Così fan tutte learning pack

An opera in two acts composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with the libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

The main vocal parts in Così fan tutte:

Ferrando – An army officer, betrothed to Dorabella. (Tenor)

Fiordiligi – A young lady from Ferrara who is now living in Naples. She is in love with Guglielmo. (Soprano)

Guglielmo – Also an army officer, friend of Ferrando and betrothed to Fiordiligi. (Baritone)

Dorabella – Fiordiligi’s sister, in love with Ferrando. (Soprano)

Don Alfonso – An older man and cynical philosopher who is a friend of the soldiers. He is a sceptic who is convinced that all women are capable of infidelity. (Baritone)

Despina – The maid to the two sisters. She is a veteran of the ways of men and has no illusions about life. (Soprano)


Act One

Ferrando and Guglielmo are arguing with the cynical bachelor Don Alfonso, defending the fidelity of their beloveds, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. They are ready to fight a duel for them but Don Alfonso instead proposes a wager: if they follow his plan and instructions, he will show them the true nature of women. Confident of victory, Ferrando and Guglielmo accept and speculate on some amusing ways to spend their winnings.

Fiordiligi and Dorabella are musing on the charms of their lovers, when Don Alfonso enters with bad news. The boys have been summoned to their regiment and must leave for war at once. When they appear with their travelling kit, there are fond farewells and promises to write to each other everyday. The men leave, and the ladies and Don Alfonso wish them a safe journey (trio: ‘Soave sia il vento’ – ‘O wind gently blowing’). Don Alfonso is left alone to sneer at such a display of empty sentiment.

Despina is complaining about her lot in life. She announces to her mistresses that breakfast is ready, but they are too agitated by the loss of their lovers to eat and Dorabella commands her to shut out the light. Despina airily advises the ladies to enjoy themselves in their lovers’ absence; at which Dorabella gives vent to her brief. Indignantly, they leave their maid and Don Alfonso enters, intending to enlist Despina in his scheme. After he has slipped her a bribe, she agrees to co-operate. Don Alfonso tells her that he has two rich friends who wish to ‘console’ the girls. Ferrando and Guglielmo enter disguised as Albanians. Despina is astonished and fails to recognise their true identities.

When Fiordiligi and Dorabella reappear, they are shocked to see that strangers have been admitted and even more appalled when the men profess their love for the two sisters. Fiordiligi makes an elaborate defence of the steadfastness. Guglielmo, Fiordiligi’s lover, then lists his own and his friend’s physical attractions, but the ladies sweep out. The men, assuming they have won the bet, are convulsed with laughter, but Don Alfonso insists that his plan is not yet complete. Ferrando reflects on the wonders of his Dorabella. Alfonso and Despina confer further. The sisters are still moping when the two strangers rush in and swallow what appears to be a phial of arsenic. They collapse and the frightened sisters call for Despina, who goes off with Don Alfonso to find a doctor. Fiordiligi and Dorabella are moved to pity. Don Alfonso returns with Despina disguised as a doctor. Claiming to be a follower of the famous Mesmer, their ‘doctor’ extracts the poison from the would-be ‘suicides’ by magnetism. The men revive and pretend to believe that they are in heaven – Fiordiligi and Dorabella must be angels, from whom they demand a kiss. The sisters resist angrily, but there is now a suspicion that their feelings may be about to change.

Act Two

Despina encourages her mistresses to flirt with their new admirers, and they decide that there can be no harm in a little more friendliness. They decide which of the strangers they will favour: Dorabella prefers the dark one, Guglielmo, while Fiordiligi plumps for the blond, Ferrando – thus selecting the other’s ‘real’ partner.

Don Alfonso summons the ladies to an entertainment – a serenade by Ferrando and Guglielmo. All parties are overcome with bashfulness. Ferrando and Fiordiligi stroll off, leaving Guglielmo to declare extravagant passion for Dorabella. She concedes and they exchange lockets. Fiordiligi returns, pursued by Ferrando. She is troubled by the tug on her loyalty, and left alone she prays that her original lover will forgive her.

Ferrando and Guglielmo exchange notes. They are both outraged that their women have failed the test. Guglielmo vows vengeance whilst Ferrando laments the loss of Dorabella. Don Alfonso persuades them to follow the charade to its end.

Despina and Dorabella discuss developments. Fiordiligi is still more reserved than her sister, but Dorabella encourages her change of heart. After they have left, Fiordiligi (spied on by the men) resolves to don a man’s uniform and follow Guglielmo to the front. But Ferrando begs her to accept his love, and she succumbs. A furious Guglielmo witnesses the scene. Don Alfonso reminds the men that women all behave the same way – ‘Così fan tutte’ – and they should not be taken too seriously.

In the final chapter of Don Alfonso’s dastardly plan the marriage of the sisters to their new lovers is to be celebrated. There is a toast, to which Guglielmo grumpily refuses to contribute. A notary – Despina in another disguise – enters and reels off the contracts. Just as the ladies sign their names, a military band is heard. Don Alfonso goes off to investigate, and returns, mock thunderstruck, to announce that the soldiers have come back unexpectedly. In the confusion, the two men disappear, re-emerging without their disguise. They feign shock and horror at what they see, vowing to kill their rivals. But finally the whole ruse is revealed to the ladies’ mortification – and Despina’s amazement. Don Alfonso declares that the lovers should embrace again, and all point the moral; happy the man who is guided by reason through the trials of life.

The structure

The first operas were created in the late 16th century by a group of Italian noblemen. Their experiments in form and content led to the development of a style known as opera seria, which dominated the European opera scene for over two centuries. At the time Mozart (an Austrian) was writing at the end of the 1700s, Italian was still considered the most fitting language for opera. In England earlier that century, Handel had written operas in Italian to much acclaim. Opera was predominantly an Italian form and composers, whatever their nationality, were most assured of international success if they wrote their operas in Italian and in the Italian style.

Italian operas had a very fixed structure. Così follows this template and is known as a ‘number opera’. The ‘numbers’ are closed musical forms like a trio or an aria, which are accompanied by the full orchestra. They are separated by recitative, a musical form that follows the rhythm of speech and is accompanied by spare chords on a harpsichord and sometimes a cello as well.

The dramatic function of recitative is to advance the plot swiftly, the narrative moving like a play. Mozart’s recitative is vibrant and lively. In Così fan tutte the Italian language is salty and earthy: the language of real people. These characters are real and contemporary, not the shepherds and princes of much of the opera in the 18th century. Characters talk to each other and have believable conversations and arguments.

The recitative drives the plot forward to a moment of reflection, excitement or perhaps anger. The harpsichord gives way to the orchestra to accompany this fuller moment of emotion – contemporary composer Harrison Birtwistle describes this type of song as ‘the poetic flowering of the moment’. If only one person sings, this is called an aria (the Italian for song). The aria began as an opportunity for virtuoso musical display by star singers but in the hands of a master dramatist like Mozart, the aria is far more than just a melody. It contributes to the plot, to character development, to the emotional impact of the opera. Not taking the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure of 20th-century song, the aria is like one elongated verse, exploring the textures and meanings of a short text. Fiordiligi’s aria ‘per pieta’ is only a few written phrases but in Mozart’s rendition becomes an eight-minute epic of repentance and humility. The text is vital but is the servant of the music. These two forms, recitative and aria, are the main building blocks of Italian opera. Mozart was also a master of the ensemble, where all the principal singers sing at once. The Act One Sextet and the Act One Finale are among the earliest and best examples of ensemble writing that is vital, dramatic and narrative based. With Mozart, the plot advances in the numbers as well as the recitatives.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – a biography

(born Salzburg, Austria 27 January, 1756; died Vienna, Austria 5 December, 1791)

Perhaps more than any other composer in history, Mozart’s life is surrounded by mythology. From his infancy, stories about his abilities were exaggerated and fabricated and his death has provided material for a hugely successful Hollywood thriller. He is perhaps the first composer in Western classical music to have attracted this kind of biographical interest, and it is no coincidence that he is essentially the first freelance composer, writing what he wanted to write, rather than what he was told to write by a royal or religious patron. With this romantic approach to composition comes a natural interest in the personality behind the music and Mozart’s life certainly does not disappoint in this respect.

Mozart confirms (or perhaps even helped to create?) many myths that we have in our society about genius. He was a prodigy – his talent seems to have been innate and present from a very early age. We would like to believe that he didn’t ever have to work at his compositions, but rather they were handed down to him from somewhere celestial. He was a passionate individual – he left the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg in a storm after refusing to be treated like a servant. He was a hedonist; interested in the pleasures that life has to offer. And of course he died extremely young at only 35.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, in 1756. His father, Leopold, was a violinist, music theorist, composer and teacher. Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, both showed astonishing musical talent from an early age. Wolfgang would pick out chords at the keyboard when he was only three years old and, at the age of six, he was discovered writing notes in a mess of blots and smudges, which was proudly announced to be a concerto! At about the same time he taught himself to play the violin, and was soon able to play chamber music perfectly, although his father had given him no lessons.

Trawling round Europe

Leopold Mozart – realising that he was sitting on a goldmine – took his two ‘prodigies of nature’ on several gruelling tours to show them off to the nobility and paying public of Europe. Whilst travelling along poorly kept roads, the young Mozart would spend the time writing music, which he retained in his head until he could write it down at the end of the day. A letter from this time reminds us just how young the performer was – in 1762, Leopold refers to Mozart ‘cutting a new tooth’.

After excursions to Munich and Vienna the family undertook a long journey culminating in triumphal receptions in Paris and London (1763-4). Both children came down with smallpox, but, undaunted, Leopold took them off round Europe again. In 1768, Mozart began his operatic career with La finta semplice, aged only 12. By this time, he was also writing instrumental music: symphonies, wind ensemble pieces and, inspired by Joseph Haydn, string quartets.

Impressive in Italy

In 1770, Leopold took his son on a tour of Italy. During the trip, two myths are particularly interesting. Firstly, to prove that it was not his father but Mozart writing such advanced music, the young Wolfgang is said to have agreed to undertake a trial in which he (successfully) wrote an orchestral aria in complete isolation. Also during this trip, the Mozarts visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome. After only one hearing of Allegri’s Miserere (a 20-minute, eight-part choral work), it is alleged that Mozart was able to write down the whole piece note for note having never seen the score, which had in fact never left the chapel.

Work experience

At 15, Mozart started his first full-time paid job as music master for the Archbishop of Saltzburg. His relationship with the Archbishop was incredibly fiery and after a youth spent rubbing shoulders with European aristocrats and royals, the young Mozart did not take kindly to being treated as a common servant.

In 1777, frustrated with his employer, Mozart visited the court of Carl Theodor at Mannheim looking for a position. Although he was unsuccessful in this, during his four-month stay he made a number of useful contacts amongst the singers and orchestra and acquainted himself with the progressive musical style. Then in 1780, after leaving the employ of the Archbishop following a serious dispute, he was finally given the opera commission that he so dearly wanted from Carl Theodor, who was now Elector of Bavaria. Idomeneo was based on a French setting of an ancient Greek myth and afforded Mozart the opportunity to use chorus, dancers and lavish spectacle.

During his initial visits to Mannheim, Mozart had fallen in love with Aloysia Weber, a singer, but when she married someone else Mozart turned his attentions to her younger sister, Constanze. They were married in Vienna in 1782 where Mozart was now desperately trying to earn a living as a freelance composer.

A match made in Heaven – Mozart and da Ponte

Perhaps Mozart’s finest operas were written in the last five years of his short life. Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) was written in 1786. The librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte, with whom Mozart produced two other successful operas: Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1790).

Librettist, lover, lout

Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838) was a colourful character. After becoming a priest in 1773, he spent some time as a poet in Venice. He was forever escaping from his creditors, or from various scandals, and in 1779 was expelled from the city for writing scurrilous political verse. After a short time in Germany he arrived in Vienna where he eventually obtained the post of poet to the Italian theatre in 1783. During that year da Ponte and Mozart met for the first time and forged their hugely successful partnership, borne of the same craftsman-like attitude to their work, and the ability to tailor and trim their contributions to fit those of their collaborator.

Salt of the earth

Creating the text for comic opera was da Ponte’s speciality and the genre suited Mozart well. Its unpretentious and earthy style was popular in Vienna. It portrayed people from everyday life rather than abstract ideals – the man or woman familiar from the family or the street rather than gods, heroes or classical archetypes. All three collaborations between the two artists explore very human matters of love, lust, betrayal and forgiveness.

Close collaboration

Mozart and da Ponte worked in a true collaborative relationship in producing these operas. The story goes that during the writing of Don Giovanni, which was premiered in Prague, Mozart and da Ponte occupied apartments on opposite sides of the same street and used to communicate with each other by yelling suggestions and ideas back and forth.

Così was the final opera produced by Mozart and da Ponte. Unusually in da Ponte’s output, the libretto uses an original story, rather than taking a pre-existing one. The theme of fidelity and promiscuity appears to have been close to da Ponte’s heart. Well known for his interest in the fairer sex, one of his mistresses during his 10 years in Vienna was Adriana del Bene, a fine singer with a stupendous vocal range, known as ‘La Ferrarese’. Mozart was far less keen on this woman, but nonetheless da Ponte prevailed on him to cast her as Fiordiligi in Così.

Mozart however got even by writing an impossible aria for her to sing. Come scoglio is full of incredibly wide intervals and absurd jumps from the top to the bottom of the soprano range and was intended to poke fun at ‘La Ferrarese’. It’s now recognised as one of the show-off arias for sopranos.

Not for the Victorians

Though the rather racy plot did not offend the Viennese sensibilities of the time, throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered risqué. As such, Così fell out of the operatic repertoire for many years. It was not until after World War II that it regained its place in the standard operatic repertoire where it remains a favourite to this day.

The final year

1791, Mozart’s final year, was one of frantic activity. As well as numerous instrumental works, he composed the (unfinished) Requiem, which had been commissioned by an unknown messenger on behalf of an anonymous patron. Work on Requiem was interrupted by another opera, La clemenza di Tito, and when he resumed work on the Requiem progress was hindered by the onset of an illness. At the same time, Mozart was also busily working on his final operatic project, Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Whilst desperately working on these two compositions, he began to see the visits of the unknown messenger as omens of doom and finally became convinced that he had been poisoned in a conspiracy against him, though this was never proved. He died in Vienna in December 1791, two months after the opening night of The Magic Flute, aged only 35. He left no money for a proper funeral and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.