COSÌ FAN TUTTE at OPERA LAFAYETTE (Washington, New York and Versailles)

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Friday, October 18, 2013, 7:30 p.m., Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Saturday, October 19, 2013, 2:00 p.m., Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

Thursday, January 23, 2014, 6:30, Rose Theater, Frederick P. Rose Hall,

Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center

Thursday, January 30, 2014, 8:00 p.m., Versailles

Saturday, February 1, 2014, 4:00 p.m., Versailles

Sunday, February 2, 2014, 3:00 p.m., Versailles

Among the precedents for Mozart and Da Ponte’s final masterpiece, Così fan tutte, was Les Femmes Vengées (The Avenging Wives), a 1775 opéra-comique by Philidor and Sedaine. In a mirror image of Così’s plot, the women humorously uncover, punish, and forgive their husband’s infidelities. With a cast of six vocalists nearly identical to Così, Opera Lafayette reproduces the innovative set created for Les Femmes Vengées, and conceives and performs both operas with the same cast and set, and with a continuous story line. In Così, the pairs of lovers begin their familiar exploration of love and deception, guided by Don Alphonso’s challenge to the men; in Les Femmes Vengées, the four are older, married couples, and it is Despina’s counterpart Madame Riss who leads the wives to a better understanding of their husbands. 

Philidor and Sedaine’s Les Femmes Vengées appeared in Vienna in 1776, a year after its debut in Paris. Mozart’s Così fan tutte was performed in Paris and in French as an opéra-comique thoughout the latter half of the 19th century. Opera Lafayette presents Cosi in this French version to shed new light on a familiar work and to integrate it with one of its most successful forerunners. Les Femmes Vengées will be an American premiere.


Ryan Brown, conductor

Nick Olcott, director

Misha Kachman, set designer

Kendra Rai, costume designer

Colin K. Bills, lighting designer

Pascale BeaudinFleurdelise

Blandine StaskiewiczDorabelle
Alex Dobson,* Guillaume

Antonio Figueroa, Fernand

Claire Debono, Delphine

Bernard DeletréDon Alphonse

Jeffrey Thompson, peintre

Opera Lafayette Orchestra


Act I- In a small provincial town, a painter, Monsieur Riss, prepares to finish his latest work, a martial tableau.  His friend, Don Alphonse, has convinced two young soldiers, Fernand and Guillaume, to pose for the painting.  Because the modeling will take several days, Riss has also invited the soldiers’ fiancées, sisters Dorabelle and Fleurdelise, to accept his hospitality.  When the sisters respond to the painter’s flirtatious greeting, Don Alphonse hints that the young ladies might not be as virtuous as they should be.

The two defend their fiancées heatedly and enter into a bet with Don Alphonse.Confident of their lovers’ fidelity, Fernand and Guillaume promise to do whatever hesays they must to put the women to the test.  While Don Alphonse gives them their orders, the sisters look at the sketches for the painting and vie with each other over whose betrothed is the more handsome.  Both declare that they could never be unfaithful to their loves.

The men return and announce that they have been called back to the army for overseas deployment.  After many tearful farewells, the two appear to depart, and Don Alphonse joins the ladies in praying for the soldiers’ safe passage. 

The ladies’ maid, Delphine, who has been enjoying some time with with Monsieur Riss, finds Dorabelle giving vent to a wild expression of grief.  When she learns the reason, Delphine mocks her mistresses’naïveté: the soldiers will surely be enjoying themselves while they’re away, and the women should do the same.  The sisters haughtily reject Delphine’s advice. She soon gets chance to prove them wrong when Don Alphonse enlists her help in introducing the ladies to two handsome strangers visiting from foreign shores.  The strangers are, of course, Fernand and Guillaume in disguise, but neither Delphine nor the sisters recognize them.  Each man chooses to woo the other’s fiancée, but Fleurdelise ensures that they have no success.   Sure of their victory, the men demand that Don Alphonse settle the wager, but he insists that the test is not over yet.

 As the sisters lament their plight, Don Alphonse launches a second onslaught.  The two men pretend to have taken poison in a fit of lovelorn desperation.  Delphine convinces Fleurdelise and Dorabelle that they are to blame for this suicide attempt.  Stricken with guilt, the sisters promise to do anything to save the men’s lives, and Delphine suggests a little tenderness. As the women hold and stroke the men, Delphine disguises herself as a doctor and returns to “draw out” the poison by means of a powerful magnet.  The men, brought back to life, beg a kiss from the ladies.  They refuse, but Don Alphonse and Delphine suspect that their outrage is too extreme to be real.  Even the two lovers begin to fear that the women are succumbing to their advances. 

Act II- Don Alphonse reminds us of his conviction that nothing is as changeable as a woman’s heart, and Delphine attempts once again to convince the women that there’s no harm in seeing other men while their fiancées are away.  This time her reasoning has the desired effect, and the two decide to engage in a little harmless flirting.  The “exotic strangers” serenade the sisters, and Don Alphonse and Delphine give the four a lesson in courtship.  As Fernand and Fleurdelise stroll in the garden, Guillaume makes his first serious play for Dorabelle: he gives her a heart-shaped locket in exchange for the one she hadbeen wearing, which he knows was a gift from Fernand.  Dorabelle and Guillaume declare their love for each other. 

They withdraw, and Fleurdelise runs in, Fernand in pursuit.  She begs him to leave her, but when he does, she realizes that she is in love with him.  She struggles with her conscience, begging forgiveness from her absent lover.

When the two men meet, Guillaume shows his friend the locket received from Dorabelle, and Fernand is furious at her betrayal.  All women are weak in the face of temptation, responds Guillaume.  His superiority as a lover made his success with Dorabelle inevitable, just as Fleurdelise’s yielding to Fernand’sinferior advances would be unthinkable.  Enraged, Fernand determines to even the score.

As Delphine congratulates Dorabelle on finally acting like a woman of experience, Fleurdelise arrives to confess her infatuation with the handsome “stranger.”  She vows not to give in, however, and demands a soldier’s uniform in order to join her fiancée on the battlefield and die at his side.  Once she encounters her new love, however, she melts, and the two exchange tender vows.

The men face having lost the bet.  Delphine arrives to announce that a notary will arrive for a double wedding, and Don Alphonse comforts the men with the maxim, “Così fan tutte” – all women act like that.

The wedding proceeds with toasting and the arrival of the notary, once again Delphine in disguise.  Just as the women sign the contract, Don Alphonse announces the return to the soldiers, to the consternation of the woman and the astonishment of the men.  The “strangers” appear to hide, but in fact make a quick change back into their uniforms and pretend to “return from war.”  They unmask Delphine and discover the marriage contract. 

The men vow revenge and the women beg forgiveness, but Don Alphonse tells them that he played this trick on them for their own good: to learn that the heart is a changeable thing.   The men forgive the women, the women forgive the men, and the four lovers choose to do what their hearts tell them.

The only person still smarting from the trick is Delphine.  Even as she accepts Monsieur Riss’ proposal, she vows revenge on the men who duped her.

Così fan tutte and Les Femmes Vengées On March 20, 1775, the Comédie Italienne premiered a new opéra-comique, Les Femmes Vengées (The Avenged Women), by Francois-André-Danican Philidor (1726-1795) to a play in verse by Michel-Jean Sedaine (1719-1797). It was well received, and broke a long spell of lukewarm receptions to Philidor’s stage works since the huge success of Tom Jones in 1766. Les Femmes Vengées was still being performed in the repertory of the Comédie Italienne when Mozart and his mother arrived in Paris three years later on March 23, 1778. Mozart would stay in Paris six months, trying to establish himself as a composer and gain a permanent appointment. He failed and left on September 26, 1778, saddened by the death of his mother a few months before and reluctant to return to his underappreciated position in Salzburg. During Mozart’s stay, the Comédie Italienne was a thriving theater with a varied repertory that attracted a large following. The Opéra, on the other hand – despite the renewed interest brought about by Gluck, whose Armide had been premiere the previous September – saw its box office receipts steadily declining. To remedy that situation, its new director, Anne-Pierre-Jacques de Vismes (1746-1819), decided to call in an Italian troupe in the hopes of bringing back a disaffected public. His aim was to rekindle the controversy between French and Italian music known as La Querelle des Bouffons which had proven to be so beneficial both artistically and financially to the Opéra once before, in 1752-3. Thus, for the next two seasons (June 1778 to March 1780), a recently engaged Italian troupe, performing alongside the French troupe, gave the Paris premieres of a dozen Italian operas by Piccinni, Paisiello, Anfossi, Ciampi, Traeta, and Sacchini. Mozart’s only commission for the Paris Opera, the ballet Les Petits Riens (The Trifles) KV.299b, was premiered on the opening night of the “Italian Season” on June 11, 1778, featuring Piccinni’s Le Finte Gemelle (The Faked Twins), and passed almost unnoticed. 

Nothing is known of Mozart’s reaction to any of the works staged in Paris. During his stay, the Paris Opera performed, besides the Italian operas alluded to above, Gluck’s Armide, Alceste, Iphigénie en Aulide and Orphée, Piccinni’s Roland, Philidor’s Ernelinde, and Rousseau’s Le Devin du village, among others, while at the Comédie Italienne works of Duni, Monsigny, Grétry, Philidor, and many others were performed. It is tantalizing to notice some coincidences between a few of these works and Mozart’s later compositions. On August 13, 1778, the Paris Opera premiered Anfossi’s “Il Curioso Indiscreto”. When that work was performed later in Vienna on June 30, 1783, Mozart composed no less than three arias to be interpolated in these performances: “Vorrei spiegarvi” KV. 418 and “No, no, che non sei capace” K.V.419 for soprano and “Per pieta, non ricercate” KV. 420. 

Sedaine and Philidor’s Les Femmes Vengées was performed at Comédie Italienne seven times during Mozart’s stay in Paris (May 7, May 25 June 6, June 22, August 1, August 13 and August 29) and the similarity of plots between it and Da Ponte and Mozart’s Così fan tutte is striking. One is the mirror image of the other and both show a predilection for parallel structures.

Sedaine took the story of Les Femmes Vengées from a tale by Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1696), Les Rémois, which was published in his third book of tales in 1671. This was the fourth time that Sedaine crafted a libretto from a tale of La Fontaine. He had previously written On ne s’avise jamais de tout (1761) and Le Faucon (1772) for Monsigny, and Le Magnifique (1773) for Grétry. 

The sources for Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte are more numerous and complex. In 1837, the writer Friedrich Heinse claimed that “… Mozart was in fact expressly commissioned by Joseph II to compose this libretto. According to rumors, an incident that had actually happened at that time in Vienna between two officers and their lovers, which was similar to the plot of the libretto, offered the emperor the occasion of honoring his court poet Gemaria [recte: Da Ponte] with the commission to make this piece of gossip into a Drama giocoso da mettersi in musica [to be set to music].” This claim is very questionable and not a shred of evidence has been brought to light in support of it. In fact Così fan tutte is the only original libretto of Da Ponte that Mozart set to music: Le Nozze di Figaro was based on the comedy by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Le Mariage de Figaro, while Don Giovanni was a reworking of an older libretto by Giovanni Bertati, Il convitato di pietra set to music in 1785 by Giuseppe Gazzaniga. 

Da Ponte’s plot is inspired in part by the Greek myth of Cephalus and Procris, both as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, book 7, and its rendition in canto 43 of Ariosti’s Orlando Furioso. It also takes elements from a story in Boccaccio’s Decameron (Second day, ninth tale) and perhaps even from a play by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763), La Dispute. This latter had been translated into German and then made into a singspiel libretto, Die Kinder der Natur (The Children of Nature), set to music by Franz Aspelmayr (1728-1786) and performed in Vienna in 1778. Certainly, the gradual arousal of love in the sisters’ hearts – and, in the case of Fiordiligi, the struggle against it – owes a lot to Marivaux’s theater plays, in particular Les Fausses Confidences (The False Confidences) and Le Jeu de L’Amour et du Hasard (The Game of Love and Chance). 

Besides purely literary sources, there are librettos that may have inspired Da Ponte, chief among them Goldoni’s La pescatrici. Goldoni’s work was set to music by Nicolo Piccinni in 1766 and Joseph Haydn in 1770, and it is interesting to note that Mozart invited Haydn to his house to hear a rehearsal of Così fan tutte on December 31, 1789. Other librettos which might have inspired Da Ponte are Vadé’s Les Troqueurs (The Barterers), set to music by Antoine Dauvergne in 1752 and enthusiastically received in Vienna in 1758, as well as Sedaine’s Les Femmes Vengées, set by Philidor and first performed in Vienna on January 25, 1776.

French culture was very prominent at the Vienna court ever since Empress Maria-Theresa married French-speaking Francis Stephen of Lorraine in 1736. It was further strengthened when the catholic French kingdom allied itself with the catholic court of Vienna in the Seven Year War (1756-1763). This alliance was sealed by the wedding of the youngest daughter of the empress Maria Theresa, Marie-Antoinette, to the heir to the throne of France, the future king Louis XVI, in 1770.

The entertaining and educational value of theater was considered so important in Vienna that it was unique among the German-speaking cities of the time in having a permanent troupe of Italian singers as well as a French theatrical company performing in the court theater (Burgtheater), in addition to a German theatrical troupe at the Carinthian Gate Theater (Kärtnertor Theater). Furthermore, the appointment of Count Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794) to be head of the imperial theaters in 1754 brought a director sympathetic to French as well as Italian culture, and one with access to the intellectual elite of Europe. Durazzo had a long a fruitful correspondence with Charles-Simon Favart (1710-1792), one of the dramatists at the Comédie Italienne in Paris, and whom he used as his agent to bring to Vienna the successful opéra-comiques created in Paris. 

It is Durazzo, who, recognizing the genius of Gluck, fostered the composer’s career by first by asking him to adapt opéra-comique scores to the capabilities of the French actors/singers in Vienna – transposing arias to fit an actor’s tessitura and substituting new arias where the original ones were deemed too difficult or inappropriate – and then by asking him to compose new music to the librettos sent by Favart from Paris. These included La Fausse esclave (1758), and Le Diable à quatre (1759), which had been created in Paris in 1756 to a libretto by Sedaine with music by Philidor and other composers, as well as La Rencontre imprévue (1764), an air of which was to be used by Mozart for a set of piano variations (KV 455, composed in 1784). 

The French troupe in Vienna did not limit itself to opéra-comique. It also regularly performed spoken French theater at the Burgtheater, presenting works by Marivaux, Jean-Francois Regnard (1655-1709) and Jean Galbert de Campistron (1656-1723), not to mention the classics of Moliere, Racine and Corneille.

From such a rich background, Da Ponte crafted a libretto whose text often paraphrases his sources, and occasionally cites them verbatim. Because of this diversity, Da Ponte’s comedy can be read on many levels: It is at the same time a “demonstration comedy” (as are so many of Marivaux’s plays), a sentimental comedy, and a social comedy. Consequently, it is arguably Da Ponte’s best libretto.

Da Ponte’s original libretto of Così fan tutte was first given to Salieri, who composed two trios before giving it up. It then went to Mozart, who rose to the challenge of this text, much to the chagrin of Salieri. Working closely with Da Ponte, Mozart brought several modifications to the libretto, not least by having the words “Così fan tutte” introduced in the arioso in which Don Alfonso sums up the lesson to the two sorry officers. Mozart was then able to compose music that underscores the humanity of the characters while matching the rich ambiguities of the libretto. The opera was premiered in Vienna on January 26, 1790. It was well received and was repeated another four times until February 20, when all theaters were closed for a period of mourning: Emperor Joseph II had passed away. 

Così fan tutte and Les Femmes Vengées present themselves as lessons of behavior: one is a lesson to naïve lovers (Così, is even subtitled The School for Lovers), the other to philandering husbands. It is unclear from either libretto whether the “lesson” was heeded. Both, however, can also be read as a social commentary on women in eighteenth century. Da Ponte clearly underscores the dominant male view that women are pliable and inconstant, while Sedaine demonstrates the new assertive role that women were beginning to take in French society. In Les Femmes vengées, Sedaine foreshadows the modern bourgeois marriage of companionship, as opposed to the subservient traditional union between a dominating husband and a meek wife (Mrs. Ris and Mr. Ris are very much equals). 

There are also similarities in the musical treatment of both comedies. In their respective genres, opéra-comique for Les Femmes Vengées and opera-buffa for Così fan tutte, both works show an increase in the relative number of ensembles (duets, trios, etc.). Besides the two finales, Così fan tutte has 29 numbers of which 16 are ensembles, while Les Femmes Vengées, apart from the final vaudeville, has 15 numbers of which 7 are ensembles.

More subtly, there are a number of melodic turns and harmonic progressions in Philidor’s score that anticipate Mozart. Mozart’s extraordinary memory and capacity to absorb all the styles of music he encountered in his travels is well documented. Furthermore, thanks to Gluck, French opéra-comique had become a key element in the Viennese classical style developed in the 1760s. Thus the genre of opéra-comique was likely to have influenced Mozart both directly during his stay in Paris and indirectly through the Viennese school led by Gluck. 

We can subscribe to the statement of French musicologists Jean and Brigitte Massin who wrote: “Of Mozart’s reactions to these performances (those taking place at the Paris Opera and at the Comédie Italienne during his stay) we know nothing, save what his music reveals to us.” This is one of the reasons Opera Lafayette chose to perform both works this season. 

-Nizam Peter Kettaneh

Director’s Note 

Most people now consider Così fan tutte a masterpiece. Together with Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, Mozart’s other two collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, Così fan tutte has come to represent the pinnacle of the 18th-century opera.

This was not always so.

Beethoven deemed the story beneath Mozart’s dignity. Wagner asserted that such a worthless libretto led Mozart to write inferior music. Lesser critics simply called the opera immoral. Throughout the 19th century, new libretti with completely different stories were grafted onto the music. Only in the 20th century did the opera in its original form attain the status it enjoys today.

 A central criticism has been that Così’s music is the most heartfelt at the very moments in the opera when the characters are being the most deceitful. In their initial pairings, the two couples relate to each other in ensembles only. The music makes no differentiation between the sets of lovers and offers no definition of the individuals. There are no love duets, no moments of intimacy. It is lovely music, but rather formal. Only later, as each man disguises himself and attempts to seduce his friend’s fiancée, do the scenes contain duets – perhaps the most tender and passionate Mozart ever wrote.

Musical scholars and opera directors have found various ways to explain this apparent contradiction. This production reflects my own view. I don’t want to give too much away in these notes, so let it suffice to say that I think Mozart knew exactly what he was doing. Few have understood the human heart as well as he, and his music reflects exactly what is happening to the four lovers in this story. 

Pairing Così fan tutte with Les Femmes Vengées (written only fifteen years apart) was a stroke of brilliance on the part of Opera Lafayette. The characters bear remarkable similarities, and their milieus are much the same. These could very well be the same people.

Our shift in the opera’s locale hints at a possible reason for the opera’s initial chilly reception: perhaps Così fan tutte was simply too French. The German playwright Rochlitz wrote in 1801, “The German audience has altogether too much heaviness and too little frivolity of temperament for this sort of comedy.” The opera’s matter-of-fact acceptance of the frailties and vagaries of the human heart may have been too Gallic for its contemporary Teutonic audience to bear. 

Linking these two stories gives us a delicious opportunity. In Così, we see what happens when young, idealistic lovers encounter temptation for the first time. In Les Femmes Vengées, we get to see them ten years later, when the bloom is off the romance and the realities of married life have taken over.

The conversation between great works of art is always worth hearing. This chat we’ve put together between Mozart and Philidor offers some particularly interesting listening.

-Nick Olcott

 Opera Lafayette | 10 Fourth Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002

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