In 1781 Mozart won independence from the ties that had bound him to his native Salzburg. After a childhood during which he had astonished Europe by his feats of musicianship, there had been a less satisfactory period of adolescence in which his gifts were the greater but his chances to display them the less. An attempt to seek an honourable position in Mannheim or in Paris in 1777 and 1778 led to nothing, but the successful reception of his opera Idomeneo in Munich in January 1781 encouraged him in his quarrel with his patron, the Archbishop of Salzburg, during the course of a visit to Vienna immediately afterwards.
For the last ten years of his life Mozart lacked the security of patronage and was without the careful advice of his father, Leopold Mozart, who remained as Vice-Kapellmeister in Salzburg, unable any longer to guide and plan his son's career. An imprudent marriage did nothing to improve his position, but Vienna brought one very great advantage. At last it was possible to write directly for the theatre. Mozart's first Vienna opera during this period was the German Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), in 1782. This was followed in 1786 by the first of his collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, the Italian opera Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). In 1787, the year of his father's death, came a further opera with Lorenzo da Ponte, Don Giovanni, and in 1790, with the same poet, Così fan tutte, otherwise known as La scuola degli amanti (The School of Lovers). The following year Mozart w rote two operas, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) as a coronation opera for Prague and a German magic opera, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) for a suburban theatre in Vienna, where it was still running at the time ofhis death early in December.
Così fan tutte (All Women Behave Like That) was commissioned, at the wish of the Emperor Joseph II, after the successful revival of The Marriage of Figaro in August 1789. The initial run of the new opera, which opened on 26th January, was cut short by the death of the Emperor on 20th February and a consequent period of court mourning. The five earlier performances were followed by five more during the summer. In 1791 there was a performance in German in Frankfurt, and performances in the original Italian in Leipzig, Prague and Dresden. After Mozart's death the opera enjoyed some popularity, but the apparent frivolity of its subject proved generally unacceptable as the nineteenth century progressed. It was revived in its original form by Hermann Levi in Munich in 1896 and by Gustav Mahler in Vienna in 1900.
The story of Così fan tutte is, in essence, an old one. The cynical Don Alfonso induces his young friends Guglielmo and Ferrando to test the fidelity of the sisters they love, Fiordiligi and Dorabella. This they do by pretending to go to the war, immediately returning to woo each other's beloved in the disguise of Albanian noblemen. Their success, abetted by the clever little maid-servant Despina, leads to the start of a wedding-banquet, interrupted by the supposed return of the two lovers and a final revelation by Don Alfonso of the lesson to be learned from what has happened.
The first scene of the first act opens in a coffee-house in Naples, where Ferrando and Guglie1mo are in dispute with Don Alfonso. La mia Dorabella capace non è (My Dorabella would never be untrue), sings Ferrando, a protest in which Guglielmo joins in defence of the honour of his Fiordiligi, while Don Alfonso maintains the contrary, which his experience of life has taught him. They nearly come to blows, but Don Alfonso calms the two young men, and goes on to proclaim his own view, that the fidelity of women is as rare as the phoenix, È la fede delle femmine / come l’araba Fenice. The argument continues, until Don Alfonso suggests a wager to test the constancy of the two sisters. In the following terzetto Ferrando promises to pay for a fine serenade, Una bella serenata, from his winnings, while Guglielmo will give a banquet.
The second scene is set in the garden of the two sisters, leading down to the shore, with a view of the Bay of Naples in the distance. To the gentle murmur of the music and the soft tones of the clarinets the girls sing of their lovers, gazing at the miniatures they hold in their hands. Ah guarda, sorella, (Look, sister, where could you find a nobler face?) sings Fiordiligi, while Dorabella adds her own rapturous admiration of the features of her Ferrando. In livelier music they swear to be true, and then seem ironically ready for some frivolity , when Don Alfonso comes in, apparently with bad news. In the first solo aria of the opera, he announces a disaster, Vorrei dir, e cor non ho (I haven't the heart to tell you), and this turns out to be that the two young men have been called to the war. A quintet follows, as Ferrando and Guglielmo come in, in evident despair. Sento, o Dio, sings Guglielmo, and Ferrando pretends equal distress, while the girls declare that death is preferable to parting. The young men, in a brief aside to Don Alfonso, think they are winning the bet, but he remains confident. The quintet ends with a declaration of the bitterness of parting. A drum is heard and the approaching march of soldiers, praising the glory of battle, Bella vita militar!. A boat sails to the landing-stage and to the tears of the sisters, the two young men embark. With promises to write, the sisters wave goodbye and with Don Alfonso speed them on their way in a brief ensemble Soave sia il vento (May the wind blow gently and the wave be calm). Left alone Don Alfonso can vent his cynicism.
The scene changes to a room in the house. Despina is preparing chocolate and complaining about the drudgery of her life, lightened by an illicit sip of the drink she is making. Fiordiligi and Dorabella come in evident despair, expressed in dramatic accompanied recitative. Dorabella, in an aria, Smanie implacabili, (Implacable frenzy), longs histrionically for death. Despina, when the matter is explained to her, offers her own common sense answer, that there are other men. Echoing Don Alfonso's view of women, she declares the uselessness of expecting fidelity in men or soldiers, In uomini / In soldati / sperare fedeltà? They go out, and Don Alfonso comes in, declaring his intention of bribing Despina to further the plot he has devised. Her agreement assured, he ushers in Ferrando and Guglielmo, disguised as Albanians. Despina does not recognise them but finds their foreign appearance grotesque, as Don Alfonso presents them to the fair little Despina, alla bella Despinetta. He stands aside, as Fiordiligi and Dorabella enter and tell Despina to dismiss the unwanted visitors, who now protest their love. Don Alfonso and Despina are sure that the girls will give in, while the young men are equally certain of their constancy, and now Don Alfonso comes forward, as if newly arrived, and greets the two disguised lovers as old friends. As they urge their love, Fiordiligi dramatically proclaims her steadfastness. Come scoglio immoto resta (Like a rock I stand unmoved ), she declares. The girls try to leave, but the lovers, supported by Don Alfonso, beg them to stay, and Guglielmo, whose attentions are directed to Dorabella, protests his love in an aria, Non siate ritrosi, occhietti vezzosi (Do not let your charming eyes be shy), going on to advertise his own good points. The girls withdraw and in a terzetto Don Alfonso asks the men w hat they are laughing at, the comedy is not yet over. Ferrando, now confident, sings of his love for Dorabella, Un'aura amorosa (A loving breeze brings balm to my heart). Now Despina takes a hand in the plot, and assures Don Alfonso that she can bring about the desired result.
The scene changes to the garden, where Fiordiligi and Dorabella still lament the departure of their lovers, but now Ferrando and Guglielmo come in, apparently resolved to poison themselves for love; they drink and fall down prostrate on the grass. Despina is summoned to help and recommends a doctor, and re-appears shortly afterwards so disguised, offering the latest remedy with a large magnet to draw out the poison, a reference to the Mozarts' friend Anton Mesmer and his theories of animal magnetism. The two men are revived and beg a kiss, but are again rejected. Nevertheless the plotters see success in sight.
The second act opens in a room in the house, where Despina reasons with her two mistresses and expresses her philosophy in an aria, Una donna a quindici anni, explaining that any girl of fifteen ought to know how to handle men. Little by little the two girls decide that there is no harm in an innocent flirtation and in a duet declare their preference. Prenderò quel brunettino (I will take the dark one), sings Dorabella, while Fiordiligi prefers the fair-haired one. Don Alfonso calls them into the garden. By the landing-stage there is a boat decked with flowers and the two lovers have arranged a serenade, played by a wind band. Don Alfonso urges the reluctant young men on, taking Dorabella's hand as Despina takes Fiordiligi's, leading them forward, La mano a me date, movetevi un pò! (Give me your hand, move a little). The lovers are now left alone. Fiordiligi and Ferrando walk off together, and Guglielmo protests further his , love for Dorabella, and replaces Ferrando's miniature that she wears with a locket of his own.
As Guglielmo and Dorabella walk away, arm in arm, the other couple returns, Ferrando still pleading with Fiordiligi and threatening suicide. As he leaves, she expresses her changing feelings, begging pardon of the absent Guglielmo, Ei parte..... senti.....ah no! ...Per pietà, ben mio, perdona. She walks away, and Ferrando and Guglielmo re-appear. The former delights Guglielmo with news of Fiordiligi's apparent constancy, but is dismayed at what he learns of his Dorabella, who has evidently given away his portrait, which Guglielmo now shows him. Guglielmo now expresses his doubts, Donne mie, la fate a tanti. Ferrando returns and sings of his disillusionment, and Don Alfonso applauds his misery and tells the relatively complacent Guglielmo to wait a little longer.
The next scene is set in a room with a number of doors, a looking-glass and a little table. Despina tells Dorabella that she has acted sensibly, when Fiordiligi bursts in and announces that she loves her new wooer, but will still resist the temptation. Dorabella tells of the power of love, a little thief, a little serpent, that takes away peace of mind. Fiordiligi still will not give way, and tells Despina to bring down the young men's uniforms and swords from upstairs, where they are stored, and to order horses so that she and her sister may join their old lovers at war. Guglielmo, overhearing all this, is full of admiration. In a duet she tells of her hope to join Guglielmo, Fra gli amplessi, in pochi istanti, but is joined by Ferrando, who threatens to die of love, if she deserts hirn. She gives in, and the two go out together, while Don Alfonso restrains Guglielmo with difficulty.
When Ferrando returns, Don Alfonso suggests that the best thing to do is to marry the girls that very evening. Women are fickle but they cannot help it. In fact Così fan tutte, they are all alike, a verdict heartily endorsed by the two young heroes. Despina re-appears to say that the girls have agreed to the marriage.
The scene is now a richly decorated room. There is an orchestra in attendance. A table is set for four, with silver candlesticks, and four servants richly dressed. Despina gives orders for the candles to be lit, while Don Alfonso expresses his delight. The chorus welcomes the couples accompanied by the orchestra as they come in and take their places at the table and start to eat. The lawyer, Despina in disguise, comes in with the marriage contracts, which she intones through her nose, but at this moment the soldiers' chorus of the first ac t is heard off-stage and Don Alfonso announces the imminent return of the lovers from the war. The "Albanians" are hustled out, with Despina, and the two men quickly return as themselves, while Despina comes in again, without her lawyer's hat, explaining that her costume was intended for a masked ball. Don Alfonso allows the marriage contracts that the girls, but not the men, had signed, to fall to the floor and now Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to find the papers and reproach their faithless partners. Don Alfonso then reveals the plot, as Ferrando and Guglielmo retire for a moment and return wearing something of their old disguise. The girls realise at last w hat has happened and seek forgiveness, which is readily granted, and all ends happily, as they sing in praise of the man guided by reason in good and bad times, Fortunato l’uom che prende ... da ragion guidar si fa.
Reviews...for the price of these discs one would be pleased to come across such a performance in the opera house. - Penguin Guide