio, che queste piede’

The musico-dramatic relationship of this quintet is explicit. Mozart intricately depicts Da Ponte’s libretto in music, expressing and enhancing it to create and reflect the drama immanent in the libretto. For example, ‘Sento o Dio, che queste piede’ is in the key of E-flat major. As discussed, this key suggests the motivation of the male characters to be that of insincerity. Therefore, the quintet’s content is framed in a key which delegitimizes, or at least questions, the earnestness of those characters’ motivations. Further musical depictions of the text are that of Guglielmo’s and Ferrando’s initial lines (unless stated otherwise, translations have been taken from Opera-Arias, 2019):

Sento, oddio, che questo piede        È restio nel girle avante.O Heaven, I feel my steps falter              In their progress towards you.
Il mio labbro palpitante                      Non può detto pronunziar.My trembling lips                               Cannot utter the words.

Mozart illustrates these sentiments in martial music and through the tonic pedal point (Steptoe, 1988, p.217). The soldiers, Guglielmo and Ferrando, cannot escape from the tonic – their feet are faltering. The sparse orchestration and rests alternating with quavers further emphasises the inability to move. It is only Don Alfonso, the “chaperon”, who can instigate a change towards the dominant pedal point (Brown-Montesano, 2007, p.222). This is where Fiordiligi and Dorabella respond, in thirds, expressing their sentiments. At this point in the drama, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are musically inseparable and therefore indistinguishable. They are unidentifiable throughout the early stages of the drama. It is only later when their inner character emerges that they gain musical autonomy (Brown-Montesano, 2007, p.193). Furthermore, their voices in thirds point towards a unity of thought, their thoughts and motives are as one. As the sisters’ thoughts turn to suicide, in parody of opera seria and romantic fiction (Brown-Montesano, 2007, p.220), Mozart expresses their emotional distress through an interrupted cadence. Rather than resolving onto the dominant, B-flat, Mozart moves to the chord of G-flat, thus modulating to the dominant minor (in relation to the home key), B-flat minor. Ferrando and Guglielmo immediately correct this tonal error by shifting to the parallel major, B-flat major, soothing the emotional pain of Fiordiligi and Dorabella.

No. 14 – Aria, ‘Come scoglio’ no. 14

Word painting emerges initially in Fiordiligi’s aria. Set in Arcadian verse, the opening words are stately with comparatively small leaps and conventional note values. This is then are contrasted with the vast leaps and wide tessitura on “Contro i venti e la tempesta” (Steptoe, 1988, p.223). (Translation below from Brown-Montesano, 2007, p.240).

Come scoglio immoto resta           Contro i venti e la tempesta,Like the immovable rock that stands     against the winds and storms,

Despite Fiordiligi’s sentiment and proclamation of being “Like the immovable rock that stands against the winds and storms” Mozart sets her words through much technically demanding melisma with wide leaps. This virtuosic display produces the sense of singing “beyond all human limits” which has frequently alluded to madness since the 17th century (Colas, 2014, p.183, 186). In turn, this conflicts with the sentiment of resolve that Fiordiligi is expressing (Brown-Montesano, 2007, p.241). One may interpret this virtuosic display as full conviction of her sentiment, engaging her emotion and physical body to be as one in delivering the text. However, Fiordiligi’s expression contrasts with the dispassionate and resolute Don Alfonso, whose calm rationality is expressed by Mozart through small intervallic leaps and without accompaniment from the woodwind. Don Alfonso acts as more of a declamatory role than a true singing role (Lösel, 2017, p.97). Thus, Fiordiligi’s ‘Come scoglio’ contradicts this manner of depicting resolve. One may infer from this that the basis behind Fiordiligi’s conviction is flawed. Her resolution of fidelity is based on emotion rather than the evidence-based logic and reason employed by Don Alfonso. Her capitulation soon after this aria furthers this sentiment. Although she does feel deeply her love for Guglielmo, that love is based on unstable foundations. These unstable foundations, emotion, are conquered by emotion. It is only when Ferrando and Guglielmo use “pity” (Act 1 finale) and “ardour” (Act 2), rather than their earlier attempts through “exotic wealth and glamour”, that they are successful in their seduction (Steptoe, 1988, p.128).

This emotional basis for Fiordiligi’s constancy is furthered by the repetition of the line:

Far che cangi affetto il cor.                 to change the affections of our hearts.

This line is fully repeated three times, with “far che cangi” being repeated on its own once. These words are initially set by leaps of octaves and tenths in a sequence of descending thirds. These leaps, accompanied by an altered descending Fonte sequence (Gjerdingen, 2007), are redolent of the ‘Empfindsamkeit’ topic (Ratner, 1980). This is followed by a shift towards shorter note values with melismatic and cadenza-like virtuosic displays (as can be seen in the cadence which concludes this quatrain on the words “affetto il core”). The shift in character within the repetitions of this line is fitting word-painting by Mozart. The drastic change from emotional sensibility to virtuosic melisma depicts the changeability of the heart. This may provide more evidence for the hypothesis of Fiordiligi’s resolution to be improperly based on the emotions rather than reason and logic. Thus, the Enlightenment’s precepts are being forwarded by Mozart and Da Ponte, to base all arguments on evidence and reason rather than intuitions and emotion.

No. 26 – Aria, ‘Donne mie, la fate a tanti’

During Guglielmo’s aria in rondo form, topical references emerge. During the first episode after the instrumental introduction, the woodwind and horns play a ‘Hunt’ topic. This topic acts as a call to action to command attention from the audience. This is furthered through the didactic nature of the aria; it is aimed at those in the audience and directed at the audience. Brown (1995, p.47) terms this as a “philosophical aria”. The hunt topic may also have layered meaning, that of ‘hunt’ being the metaphorical chase and capture through seduction and conquest.

A related topic occurs in the second episode, that of the ‘Military’ or ‘Fanfare’ topic. This topic is expressed through an orchestral tutti at a forte dynamic. Trumpets and timpani are distinctly audible through these tutti. The use of a fanfare topic is in accordance with the libretto:

Mille volte il brando presi               Per salvar il vostro onorA thousand times I’ve drawn my           To defend your honour.

These martial words from Guglielmo elicit musical description by Mozart. Mozart further depicts this martial image through choice of key. He modulates from the tonic, G major, to the subdominant, C major. C major was frequently the choice for militaristic depictions in music of the classical period, as is evidenced by Joel Galand (2014, p.460). It is notable that the most frequently recurring word in this aria through repetition, is “a tanti” (“so many”). The repetitions highlight the numbers of men who have been betrayed by women, according to Guglielmo, but also to reinforce the concept of “many”.

Ford (2012, p.47) draws correlation between perpetuum mobile string figure and “fragmented violin semiquaver figures” with the women “who flitter annoyingly around him”. Guglielmo’s irritation is expressed through insistent repetition of notes (as in “Ogni giorno ve lo mostro”, “Each day I show it”) and repetition of words. These express the constant frustration and irritation felt by Guglielmo, perhaps at himself for wrongfully championing women as well as frustration at women for infidelity. Ford goes onto parallel the “zany hypermetric and thematic structure” of this aria and the conflicts between vocal and orchestral passages with Guglielmo’s rage (p.47). His anger compromises the structural and motivic unity of this aria. Despite these relationships, meaning does not have to be immanent in the music for it to be apparent in performance. This is due to the multimodality of expressive devices which define opera. Thus, music alone may struggle to convey meaning unless that meaning is constrained through written, acted or sung language.

As can be seen from the following variety of interpretations of the conclusion to Così fan tutte, the dichotomies raised by the opera, are not fully resolved. Gazzola (2015, p.105) notes that just as the libretto did not have a beginning, “the action begins in medias res”, so too does it not have an end, it is “a veritable opera aperta” (p.121). Gazzola posits that the true lieto fine may only occur if Ferrando and Guglielmo discard their chivalrous, outmoded worldview and replace it with a modern, libertine one (p.122). Goehring (1995, p.133) treats the lesson as that of balancing passion with reason to successfully chart a course through the natural world. Lütteken’s (2009, p.241) interpretation is that of a reimagining of the role that reason should play, it cannot function as a salvation, but rather, as “a mere emergency anchor that protects man from the worst”. Lösel (2017) concludes that Così fan tutte points towards the fundamental ineffectiveness of the Enlightenment regarding interpersonal morality. He views the conclusion as Mozart and Da Ponte’s “invitation to reconsider its own need for God” (p.137). A balance between all of these interpretations may be considered as the didactic message of Così fan tutte. One must base worldviews upon evidence and reason with aspirations to a transcendent morality. In turn, this may mitigate the proclivity to inflict emotional pain upon the self and the other.


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By Connor Gaydon

I am a Music graduate and piano teacher for 5+ years. I have created a range of resources to broaden and deepen the knowledgebase of the Improving Pianists community.