Reconsidering Così Fan Tutte

“This world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel,” said Horace Walpole. Così fan tutte is certainly a comedy. Its librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, was a man who thought; its composer, Mozart, was without any question a man who felt. Da Ponte was a genius, but Così fan tutte is performed and loved today because the greatest of all geniuses, Mozart, gave us its music—music that at times is comic, at times light, but at other times passionate and profound.

Così fan tutte means “so do they all,” with tutte (all) in the feminine. What is it that they all do? Don Alfonso, the cynical baritone who organizes the practical joke that forms the plot of the opera, thinks he knows what all women do: they are fickle. To prove his point, he persuades the heroes of the opera, Ferrando and Guglielmo, to leave their fiancées, return in disguise, and steal the hearts of Dorabella and Fiordiligi away from the men they are engaged to marry.

This is the kind of nasty plot that is typical of the comedies of the 17th and 18th centuries, a plot involving disguise and deception, in which the reality of human emotion is denied and mocked. Contemporary audiences generally dislike comedies of this period—after all, there is more feeling as well as more humor in an I Love Lucy program.

The early scenes of Così fan tutte are standard 18th-century comedy. Guglielmo tells us his beloved is perfection, the phoenix: “La fenice è Fiordiligi.” Ferrando thinks it is his fiancée: “Dorabella è la fenice.” Neither the music nor the words suggest men in love; what we hear instead is fun and energy.

Ferrando and Guglielmo, who have been teased by Don Alfonso into going along with his gag, pretend to leave for war. They come back wearing ridiculous disguises and proceed to woo the ladies. It is not clear at this point which gentleman is after which lady, but the way they go about showing their love is by pretending to commit suicide. They are “saved” by the maid, Despina, who disguises herself as a doctor and cures them with a giant magnet. All in good fun.

In Act I, there are solo arias, duets, trios, sextets, and a chorus. One thing is missing: there are no love duets. Nowhere in the opera does Ferrando sing a love duet with Dorabella, nor does Fiordiligi ever sing a duet with Guglielmo. Why should they? They don’t love each other. If they did, it would break the mood. There is no place for love in 18th-century comedy.

Something significant happens in Act II. The young women do not recognize their disguised lovers, but there is a different thing they recognize. They know which of the two they prefer: neither prefers her finacé! Dorabella will take the dark one: “Prenderò quel brunettino.” Fiordiligi likes the blond one, “il biondino.” Dorabella, the mezzo, has chosen Guglielmo, the bass. Fiordiligi, the soprano, likes Ferrando, the tenor. The situation at the beginning was all wrong. Can a mezzo ever wind up with a tenor? Ridiculous.

Not too much further into the second act, Guglielmo and Dorabella sing a duet, “Il core vi dono” (I give you my heart). It is the first male-female duet in Così fan tutte. We can hear the hearts beating in the words and in the music: “Perche batte batte batte qui?” (Why is it beating beating beating here?). In literature, when we say two hearts are beating as one, it is merely a figure of speech. In music, we hear it; we feel it; we know it has to be true. This love duet is one of the most beautiful in all opera. But it is more than that. It is also the most convincing. The music has taken us from the coldness of comedy to the warmth of love.

When the women fall in love, they become real. Each has her own personality. Dorabella has given in to her passion. Fiordiligi cannot come to terms with her emotions. Her great second-act aria, “Per pietà,” is filled with doubt and turmoil. When Fiordiligi finally surrenders to Ferrando, it is not because she is fickle. She has found the great love of her life. She tried to be loyal to Guglielmo as long as possible, but she failed. Besides, Guglielmo never deserved her loyalty, nor did Ferrando merit devotion from Dorabella. Both men had casually agreed to play Don Alfonso’s game. The initial pairings were wrong from the start.

Don Alfonso has won his bet. He makes Guglielmo and Ferrando sing after him “Così fan tutte,” to the notes E F A D E. We heard almost the same theme in the overture: E F A D G E, a sequence of half notes, marked andante. It is neither a light nor a comic melody. Rather, it sounds solemn, almost ominous. Is that the appropriate music for asserting that women are fickle and love is a joke?

At the end of the opera, the disguises are taken off and the lovers are married. Who marries whom? The libretto does not say. The silence of the text suggests that we go back to the beginning: Ferrando with Dorabella, Guglielmo with Fiordiligi. That is the way the final scene is usually staged. It is in keeping with the comic mood of the opera, the traditions of the times, and probably the intentions of the composer and librettist.

Once in a great while, the final scene is done differently, and the women get to marry the men they have fallen in love with. That is the way it ought to be. We know, because the music has told us so, that Fiordiligi loves Ferrando and Dorabella loves Guglielmo. We know, because the music has told us so, that their love is real. We know that if they went back to their original fiancés, the men would forever resent the women for their betrayal, and the women would hate the men for the cruelty of their joke.

If women are indeed fickle, why should Fiordiligi and Dorabella show loyalty to their original fiancés? If women are capable of true lasting love, then why shouldn’t they stay with the men they love? The answer usually given is that the opera isn’t about real people, that it is a comedy not to be taken seriously. The problem is caused by Mozart’s greatness. He was too good a composer; his music has too much feeling to go with such a silly story. The title, Così fan tutte, says that women’s emotions are not real. Mozart’s music proves that the title is wrong.

This essay was published in The Blessed Human Race by George Jochnowitz.