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How to explain this discrepancy? One answer harkens back to the opera’s origins. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century a cascade of blame fell on the libretto: cognoscenti charged it with triviality (the comedy hinges on the well-worn conceit of disguised identity) and, worse, with immorality (the plot tests the fidelity of women tempted by sexual desire).
The Met’s first production of Così (1921-1922) recorded box-office receipts well below average despite its critical success. The opera returned only in 1951, three decades after its premiere, to finally secure a place in the core repertoire. Until then, Mozart’s presence was generally limited to Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Die Zauberflöte. Così, La Clemenza di Tito, and Idomeneo were rarities seen primarily, if at all, in festival programs.
The opera has only six characters: two pairs of lovers, Ferrando and Dorabella, her sister, Fiordiligi and Guglielmo; the cynical libertine, Don Alfonso; and the sly Despina, maid to the two women. In a mocking retort to his young friends, dead certain of the constancy of their betrothed, Don Alfonso proposes an experiment. Ferrando and Guglielmo will feign departure for military service only to return disguised as Albanians, ready to court each other’s beloved.
At first, Fiordiligi resists the advances of the false Ferrando. She declaims her resolve in the aria “Come scoglio (like a rock),” a bravura piece marked by leaps of ten and twelve notes that in the farcical context parodies the conventions of opera seria. In this 1983 recording, soprano Lucia Popp overcomes the challenges of “Come scoglio” with prodigious dexterity, range, and temperament.
Enchanted by Fiordiligi’s emphatic assertion of steadfast devotion to her betrothed, Ferrando sings meltingly of the power of love, “Un'aura amorosa (a breath of love).” Here is Léopold Simoneau, one of the foremost Mozart tenors of his generation. His refined art and sweet timbre are heard in a complete recording of the early 1950s that introduced a wider public to Così fan tutte.
The flighty Dorabella succumbs to a new love well before her sister. But by the middle of the second of the two acts, Fiordiligi, ridden by guilt at the prospect of betraying Guglielmo and filled with ardor for the disguised Ferrando, sings “Per pietà (I beseech you.)” We have chosen the affecting rendition of Sena Jurinac who was a key member of the great post-War Mozart ensembles in Vienna and Glyndebourne.
A comic opera, Così fan tutte ends happily--if ambiguously. Love triumphs. But love for whom? The joyous finale gives no clue whether order has been restored along with the original pairing of Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Ferrando, or whether, switching partners, two new couples have been formed.
Over the decades, efforts to sanitize the tale of the risqué wager and its buffo-serio onsequences ranged from relatively minor emendations of the text to liberal tamperings with the plot to jettisoning Da Ponte’s libretto altogether and replacing it with another, all the while retaining Mozart’s magnificent score. In some instances, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, alert to the damnable charade, take their turn in tricking the tricksters. And in one extreme example, a libretto based on Calderón de la Barca was substituted for the original. That the faithless characters were women and not womanizers, such as Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro, stoked the claims of immorality and denied Fiordiligi and Dorabella the forgiveness of public opinion.