Così fan tutte

The Characters

Ferrando

Ferrando

Voice type: Tenor

Character Traits:

  • Good-natured 
  • Naïve
  • Romantic

Need to know:

A softer character than his friend Guglielmo, Ferrando is a heart-on-sleeve romantic. While Guglielmo is worrying about dinner, Ferrando can only think of love. The crooning loveliness of his ‘Un'aura amorosa’ and the love that persists even through betrayal in ‘Tradito schernito’ tells us that, unlike his friend, he will have no trouble forgiving his wayward lover.

Both Ferrando and Guglielmo are typical of their voice types. Although there’s no real hero in Così, the tenor Ferrando, with his lovelorn sincerity, comes pretty close.

Guglielmo

Guglielmo

Voice type: Bass

Character traits:

  • Charismatic
  • Assured
  • Playful

 Need to know:

If there’s a leader among the two young men then it’s definitely Guglielmo. It’s his confidence (bordering on arrogance) in his own attractions and Fiordiligi’s fidelity that allows Don Alfonso to manipulate the lovers so successfully. The pleasure with which he announces his conquest of Dorabella to Ferrando reveals a cruel streak in him – is this another cynical Alfonso in the making?

It’s tempting to see Ferrando and Guglielmo as straightforward characters, drawn from the opera buffa tradition, with little depth or complexity. But look at how Guglielmo develops through the opera, moving from the assurance of ‘Non siate ritrosi’ to the bitterness of ‘Donne mie’ and the barely-concealed anger in the finale.

 

Don Alfonso

Don Alfonso

Voice type: Bass

Character traits:

  • Cynical
  • Manipulative
  • Suave

Need to know:

Don Alfonso is the puppet-master for Così’s romantic drama, proposing the bet that leads to all the comic confusion. Why does he do it? Mozart and Da Ponte never give us an answer, and it’s this ambiguity that makes Don Alfonso so compelling a character – the mystery at the heart of the opera.

The only principal character not to sing a proper aria, Don Alfonso uses recitative – the speech-like music that moves the plot along – to direct the actions of others, who react emotionally. He is the catalyst, both musically and dramatically, for all the opera’s events.

 

 

Fiordiligi

Fiordiligi

Voice type: Soprano

Character traits:

  • Passionate
  • Sincere
  • Dramatic

Need to know:

Literally translated, Così fan tutte means ‘Women all do thus’ – i.e. women are all unfaithful. She may eventually be tempted into straying, but the conflicted, deep-feeling Fiordiligi complicates this cynical philosophy, inviting the audience to make their own judgement. 

Così fan tutte is a comic opera (opera buffa) but Fiordiligi’s music is often much closer to a style we’d expect from opera seria – more formal and more dramatic than Dorabella or Despina’s arias, with their light-hearted musical prettiness.

At the end of the opera we assume that Fiordiligi and her sister return to their original lovers, but there is nothing either in the score or the libretto to confirm this absolutely. Recently directors have begun to explore this ambiguity and its implications for the opera’s happy ending.

Dorabella

Dorabella

Voice type: Mezzo-Soprano/Soprano

Character traits:

  • Affectionate
  • Inconstant
  • Impulsive

Need to know:

A less complicated character than her sister, Dorabella’s music reflects her simpler, sunnier nature. Lyrical lines and lovely melodies bring a youthful sweetness to her music, and she often sings duets where her music mirrors that of other, stronger characters, like her sister or Ferrando.

More easily swayed than her determined sister, Dorabella is the first to fall for her ‘Albanian’ lover, urging her sister to follow suit. She’s also not immune to a little bribery – a gift of a heart-shaped locket is enough to win her love.

Mozart made no distinctions between sopranos and mezzo-sopranos, and all his female roles are nominally for sopranos. Today, however, the role of Dorabella – consistently slightly lower than Fiordiligi – is more often sung by a mezzo-soprano.

Despina

Despina

Voice type: Soprano

Character traits:

  • Confident
  • Sassy
  • Energetic

Need to know:

Still a teenager, Despina combines the confidence of youth with the cynicism of one three times her age. Together with Don Alfonso, she takes the lead in pulling the puppet-strings in this drama.

Despina is the lightest soprano on stage. Her arias are character-pieces, full of humour, rhythmically light on their feet. Often appearing in disguise through the opera, it has become traditional for the singer playing Despina to disguise her voice too, impersonating first a doctor and then a notary.

The story

Act I

A bet puts female fidelity to the test

Philosopher Don Alfonso is passing the time in the coffee house with his friends Ferrando and Guglielmo. Talk turns to love, and cynical Alfonso warns the young men of the dangers of women. They both protest; their fiancées Dorabella and Fiordiligi are good and faithful.

Unconvinced, Don Alfonso proposes a wager. He bets the men 100 zecchini that he can devise a plan that will prove both women unfaithful. Ferrando and Guglielmo accept, and are so confident in their victory that they immediately start planning how they will spend their winnings.

 

The bet is on

In the garden of their villa, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi talk happily about their fiancées Ferrando and Guglielmo. Suddenly Don Alfonso enters, apparently distraught; the men have been summoned by their regiment and must leave for battle immediately. The two lovers arrive and they all say an extended farewell.

Alfonso and the women stand on the shore, tearfully waving goodbye. The men may believe they’ve already won, but Alfonso thinks otherwise. Trusting a woman, he says, is as pointless as trying to catch the wind in a net.

Broken hearts and brilliant schemes

Overwhelmed with grief, the sisters are contemplating suicide. But their down-to-earth maid Despina dismisses their sadness. Why weep over men, she counsels, when they are all unfaithful?

Meanwhile Alfonso has persuaded the men to disguise themselves as wealthy Albanians, and enlists Despina’s help in introducing them to her mistresses as potential suitors. But neither Dorabella nor Fiordiligi are impressed by these strange men, and each vehemently swears her fidelity. They storm out, leaving the men delighted and helpless with laughter. Victory is nearly in their grasp!

A poisonous deception

The peace of the villa is suddenly disturbed by shouts and cries. The ‘Albanians’ rush in declaring that they will poison themselves if the sisters cannot and will not love them. They swallow the poison in front of the horrified women. Despina and Don Alfonso fetch a doctor (really Despina in disguise), who waits until the women are sufficiently softened by sorrow and guilt before magically ‘curing’ the men.

Recovering, the men throw themselves passionately on the women who have saved them. The women’s resolve is softening, but still they refuse to kiss them.

Act II

Choosing a suitor

Despina urges the sisters to reconsider and accept the ‘Albanians’ as their suitors. No one will know, she argues, because she’ll tell everyone that the men are there to court her. Her seize-the-day attitude is catching, and Dorabella cracks. Would it be so bad, she urges her sister, to flirt with them just a little?

The sisters then have to decide who gets which man. Dorabella chooses first, opting for the dark one (Guglielmo – her sister’s fiancé), while Fiordiligi is happy with the fair one (Ferrando, Dorabella’s fiancé).

Feelings grow

Quick to seize the moment, Don Alfonso brings the two ‘Albanians’ to meet the sisters in the garden. But everyone is suddenly shy and eventually Ferrando and Fiordiligi go for a walk, leaving Dorabella and Guglielmo alone.

Guglielmo declares his love for Dorabella. Gradually she weakens, and is eventually won over. Fiordiligi continues to reject Ferrando, but struggles with her growing feelings.

The men compare notes. Guglielmo is smug in Fiordiligi’s fidelity; Ferrando is embarrassed and angry at Dorabella. But the game isn’t over yet, Don Alfonso reminds them.

 

Fiordiligi gives in

Despina congratulates Dorabella on her new lover. Fiordiligi now admits to having feelings for the blond ‘Albanian’, but her loyalty to her fiancé convinces her instead to disguise herself as a man and follow Guglielmo to war. Ferrando intercepts her, making one last plea for her heart, and she finally gives in.

Both men are furious at their lovers’ betrayal, but Alfonso consoles them. All women behave like this, he says. He suggests a suitable punishment for the unfaithful women: marriage.

 

The wedding day

Preparations for the double-wedding are complete, and Despina and Don Alfonso congratulate themselves on a successful plan. The couples enter, but suddenly a military march sounds, and Don Alfonso announces that the fiancés have returned. The lovers scatter in fright, and the men disappear to remove their disguises.

Returning as themselves, Ferrando and Guglielmo now confront the sisters, who confess all. The men confess in their turn, and soon the whole story is revealed. The women ask for forgiveness, which is granted, and everyone agrees that it is better to smile than cry.

The Music

Così fan tutte (1790) was Mozart’s third and final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a sophisticated climax to a trio of innovative operas (which also includes Le nozze di Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787) that took a rigid, formalised musical genre full of stock characters and gave it new humanity and musical fluency.

Look at how much of the opera is made up of ensembles – duets, trios, quartets, even sextets. Mozart’s interest here is in the interaction between people, and his music adapts into wonderfully fluid, continuous forms to enable this. Examples include the Act I sextet ‘Alla Bella Despinetta’, in which the sisters first meet the ‘Albanians’ – a character-packed musical episode whose sudden shifts of mood and style are achieved with breathtaking ease.

Fiordiligi is arguably Mozart’s most complicated heroine, a figure whose struggle between fidelity and desire is charted in music of rare psychological detail and enormous technical difficulty. Compare her to Figaro’s sunny Susanna and you see just how far Mozart has progressed in his portrayal of musical character.

One of the most unusual musical aspects of Così is the way in which it dissolves the traditional musical divide between comic opera (opera buffa) and dramatic opera (opera seria). Mozart keeps his audience guessing, pivoting swiftly from the broad comedy of Despina and the ‘Albanians’ to the near-tragic seriousness of Fiordiligi.

Though only a few minutes long, the opera’s overture neatly sets the tone for the action to come. Just listen to the sardonic opening oboe solo (an instrument associated through the opera with Don Alfonso), and the erratic mood of the Presto section, its semiquavers shifting between anxiety and ebullient joy.

Highlight: Fiordiligi’s Aria ‘Come Scoglio’

In an opera full of stand-out arias, Fiordiligi’s ‘Come Scoglio’ is the highlight. It’s written as a showpiece for a dramatic coloratura soprano – a particularly agile, high type of soprano, capable of extremes of emotion and technical skill.

Fiordiligi sings that she is ‘like a rock’ – unmoved by temptation. But the music tells a different story. Spanning more than two octaves, from the very bottom to the top of the soprano’s range, and featuring lots of unusually large and striking musical leaps, it reflects the opposing forces that pull the character in two different directions.

 

Fiordiligi’s racing thoughts are expressed in the semiquaver ornamentation that runs throughout the aria, that just cannot seem to settle anywhere. Her words tell us that she is a rock – strong against the raging seas – but the music paints her instead as a ship, battered in every direction by the waves of fate.

While Fiordiligi’s emotions are absolutely sincere, Mozart’s music never quite loses touch with the opera’s comic spirit. The style is deliberately exaggerated, almost a parody of what an opera aria should be, as though the composer is poking fun at a character (and a genre) that takes itself just a bit too seriously.

 

Highlight: Trio – ‘Soave sia il vento’

This trio for Don Alfonso, Fiordiligi and Dorabella is probably the opera’s best-known passage. Why? Because it’s a rare moment where humour, parody and excess all fall away, leaving behind the simplest musical beauty.But, as ever with Mozart, what sounds simple is in fact the result of tremendous musical sophistication.

Sung as Ferrando and Guglielmo depart ‘to war’, the trio is an extended musical farewell. The two men set off in a boat, and you can hear the gentle waves of the sea that carries them away in the lapping semiquaver accompaniment that underpins the whole trio.

 

The sincerity of the sisters’ shared feelings is expressed in arching homophonic vocal lines, which move in parallel throughout. There’s nothing affected or performative here, just an organic outpouring of emotion.

While the sisters share one musical thought, Don Alfonso’s vocal line takes a path all its own. Listen to how he pushes to the foreground in a cadenza-like moment towards the end of the trio. Ever the showman, he cannot resist the opportunity for a little dramatic display.

A minor key would be the obvious choice for a sad musical farewell, but Mozart defies expectations to great effect. The key signature of sunny E major gives the music a particular pathos. The effect is of smiling through tears.