The Fortunes of Così fan tutte

(and a fine new recording that finally does it justice)

by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

© 2000-2001 by T.L. Hubeart Jr.

Così fan tutte (K. 588) was the last of three operas that Mozart wrote in collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. Unlike its predecessors Le nozze di Figaro (K. 492) and Don Giovanni (K. 527), which were based on pre-existing plays, Così’s origins are rather scantily documented. Professor Alan Tyson, in his valuable book on the autographs of Mozart’s works, remarks that not only is there little to go on from Mozart’s own correspondence and nothing from any of the original cast, but "even the librettist Da Ponte’s memoirs, always disappointing where his collaboration with Mozart is concerned, are particularly unforthcoming" about this opera.1 Even what was previously thought to be fact--the opera’s supposed commission by Emperor Joseph II--is now regarded as dubious, given that the foundation is apparently little more than a few ambiguous words from Niemetschek’s 1798 Mozart biography ("he wasn’t capable of refusing the commission; the text was expressly imposed") and an 1837 elaboration of this by one Friedrich in Reise und Liebe-Skizzen.2


Another disadvantage that Così suffers is a long tradition of denigration that flourished in the nineteenth century, when the subject was considered "trivial and scandalous, degrading to the romantic idealization of women."3 While Mozart’s final opera seria, La clemenza di Tito (K. 621), was being used by Mozart’s widow for benefit concert performances and going through numerous editions (six of them by 1810),4 Così suffered distortion via a host of (mostly German) adaptations, although at the end of the century and at the beginning of the twentieth, conductors such as Hermann Levi and composer-conductors like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss attempted to revive the work in a form closer to Mozart’s intentions.5

Così and the conductor's scissors

But even when the fashion of transmogrifying the opera via an alien libretto had passed, the score was still treated cavalierly, with numerous omissions of arias and deletions of various stretches of music. The first recording of this opera that I myself owned--a Deutsche Grammophon LP set of a performance at the 1974 Salzburg Festival conducted by Karl Böhm, which I bought in junior high school and long ago gave away (apparently never released on CD, thankfully)5a--made so many cuts in the music that I now wonder if it should have been billed as the "Reader’s Digest Version" of Così! But Böhm’s cuts do stem from a tradition that goes as far back as Mozart’s autograph and early manuscript copies of it, where contemporary hands have marked passages for deletion;6 and the fact that commercially-available recordings still remove arias from the score shows that this sad practice is still not quite dead.


It is therefore worth commenting when a recording appears that endeavors to present Mozart’s entire score--and worth rejoicing when that recording is as singularly sensational as is the recent release by Harmonia Mundi of a fine performance led by René Jacobs directing Concerto Köln (HMC 951663.65). The fact that this recording employs authentic instruments should not deter anyone from investigating this release. The instrumentalists and the singers--a fine cast consisting of Véronique Gens, Bernarda Fink, Werner Güra, Marcel Boone, Pietro Spagnoli, and Graciela Oddone--do not treat the instruments or the music itself as museum-artifact material, liable to break if handled too roughly. They perform the work instead as living music, and it blazes like a fireworks display under their collective ministrations. Rarely can the opera have sounded better than this, in my opinion. I will have more to say about this recording below.

A question of honor

A score like Così deserves a full-blooded presentation, although, until relatively recently, it has rarely even been given a fighting chance. Part of this is no doubt because of the nineteenth-century devaluation the opera suffered for the reasons mentioned above. The great Mozart scholar H.C. Robbins Landon refers to the opera's story as a "seduction plot," comparing the work to Laclos’ notorious novel Les Liaisons dangereuses and commenting, "Nowadays, we are no longer shocked by the open sexuality in Laclos or Mozart (Da Ponte) . . . ."7 René Jacobs considers Così "directly influenced by the ‘eroico-comico’ or ‘erotico-comico’ opera" that flourished in 17th century Venice.8 From such descriptions, one might expect that Così is a licentious work--that Beethoven’s adjectives of "repugnant" and "frivolous" for the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations9 might be understandable, whether or not one shares the moral scruples Beethoven professed. Actually, the most licentious incident in Così is probably the replacement of one piece of jewelry with another (in No. 23, the duet "Il core vi dono"). The battleground is not the bedroom at all, but a field where war is waged over hearts and emotions.


Of course the conquest of the ladies’ hearts could also be taken as symbolic of other sorts of conquest--although the example of Alfred Einstein’s ludicrous misinterpretation of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni as having been "one of the hero’s victims" should serve as a warning that reading double meanings into Mozart is perilous.10 My own reading of the matter is that when Fiordiligi and Dorabella relinquish their hearts, they also are understood to be compromised in terms of honor. This is a distinct thing from sexual compromise (although one certainly might lead to the other); and I think there is a very real danger that in an age in which sexuality is the fodder of trashy talk shows like "Jerry Springer" and where the adultery of a now-former American President supplies late-night comedians with material, the concept of honor may not only be misunderstood, but may be unintelligible to many people. The reason why, for instance, Shakespearean heroines like Diana in All’s Well that Ends Well or Ophelia in Hamlet11 avoid questionable situations is the same reason that Fiordiligi and Dorabella should (but do not) avoid flirting with and entertaining the supposed Albanian visitors: "tante smorfie fanno torto al nostro onor" ("such unseemly behaviour compromises our honour").12 Whether one finds current behavioral standards a sign of progress over the old code, or (as I do) a sign of moral decline, the fact remains that "honor" as it was commonly understood in the past is an essential component of this opera. One who does not comprehend this cannot make sense of much of what Mozart and Da Ponte offer us here.13


The whole basis of the opera is a wager that two officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, make with the old nobleman Don Alfonso; the nobleman bets that the officers' fiancees Dorabella and Fiordiligi will not remain faithful to them, and uses the device of having the disguised officers woo each others' fiancee--and the assistance of the ladies' saucy maid Despina. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are soon swept off their feet by the supposed "Albanians", agreeing to marry them, and Alfonso wins his wager. Nevertheless, he counsels the furious officers to accept the situation philosophically and take their fiancees back.

Some Così aberrations

The fact that "People still argue about which lover ends up with which at the opera's end, and productions often leave it up to the audience by simply having all the characters hold hands"14 tells us nothing about Mozart's opera, but only about contemporary disregard for the internal logic of the work, and about how ready the century just past has been to allow masterpieces to be mangled by directors who superimpose ideas that subvert the works they supposedly present. How on earth could anyone be in any doubt that the original pairing of the couples is restored at the end? Besides the fact that the libretto indicates a continuation of love by Ferrando for Dorabella and Guglielmo for Fiordiligi,15 any change in the pairing would surely not have required the dropping of the disguises at all: Ferrando could have remained Sempronio and Guglielmo Tizio, or they could have revealed themselves after a real wedding (not a sham one with Despina as notary), and either could then have been husband to each other's former fiancee, had such an arrangement been what either Da Ponte or Mozart wanted.


Another unfortunate artifact of revisionism as applied to Così has been a recent tendency to play part of the final scene--the section of the Act 2 Finale beginning at bar 531, "V'ingannai, ma fu l'inganno"--very slowly in order to create a pathetic moment for Despina, who sings that she has been deceived as she has deceived many others. A televised Met performance a few years ago with the wonderful Cecilia Bartoli as Despina unfortunately bought into this novelty, although the printed score clearly shows at this point both a tempo of "Andante con moto" (cut time!) and a lack of emphasis on Despina's lines, which basically serve as counterpoint to the two pairs of lovers (and are even doubled by the bassoons--surely a buffo touch--at bars 565-66!).

The modern irreverence toward great artworks that makes it necessary even to address such questions--like the whimsy involved in the stagings of a certain "maverick" director who has placed Figaro in Trump Tower and Don Giovanni in the ghetto16--shows a collective unwillingness to understand that artists create primarily to convey their own visions, and not merely to provide raw material for egocentrics who think themselves able to "improve on" a classic.

The Jacobs recording

Happily, the collective forces under René Jacobs show no compulsion to deconstruct and rebuild Mozart's opera. Nor do they handle the score timidly; their talents are substantial enough that Così under their hands and voices sounds like the ink is scarcely dry. One overt manifestation of this is what I call the "activist continuo" of Nicolau de Figueiredo, who accompanies the recitatives with considerable ornamentation of the basso continuo line, which is more usually rendered as mere chords in today's performances of late 18th century opera (a practice Jacobs considers "insipid").17 The singers have not a weak link: Gens' Fiordiligi is pitch-perfect and appropriately imperious when rejecting the supposed Albanians; Fink, also heard in the excellent recent recording by John Eliot Gardiner of Schumann's Das Paradies und die Peri, enhances a naturally beautiful vocal instrument with considerable technique; Güra and Boone make strong impressions as the jilted officers. Spagnoli's admirable Alfonso is a welcome change from some horrible presentations of the character as a hammy old dotard with too much time on his hands. Oddone meets the demands of the role of Despina with considerable verve; as far as one can tell from audio alone, she is a fantastic actress and seems to be having a great deal of fun with the disguises of the doctor and the notary. The orchestra backs up this cast with brio; excitement radiates from the performance from the very first chord of the overture.


I must admit to being slightly astonished, after reading of Alan Tyson's discoveries regarding the score of Così, to find that none of them appears to have had an impact on the present authentic-instruments recording. Tyson's recovery of a line from the libretto which Mozart seems to have omitted setting but later tried to insert,18 and of thirteen additional measures for the introduction to No. 21 ("Secondate, aurette amiche"),19 are not represented in Jacobs at all. And Guglielmo retains his traditional name, which as Tyson notes derives from the first published full score (1810, Breitkopf und Härtel) rather than from Mozart/Da Ponte, where the form is usually "Guilelmo."20 None of this, of course, damages the credibility of the recording, which is a perfectly fine presentation of the "standard score" first established by the old Gesamtausgabe of Mozart's works.21 However, it would be interesting to know whether or not Jacobs and his combined forces knew of Tyson's findings and, if so, why these were not used.


A "bonus" in the Jacobs set is a CD-ROM entitled "Discovering Così fan tutte: An Interactive Journey into the World of Mozart's Opera." This CD-ROM allows the listener to explore the world of the opera further via his or her home computer; the complete libretto, sound files of all the opera's numbers, a timeline of Mozart's life, and an interview with Jacobs are included. Some aspects of this "interactive" approach are overly cute (click on Handel's name and hear a snippet from Messiah; click on a musical term hyperlink and a small scroll unrolls with a definition), but there is a vast amount of information here which should please both novices and those who know this opera very well.


One hopes that more such performances of this work, both on stage and on record, will appear in the future. More renditions like this--rather than the sliced-and-diced versions that have predominated in past decades--are needed to illustrate the judgment Alfred Einstein expressed in 1945: " . . . the important thing is that Mozart's music for Così fan tutte is not in any way poorer than that for Figaro. It is simply different. Mozart was at the peak of his creative ability, and he wrote the work con amore."22 Thanks to performers like those assembled under Jacobs, we can now hear the work done with the same level of amore that Mozart brought to it.


(February 27, 2000; some additions made March 2, 2001; dead link fixed and note added July 4, 2007)


1Alan Tyson, Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1987, p. 177. Da Ponte in fact only mentions the work incidentally while detailing his infatuation with Adriana Gabrielli-Del Bene, also known as "la Ferrarese," who was the original Fiordiligi: "For her I wrote . . . the 'School of Lovers' with music of Mozart, an opera that holds third place among the three sisters born of that celebrated father of harmony" (--Lorenzo da Ponte, Memoirs, trans. Elisabeth Abbott. NY: New York Review Books, 2000, p. 165 and note 44 to p. 164.) One should perhaps point out that Da Ponte is here referring to the opera by its subtitle; the full title of the work is Così fan tutte ossia la scuola degli amanti.

2Florence Badol-Bertrand, "The Birth of Così: the Genesis of the Work," in the CD-ROM Discovering Così fan tutte: An Interactive Journey into the World of Mozart’s Opera. Arles: Harmonia Mundi [part of catalogue number HMC 951663.65], 1999.

3John W. Freeman, "Preface to Così fan tutte" (Italian text and a translation by Judith Schaubhut Smith), in The Metropolitan Opera Book of Mozart Operas. NY: HarperCollins, 1991, p. 391.

4H.C. Robbins Landon, ed., The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music. NY: Schirmer, 1991, p. 255.

5H.F. Redlich, (Preface), in W.A. Mozart, Così fan tutte, Edition Eulenburg, No. 920. London: Ernst Eulenburg, n.d., pp. VI-VII. (Although it is nowhere mentioned in this edition, this study score is actually a reduced reprint of the 1941 Schünemann-Soldan full score published by Peters, with new introductory matter by Redlich. A much better reprint by Dover Publications [NY, 1983] in a large, clear format includes the original "Preface" and "Editors' Commentary," translated into English, as well as a four page "Supplement" from the original edition [pp. 433ff.] dropped by Eulenberg.)

5a(UPDATE, 4 July 2007: I regret to report that since my original writing of this piece, the Opera D'oro label has rereleased this version, available from if anyone has a morbid musicological curiosity about the score butcheries described in my article.)

6On this see Tyson, pp. 204-5. Many markings denoting possible passages for deletion are given in the Schünemann-Soldan score, such as the one in No. 18 (Finale, Act 1), bars 461-476 (a passage that, per Tyson above, is also marked in the autograph, though probably not by Mozart). Some of the arias, such as Ferrando's "Ah lo veggio" (No. 24) and "Tradito, schernito" (No. 27) are also denoted by footnotes in this edition as customarily omitted. Böhm’s recording followed most of these deletion suggestions and added some new absurdities of its own (such as inserting Act 2, Sc. 14 in the midst of Sc. 13 [after the line "che strozzi lei prima e dopo me"]!!).

7H.C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years, 1781-1791. NY: Schirmer, 1989.

8René Jacobs, "Reflections on Così fan tutte--Between Past and Future," in liner notes to Così fan tutte recording referenced in text, p. 32.

9As quoted in Barry Cooper, ed., The Beethoven Compendium: A Guide to Beethoven’s Life and Music. Ann Arbor, MI: Borders Press, 1991, p. 153.

10Alfred Einstein, Mozart: His Character, His Work, trans. Arthur Mendel & Nathan Broder. London: Oxford UP, 1945, p. 439. Here Einstein not only asserts that Don Giovanni "has reached the summit of his desires" with her just before the curtain rises, and that the opera opens as she realizes that he is not Don Ottavio ("In the eighteenth century no one misunderstood this"), but that "she cannot tell Don Ottavio the whole truth; and his respiro [No. 10 Recitativo ed Aria ("Don Ottavio, son morta,") bars 52-3] has always had a tragi-comic flavor for every understanding listener"! One might pass in silence over such a mistaken interpretation from this great Mozart scholar, were it not that the emphatic certainty with which it is expressed invites laughter.

11Says Bertram of his attempts at seducing Diana: ". . . I sent to her . . . /Tokens and letters which she did re-send,/And this is all I have done" (All's Well, [Riverside]). As for Ophelia in the latter play, notice that she is ordered by Polonius to deny Hamlet’s access to her (I.iii) and tries to give back Hamlet’s "remembrances" (III.i.92 [Riverside]).

12Act 1 sc. 16 (No. 18 Finale, bars 449f).; translation by Jonathan Burton (from booklet with Jacobs recording, Harmonia Mundi).

13This is perhaps the point at which to comment on the charge that the opera is "degrading to the romantic idealization of women"--or degrading to women themselves, as the title indicates that "Thus Do They All." For one thing, I find it very hard to believe that there is anything misogynistic about what seems a rather "tongue-in cheek" proposition which lends itself to comedy. It's worth noting that the inversion of this idea--a woman remaining faithful to her husband under extraordinary troubles--gives rise to a more serious kind of work: e.g., Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale" (about the patient Grisilde), Shakespeare's Cymbeline, Beethoven's Fidelio. Also, the men who are testing the women's honor are not shown to be necessarily on higher moral ground than the women; Donald Mitchell aptly comments that Ferrando and Guglielmo "put fidelity on trial, and it proves to be a neat way of exhibiting without risk the incontinent aspirations that accompany their protestations of virtue . . . ." (--Donald Mitchell, "Foreword," in Mitchell & H.C. Robbins Landon, eds., The Mozart Companion. NY: Norton, 1956, p. xiv.) And nothing in the libretto shows Don Alfonso, that self-proclaimed expert on women, having anything to do with them save from a distance. Furthermore, what Einstein calls "Mozart's personal sympathy with his creatures" (Einstein, p. 447) is everywhere evident; numbers like Fiordiligi's rondo "Per pietà" are not written from an Olympian pedestal, from which the composer exposes feminine frailty to laughter, but from a standpoint of empathy with weakness that both men and women share. Any charges of chauvinism which the opera's pretext may encourage are, in my view, effectively undercut by the way it is presented. Only one of the characters, Don Alfonso, comes out of the opera without any significant humiliation--and this is only because he is the least "alive" of any of them and has nothing at stake but the wager of "cento zecchini" which he could easily afford losing.

14Freeman, p. 391.

15Cf. No. 27, "Tradito, schernito," and Act 2 sc. 13 recitative ["in fondo voi le amate, queste vostre cornacchie spennachiate"--"Deep down you still love them, these plucked crows of yours" (Burton's translation, referenced above)].

16See Michael P. Steinberg, "Don Giovanni against the baroque," in James M. Morris, ed., On Mozart. [No city:] Woodrow Wilson Center/Cambridge UP, 1994, p. 189, for a sympathetic and appreciative view of these (in my opinion) unfortunate productions.

17Jacobs, "Reflections on Così," p. 35.

18 Tyson, pp. 198-9 (facsimiles on p. 200).

19 Pp. 210ff.

20 Pp. 185-6.

21P. 210; as Tyson remarks here, the Gesamtausgabe editor of Così, Julius Rietz, restored the cuts made in the 1810 full score, printing the text of Mozart's autograph; however, in the case of No. 21 and a couple of other passages missing from the autograph, Rietz had to rely on early copies.

22 Einstein, p. 444.

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