Thus Do They All – opera as social satire

The genre picture of Naples as a mirror image of Viennese society

Così fan tutte

Schönbrunn Palace Theatre, Vienna 2006 Photo: Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna / Barbara Palffy
Così fan tutte

Così fan tutte

Schönbrunn Palace Theatre, Vienna 2006 Photo: Austrian Theatre Museum, Vienna / Barbara Palffy

1790 was not a good year for Mozart’s wife. Constanze was frequently ill. She required spa treatments and these were expensive, requiring money that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did not have. More than once he was forced to ask his friend Johann Michael Puchberg to lend him money. In addition, Mozart’s fifth child had died the previous year, only little Carl was still alive.

Times were hard for Mozart in Vienna, but finally he received a commission, most likely from Emperor Joseph II. A story of love and jealousy was worked into the opera “Così Fan Tutte”. Once more the libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte. It was the last time he would write a libretto for Mozart. Originally, Salieri had been commissioned to compose this work, but he was no longer working on it. According to Mozart, he deemed the material to be unworthy, but was later greatly angered in hindsight that Mozart had received the commission.

Jealousy and loose morals

“Così fan tutte o sia La scuola degli amanti” (Thus Do They All, or a School for Lovers) is set in eighteenth-century Naples. Ferrando and Guglielmo, two young officers, accept a cynical wager with Don Alfonso to test the loyalty of their fiancées. They pretend to set out on a military campaign and return to their ladies in disguise, to woo them as strange cavaliers. At first Dorabella and Fiordiligi remain steadfast, causing the pretend soldiers to fake suicide out of sheer despair. However, they are rescued and left in the care of the ladies.

Slowly their ceaseless wooing proves effective. Dorabella is the first to succumb, then Fiordiligi - a double wedding takes place.

The two disguised men stage a return in their original identities and the ladies pretend to be overjoyed by their return. Don Alfonso causes the infidelity of the women to be discovered, a heated jealousy scene ensues. The young men reveal their ploy and everybody is shamed. Don Alfonso gives the advice not to hold any grudges and to live happily ever after.

“Così Fan Tutte” was not very popular with Mozart’s peers. The libretto was considered ludicrous and immoral – after Mozart’s death the opera was frequently changed and different texts were used. Only in the 20th century was this opera elevated to equal status with his previous masterworks, “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”.

Not the best prerequisites for success

At least Joseph II enjoyed the opera. He was known to enjoy bawdy jokes at the expense of “his” Viennese and saw the opera as an opportunity to show the Viennese high society its mirror image.

He was well-disposed to Mozart and more than one of Mozart’s operas owes its existence to his direct or indirect intervention. When “Così Fan Tutte” premiered at the Burgtheater on January 26, 1790 – receiving only lukewarm applause from the audience – the emperor was not present. He suffered from tuberculosis and would die shortly afterwards at the age of 48. Things did not improve for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His successor, Joseph’s brother Leopold, was no lover of music…