I watched a filmed production of this opera directed by Peter Mumford, with the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.
Mozart’s cheeky, light hearted opera was first performed in Vienna in 1790. It is a story that does not take itself too seriously, and yet provides touching moments of passion, love and guilt. Reflecting ever changing social attitudes, it has moved in and out of the standard performance repertoire, sometimes being considered immoral due to its theme of infidelity. Unusually for operas of the Classical period it has no single leading lady; instead there are four equally major roles which provides a pleasing symmetry and ample possibilities for ensemble writing.
Young lovers Ferrando and Guglielmo open the opera by singing rapturously about the beauty and faithfulness of their fiancées, sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. The older and wiser Don Alfonso tries to persuade them of the fickleness of women and the dispute ends in a wager. The two lovers agree to do everything Alfonso tells them for the next twenty four hours, in Alfonso’s attempt to prove that “all women are the same” (così fan tutte).
Dorabella and Fiordiligi are introduced next, praising their fiancés in equal measure. They practically faint with despair when Alfonso tells them that Ferrando and Guglielmo have been called off to battle. A military band and chorus accompanies their pretended departure, and Alfonso sings a wistful trio with the two ladies as the boat disappears over the horizon.
Later, in the sisters’ home, their maid Despina sings of the unworthiness of men and makes fun of their sorrow. Ferrando and Guglielmo enter disguised as Turks and make overtures of love to the sisters, but are rejected.
The disguised men feign attempted suicide by drinking arsenic. Despina, who has been bribed by Alfonso to help carry out his plan, disguises herself as a doctor and revives them.
Despina tries to persuade the sisters not to resist the Turks’ charms. They eventually agree to a little flirtation and the two couples separate in the garden. Dorabella gives in and accepts a heart shaped locket from her new lover, in exchange for the medallion Ferrando gave her. Ferrando is heartbroken by her betrayal when he finds out, and Fiordiligi is also upset, deciding to go into the army to find her fiancé.
Eventually however Fiordiligi also succumbs to temptation and the final scene opens with the two couples signing a supposed contract of marriage. The officers then return in their true characters, much to the distress of the sisters. The deception is finally revealed – the marriage is a fake (with a disguised Despina presiding over the ceremony), and Alfonso recommends to the men to forgive their fiancées, who cannot help their true natures.
This traditional production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutti is a feast for all the senses. The stunning costumes and beautifully painted backdrop transport us immediately back to eighteenth century Italy where this Shakespearian tale of romance and comical deception unfolds. Amanda Roocroft and Rosa Mannion portray the gaiety and sweetness of sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella beautifully – their duet in Act I is the picture of youth and innocence, their soprano voices blending together as one. In Act II Fiordiligi’s aria when battling with her guilt is particularly powerful and moving.
The male characters are equally well cast, and Eirian James plays a wonderfully saucy Miss Despina. In Act II, Guglielmo sings his frustrations about the fairer sex from within the audience, to their evident delight. As well as solo arias, Mozart treats us to trios, quartets and quintets; my favourite is the quartet in Act II where the two couples are drinking champagne to celebrate the imminent wedding.