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.