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Opera plots - Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte"

Updated on March 8, 2008

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg on 27th January 1756 and died in Vienna on 5th December 1791. Arguably the greatest composer of all time, he excelled in many fields of music, including opera. His best-known operas, besides Cosi Fan Tutte, are The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Il Seraglio and Idomeneo.

The plots of great operas are often difficult to fathom, partly because opera composers are generally more interested in writing great music than telling a believable story. The plot is merely a peg on which to hang arias, duets and choruses. Opera plots are often absurd, with unlikely happenings, impossible coincidences and ridiculous characters right, left and centre. On the other hand, some operas are also great dramas. See what you think about this one:

Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte"

Mozart cannot be held totally responsible for the absurdities of the plot of this delightful "chamber opera", because the libretto was the work of Lorenzo Da Ponte, an interesting character in his own right--he was an Italian Jew who converted to Catholicism, changed his name, moved to Vienna, and ended his days in New York as a naturalised American. Cosi Fan Tutte, which appears to have come from nowhere but Da Ponte's own head, has caused justifiable angst in modern times, with its suggestion that women are fickle and easily led astray.

Act 1 - various locations in Naples

Guglielmo and Fernando are two army officers who are madly in love with two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, and they are firmly convinced that their passion is reciprocated by the ladies in question. Their acquaintance Don Alfonso, an older, wordly-wise man, questions their confidence and lays a bet that the girlfriends would turn their affections elsewhere given half a chance, not because of who they are but merely because they are women. The men agree to allow Don Alfonso two days to prove his point, if he can.

Don Alfonso visits the sisters and tells them that the soldiers have been called away on army duties and must leave immediately. The couples meet and say their farewells, with many assurances of everlasting fidelity, to the grim amusement of Don Alfonso.

The Don has recruited Despina, the maid of the two sisters, into the plot, and she now announces that two foreign gentlemen have turned up and wish to be introduced to them. Having had just enough time for a quick offstage change and the slapping on of unlikely facial hair, the men now appear as a pair of Albanians to pay court to the sisters. Apparently falling deeply in love with their hostesses at first sight, the men are rebuffed and pretend to take poison. Despina, now disguised as a doctor, rushes onstage to restore them to life.

Act 2 - the next day

The thwarted "Albanians" don't let up, and soon find that they are making headway, with the two soldiers paying court to each other's real-life girlfriend. This may of course prove nothing more than that Fiordiligi really wishes that her man was a tenor and not a bass, but no matter. Dorabella even goes so far as to give her new lover a locket containing a portrait of her "former" boyfriend, which seems like a strange thing to do.

You might have thought that the two men, who are after all wanting to prove Don Alfonso wrong, would back off at this point, but no way! They now demand that a lawyer be produced to draw up marriage contracts. This is speed dating with a vengeance! The lawyer turns out to be Despina in another disguise (she's a soprano, by the way). The contracts are drawn up and a banquet prepared.

At this point Don Alfonso turns up to announce that the brave soldiers are on their way back (it was a very short war) and will arrive at any moment. The "Albanians" clear off and, another quick change later, re-appear as Guglielmo and Fernando, who find that their lovers of only the previous day have been prepared to marry two perfect strangers within 24 hours of their first meeting.

As this is the world of light opera, and not a divorce court, it is no problem to set these little matters to rights, and soon everyone is friends again. The reason for the men not to be angry with the women is, and this is the real clincher, because women can't help themselves from acting in such a way. In the words of the opera's title, Cosi Fan Tutte, "thus do they all"!

Yes, this is an absurd plot that not only makes a morally dubious claim, and the sexist suggestion that men are more constant than women, but is also full of holes if you examine it too closely. To enjoy this opera today you really have to forget about the story and just drink in the music!


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    • Painter Penfield profile image

      Painter Penfield 7 years ago from Tampa Bay area Florida

      Great hub Indexer! I found this one while doing a search on Mozart. Enjoyed the St. Pete Opera version of this classic last year. I gave it a thumbs up.


    • The Indexer profile image

      John Welford 10 years ago from UK

      I included this one because of its controversial plot, and because it's the only classical opera that I have perfomed in myself. There's a small chorus that appears twice--including to serve the banquet in Act II--and that was my role, about 25 years ago!

    • Zsuzsy Bee profile image

      Zsuzsy Bee 10 years ago from Ontario/Canada

      Great HUB. Indexer. Maybe not my most favorite opera; I still enjoy listening to it on occasion.

      regards Zsuzsy