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Romantic Recrimination: Mozart's 'Così Fan Tutte'

The main plot device in this darkly comic Mozart opera is false identities, as the the two main characters don disguises to test their fiancees.
Michael Pohn
Wiener Staatsoper
The main plot device in this darkly comic Mozart opera is false identities, as the the two main characters don disguises to test their fiancees.

In 1989, Madonna released the hit single "Express Yourself," a song urging girls to "put your love to the test" by forcing guys to vent their true feelings, saying, "then you'll know your love is real." Exactly 200 years earlier, Mozartwrote an opera with an almost identical message.

The theme of Mozart's Così fan tutte is almost identical to that of the song because Madonna seems to be turning the tables on the opera — by urging men to test the true depths of their relationships.

A couple of swaggering, macho types hatch a silly test to prove the unswerving loyalty of their girlfriends. But by the time it all plays out, the men are left wondering if the only thing their little experiment actually did was to highlight their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

Così fan tutte was the last of the three great collaborations between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte; the others were The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Among the three, Così is the one that has probably attracted the most criticism. Some have said that the music and libretto simply don't match, arguing that simple sentiments in the text are often set to deeply stirring music — and sometimes vice versa — making the whole thing seem weirdly incongruous.

But perhaps that emotional disparity is actually Mozart's way of making sure the opera's unlikely story hits its mark — which may be why this outwardly comical masterpiece often leaves audiences feeling more than a little uneasy. And if you doubt that an opera with such farcical story can truly be unsettling, try a little test of your own: Listen to Così while imagining that your own significant other may be having second thoughts — that is, if you even need to imagine it. Then see how funny the opera seems.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Mozart's Così fan tutte from the Vienna State Opera. The production stars soprano Caroline Wenborne, bass-baritone Ildebrando d'Arcangelo, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel and tenor Topi Lehtipuu as the two couples whose tenuous relationships can lead the opera's audience to interrupt their many laughs with a few sideways glances.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

Copyright 2011 WDAV

Bruce Scott
Bruce Scott is supervising producer of World of Opera. He also produces NPR's long-running, annual special Chanukah Lights, with Susan Stamberg and Murray Horwitz.