According to Don Alfonso, “All women are like that”—that is, flighty, superficial, and incapable of fidelity. Inspired by his statement, two young men set out to test the loyalty of their lovers with some unforeseen results. Nicknamed “The School for Lovers” by its composer and librettist, Così fan tutte will keep audiences reflecting, second-guessing, and laughing the whole night through.
Many great operas began as great disasters. The ever popular Madama Butterfly was poorly received at its premiere, and the inaugural performance of the comic classic The Barber of Seville was a disastrous failure. This was not the case with Così fan tutte. The Mozart classic received general notes of praise when it opened at the Burgtheater in Vienna on January 26, 1790. Unfortunately the opera saw only five performances at this time, as its run was cut short by the death of Emperor Joseph II, and the court was obliged to put aside leisurely activities such as theatrical performances for the sake of ceremonial mourning. Although the opera saw a handful of other performances throughout Europe at this time, it was not until 1922 that Così fan tutte crossed the sea for its American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera. The first Omaha staging of Così fan tutte occurred during the 1996-97 season—the current Opera Omaha production will mark the second time the opera has been performed before local audiences.
Leave it to the Critics:
Now one of the most frequently performed operas around the globe, Così fan tutte didn’t always enjoy a steady stream of good reviews. In fact, the opera only began to acquire its modern state of popularity following the conclusion of World War II in 1945. Nor was the opera frowned upon when it premiered in Vienna during the late 18th century; so what happened? Well, it seems that sensibilities in Europe during this century were much more liberal than they would be later on. Where once audiences had shown no qualms about a production examining infidelity and the fickle nature of young love, in the 19th and early 20th century these topics came to be considered vulgar and immoral. Consequently, Così fan tutte was rarely performed during this period, expect in exceedingly bowdlerized forms.
Name that Tune:
Because we’re so familiar with the sound of Mozart’s music, its surface level elegance and beauty, it is easy to forget that it also functions to highlight the drama of the opera. In fact, if you listen closely, the melancholy, joyful, and vengeful emotions of the characters are all communicated with great specificity in the music. The arias of Despina, for example, make use of pastoral phrases, illustrating the housemaid’s common status. Compare this to the music surrounding the noble sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella, which is drawn directly from the opera seria style at vogue in Vienna at the time of composition. These arias instead call for an incredible vocal range and ornamental orchestral flourishes. The clever Quintet “Di scrivermi ogni giorno” is on the surface a lovely example of an 18th century ‘addio’ piece, with two women bidding their lovers farewell in long elegant phrases, and the young men returning their sentiments in similarly moving lines. Look a little closer, however, and you will notice the contrast that the fifth singer, the skeptic Don Alfonso, brings to the ensemble. Indeed, you find him mocking the overwrought expressions of the young couples, ending the piece with a knowing chuckle.
Così fan tutte
Feb. 10 & 12, 2017
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Born in the Jewish ghetto of Venice in 1749, a young Lorenzo Da Ponte was baptized Roman Catholic in 1763, setting him on a path towards eventual priesthood. Indeed, he studied at the Ceneda Seminary with his brother before moving to the seminary at Portogruaro in 1769. It was here that the young Italian took his Minor Order in 1770 and acquired additional qualifications as a Professor of Literature. His ordination as a priest occurred in 1773, whereupon Da Ponte moved to Venice to act as a priest of the church of San Luca. As priesthood was not exactly a lucrative means of income at the time, Da Ponte made most of his living as a teacher of Latin, Italian, and French, and found some spare time to practice writing poetry in these languages. Unfortunately, Da Ponte’s tendency for freethinking—that is, questioning the doctrine of the Church—and his pursuit of an adulterous relationship brought an end to his time in Venice. At his trial in 1779, Da Ponte was accused of living in a brothel and charged with “public concubinage” as well as “abduction of a respectable woman”. The penalty for his charges was a fifteen-year banishment from the Venetian state.
Luckily for us, this exile eventually brought Da Ponte to the Viennese court in 1781, where Emperor Joseph II had just created an opera company. Despite having never before written a script or libretto, Da Ponte managed to successfully persuade the court to take him on as the “theatre poet”—in other words, as a librettist. It is here that Da Ponte collaborated with numerous composers from across Europe, namely Antonio Salieri, Martìn y Soler, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In addition to work on the libretto for Martìn y Soler’s 1787 opera Una cosa rara, Da Ponte composed the text for three of Mozart’s most highly regarded productions: The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Cosi fan tutte (1790). The overwhelming success of Da Ponte’s librettos during this period is often attributed to his newly refined ability at interweaving tragic and comic elements into a single, cohesive unit. Unfortunately, Da Ponte’s time in Vienna lasted only a decade, as the death of Joseph II in 1790 left the librettist without a patron in the court. This occasioned yet another uprooting of Da Ponte’s lifestyle, sending him in search of new employment. At first he set out for Paris, hoping to appeal to the Queen Marie Antoinette for whom he had obtained a letter of introduction from the late Emperor. Learning about the tumultuous political situation in France, however, Da Ponte wisely set his sights elsewhere. Arriving in England, he took work first as a grocer and Italian teacher, before finally gaining a post as a librettist at the King’s Theatre in London in 1803. This position would be short-lived.
Debt and bankruptcy prompted Da Ponte to immigrate to the United States in 1805. Once again he took on small jobs as a grocer, Italian tutor, and bookstore clerk before gaining a permanent and more esteemed position. Thanks to his friendship with Clement Clarke Moore (author, “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) Da Ponte was introduced to Columbia College, where he gained an appointment as a Professor of Italian Language and Literature, the first Roman Catholic priest to gain admittance to the college’s faculty. Readily establishing himself in New York, Da Ponte made great efforts to introduce opera to the city. He produced a performance of Don Giovanni in 1825 and undertook a concert tour with his niece to promote the music of Gioachino Rossini. It wasn’t until 1828, at the age of seventy-nine, that Lorenzo Da Ponte became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Just a handful of years later, at the age of eighty-four, he founded the short-lived New York Opera Company, predecessor to the New York Academy of Music and New York Metropolitan Opera. In 1838 Lorenzo Da Ponte passed away in the city that, after many travels, had become his home. The old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street hosted an enormous funeral ceremony for the man who was a professor, poet, and priest.
The entire team behind Opera Omaha’s Così fan tutte would like to welcome you to experience Mozart’s timeless opera in a production that brings all of the passion and pathos of these classic characters to life in the present day.
Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s final collaboration (after their successes on Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni) was the only one of their works to have an original story. The opera is about two young couples whose love is tested after the men place a bet that their fiancées will remain faithful. First performed in 1790, only about one year before Mozart’s death, the opera is replete with everything we cherish about Mozart’s late comedies, and is particularly rich in brilliant aria and ensemble writing for the leading characters. Yet in spite of its musical sophistication, the opera fell out of favor for more than a century after Mozart’s death. Its subject matter was widely viewed as too risqué and immoral to be staged, and generations of audiences missed seeing and hearing one of the true masterpieces of late eighteenth-century opera. When the opera was performed, it was often given with so many cuts and rewrites required by the censors that it was hardly recognizable. Only in the middle of the twentieth century did the opera become a part of the standard repertoire in its original form, and it is now beloved by audiences around the world.
Why? One theory for the reason that the opera fell out of favor is that, like so much of Mozart’s mature art, this very special opera is a perfect synthesis of looking back and looking forward. Da Ponte’s libretto presents six fascinating characters, each one profound and complex in their emotional lives. The actions of the young lovers become so fascinating to us because each one is torn between listening to their mind and listening to their heart. Coming out of the age of the Enlightenment, a time when human reason and intellect were prized above all, and moving toward the Romantic era, with its much more subjective emotional world, these are people who transcend the stock character types from which they were derived. We hear it and feel it in every measure of Mozart’s music, which is simultaneously reaching back into the very best of the Classical style while pushing opera in bold new directions.
Who today does not understand what it feels like to be torn between what the heart tells us it wants and what the mind tells us is right? Who does not in some way empathize with a character that knows what they ought to do but ultimately gives into the forces of love? Mozart and Da Ponte created a perfect artistic statement about real, complex, confusing, deeply human love, perhaps so insightful that it took us mere humans more than a hundred years to catch up with them.
But we certainly have. And that is the reason why we have chosen to set our production in the present day, where we can witness these complex minds and hearts that are so very much like our own. Both couples (Fiordiligi and Guglielmo, Dorabella and Ferrando) believe they know exactly what love is. They are young people who think they have their lives under control and their futures together planned until everything is turned upside down. They go out to celebrate in classy, sophisticated nightclub, a hip type of place where couples go with their friends for a fun night out on the town. Don Alfonso is the proprietor and Despina is an old flame of his who now works in the club. It’s just the sort of environment where these couples can relax, let down their inhibitions, and make some decisions they might regret the next day. Too risqué? Immoral? Or all too true to life, in which all of these couples emerge a little less innocent, perhaps, but also a lot wiser about love.
We invite you to open your minds and hearts to one of Mozart’s greatest operas, to laugh and to cry, and hope that you, too, may come out of the experience just a bit wiser in the ways of love.
Così fan tutte
Feb. 10 & 12, 2017
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New Year’s Eve in Vienna! Those very words evoke images and feelings of urbane pleasure and benign hedonism soaked in the soothingly cheerful tonic of beautiful music. And that is exactly what guests of Wolfgang and Constanze Mozart experienced on December 31, 1789. On that festive night a small but august group of friends sequestered themselves in the home of their beloved genius to witness the unveiling of his newest opera, Così fan tutte.
Among the invitees that evening was Franz Joseph Haydn, someone whom Mozart greatly respected and one of the few colleagues whose opinion truly mattered to him. Mozart had endured a difficult two years. Public interest in his compositions and his piano performances had begun to wane, causing increased financial stress. Much worse, it seems that he had gone through a bit of self-doubt that manifested itself in fewer compositions than at any comparable time period in his career. But with Così he was optimistic that he had turned a corner. Inviting Haydn to attend the first rehearsal was a sign of confidence.
Mozart had every reason to feel a sense of accomplishment in his new work. At every level and in every detail, Così is a creation of musical perfection that in no way takes a back seat to any of his other works. Though only a fool would try to talk down the glories of Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, this third and final collaboration with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte attains a degree of musical and dramaturgical brilliance that makes it, in the opinion of the great Mozart scholar Julian Rushton, “the profoundest of his Italian comedies.”
Let’s consider first the role of the orchestra. By the time he began composing Così in September of 1789, it had been over a full year since he had composed his final three symphonies. And yet he continued to mature as he experimented with instrumental combinations, achieving in this opera an orchestral sound palette that sparkles irresistibly with joyful exhilaration, and sighs tenderly with languorous emotion. As dramatic commentary, the orchestra goes so very far in telling us what Mozart wants us to think about any situation on stage.
His use of trumpets for harmonic underpinning creates new and subtle possibilities for an instrument that had hitherto been heard almost exclusively in tandem with the timpani. He employs horns to great expressive effect in a fashion that clearly anticipates Beethoven’s Fidelio. His use of woodwinds—in pairs, in solos, or as a serenading wind band—is more refined and subtle than anything else in the literature. And the string writing is without parallel in its scope, effervescence and precision. Appreciating these details and innumerable others, the late musicologist Nathan Broder considered Così fan tutte to be “the finest orchestral piece of the 18th-century.”
But it is Mozart’s ineffably sublime vocal writing that most obviously demonstrates the miracles of his creative gifts. For the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella he wrote music similar enough to identify their kinship, but distinctly individual. He gives both of them “parody” arias (designed to poke fun both at the character who’s singing and the conventions of opera seria), but Dorabella’s Smanie implacabili is a purely histrionic outburst, in keeping with her shallow volatility. Fiordiligi, on the other hand, is never insincere. Her Come scoglio is delivered with the same conviction as Konstanze’s Martern aller Arten from Die Entführung aus dem Serail and with similarly torturous technical requirements. It’s possible that Da Ponte had intended her second-act aria to have a parodistic tint, but the expressive poignancy of Mozart’s music lets us know that Per pietà, ben mio, perdona is a genuine outpouring of truly heartfelt emotion.
The music of the two soldiers, like that of the sisters, is also treated with great attention to detail. Guglielmo, full of buffo baritone bluster, shows us who he is with every utterance. Ferrando, on the other hand, through the increasingly ardent and expansive lines the composer gives him in the second act, transforms into a man who, despite his deceit, could conceivably become almost heroic someday. It is through the music—much more so than through the text alone—that we witness the growth and deepening humanity of Ferrando and Fiordiligi. Indeed, by the time Mozart is through with them, it seems quite improbable that they are NOT actually in love.
Così is the very apotheosis of what is known as the “ensemble opera.” Its generous plethora of quintets, quartets, trios and other ensembles constitute a bottomless barrel of the most delicious and addictive musical candy. And, of course, there are matters of form, structure, key relationships and their incumbent symbolism, quotations from other works, etc. All of these very interesting considerations simply heighten the exhilaration of those who are inclined to study the opera in greater detail.
But, alas, in attempting to address the endless musical wonders of Così fan tutte, these few paragraphs can only scratch the proverbial surface to an embarrassingly shallow degree. Yet, even volumes of the most detailed analysis would fail to illuminate the subject in any meaningful way compared to the efficacy of experiencing the opera first hand. Upon each encounter this masterpiece glitters more brightly with fresh and probing detail, encouraging us to examine our own hearts and minds under the benign warmth of Mozart’s glowing smile. It’s a fact: Epiphany is right around the corner from New Year’s Eve.
Così fan tutte
Feb. 10 & 12, 2017
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1. Apparently Mozart had an extreme dislike for the soprano Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, for whom the role of Fiordiligi was first created. She had a strange tendency to drop her chin and throw back her head while singing low and high notes respectively, and knowing this, Mozart chose to fill her showpiece aria (“Come scoglio”) with constant harmonic leaps. Presumably he took great pleasure in watching her bob her head “like a chicken”.
2. While one typically sees the title Così fan tutte attributed to this opera, and translated as “Women are like that”, the full title is actually Così fan tutte, ossia La scuola degli amanti or “Thus do they all, or The School for Lovers”.
3. Così fan tutte has often been called the perfect “ensemble opera”. This is due to the fact that among the small cast, the six roles are almost equal in weight and importance to the piece, thus making this an opera without the traditional “leading lady”.
4. Mozart’s own life bears a slight resemblance to the drama of Così fan tutte. A few years before marrying Constanze Weber, he was enamored with her sister Aloysia.
5. You might know that the storyline of this opera was considered quite scandalous in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and was only performed with an altered plot or accompanied by a public apology for the content. Interestingly enough, the Romantic composer Beethoven, a great admirer of Mozart’s work, is said to have written Così fan tutte off as “immoral”.
6. Mozart may be the only composer who is also namesake to a frog. The species Eleutherodactylus amadeus was named in 1987.
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