The opera takes place in Naples in the late eighteenth century. As in The Marriage of Figaro, a great deal happens within an event-filled a 24-hour period.

Overture: The Overture contains only one motive from the opera, the trio sung by Don Alfonso and the two men at the close of Act II to the words "Cosi fan tutte." Following a short, slow introduction, Mozart delights with his typical bubbling sequence interspersed with rapid exchanges between leading instruments. Eventually, the Overture returns to the original motive and comes to a close.


Scene 1: A café.

Ferrando, Gugliemo and Don Alfonso are sitting together at a table discussing the general constancy (or lack thereof) of women. Ferrando, who is madly in love with Dorabella, gets very personal, emphasizing the great trust that he places in his fiancé. Guglielmo rushes to the defense of his Fiordiligi. Don Alfonso, ever the cynical bachelor, begs to differ with the young men and claims that all women can be unfaithful. A faithful woman is like a phoenix, claims Don Alfonso; all believe in it but none has seen it. Eventually, the discussion results in a bet in the amount of one hundred zecchini. Ferrando and Guglielmo agree to do everything Don Alfonso requests for the next 24 hours, each wooing the other's fiancée, without communicating their plans to their young women (called "Penelopes"). Ferrando and Guglielmo are so confident of the fidelity of their women that they plan ways in which to spend their expected windfall. Ferrando will spend his winnings on a serenade, while Guglielmo will buy a good meal. Already we see a difference between their personalities.

Scene 2: A garden overlooking the Bay of Naples.

Fiordiligi as they sit in the garden of the house in Naples in which they are vacationing. Ferrara was known for its loose women. The sisters gaze ecstatically at medallions of their lovers. Expressively beautiful music contrasts with the coy and kittenish quality of the text as each one tries to outdo the other in praise of their heroes: "Ah guarda sorella" ("Ah tell me sister if one could ever find a sweeter mouth, a nobler face"). Interestingly, both sisters praise the physical attributes of their respective lovers and say nothing about their characters.

As the sisters are rhapsodizing, Don Alfonso appears in an agitated state. The orchestration expresses his mood. Regaining his composure, in his "panic aria" "Vorrei dir, e cor non ho" ("I would speak, but my courage fails"), he tells the sisters that Ferrando and Guglielmo have been ordered off to war and are too desolate to say farewell. Asking the sisters if they could bear a sad adieu, he offers to call the young men to them. As if by magic, the men appear, prepared to leave. The difference in the singing of the two men suggests the difference in character.

Following the quintet, a drum roll announces the imminent departure of the officers' ship. A regiment of soldiers sings of the glories of martial life, followed by a crowd of townspeople close on their steps. After a tearful farewell that moves even Don Alfonso, the ship leaves. Don Alfonso joins Dorabella and Fiordiligi in prayer for a safe voyage: "Soave sia il vento" ("Gentle be the breeze calm be the waves"). After they leave, he smugly returns to his overall negative opinion of female fidelity.

Scene 3: An anteroom in Fiordiligi's and Dorabella's house.

The shrewd Despina, the sisters' maid, enters with a tray containing cups of chocolate. Before the sisters arrive, she samples the treat herself and launches into a diatribe against domestic service. She's the typical servant-comedienne, complaining, smart, impudent, and loyal.

As Fiordiligi and Dorabella enter the anteroom, they express great grief at the absence of their lovers. Dorabella begins with recitative, "Ah! scostati" ("Ah, leave me! Flee the dread effect of a distracted love!"), followed by the rebellious aria "Smania implacabili" ("Implacable pangs which torment me").

Despina takes it upon herself to offer counsel, suggesting that the sisters do exactly what their young men are probably doing – i.e. have a good time. Her words are like the saying: "Men are like streetcars; if you miss one you can always catch another". In her wonderful aria "In uomini, in soldati" ("You look for fidelity in men, in soldiers?") she expresses her contempt for all males and their philandering traits. The sisters are shocked and jump up in righteous indignation.

Don Alfonso enters and bribes Despina to assist him without revealing his plot. Accompanying him are two suspicious looking Albanian noblemen who are really Ferrando and Gugliemo in disguise. Why Albanians? It's an inside joke. Emperor Joseph II had traveled through Albania on his way back to Vienna from a military campaign in Turkey. Don Alfonso's scheme is to offer these two gentlemen as companions for the women. The disguise is so good that even Despina doesn't recognize Ferrando and Guglielmo. Guiding Don Alfonso to a hiding place, she calls her mistresses. Needless to say, the sisters are horrified by the presence of the two men in their house at this time. They reject the visitors in a furious Allegro. Don Alfonso emerges from hiding and claims that the men are good friends.

The job of the Albanians is to be as ardent as possible. At first, the sisters protest. Fiordiligi sings a protestation of her faithfulness. A recitative and the well-known burlesque aria "Come scoglio immoto resta" ("Like a rock standing impervious to winds and tempest") follow. There's a comical story behind this aria. To sing it would have required the singer to throw her head around like a chicken. Da Ponte's mistress sang the original. She was ugly and arrogant, and Mozart didn't like her. He probably inserted the aria to poke fun at her. Guglielmo responds with the charming piece "Non siate ritrosi" ("Don't be so shy beguiling eyes").

The sisters depart haughtily, leaving the disguised Albanians to howl in laughter at the apparent failure of Don Alfonso's plot. Don Alfonso remains confident, reminding Ferrando and Guglielmo that the twenty-four hours of the wager are not over yet: "E voi ridete" ("And you laugh"). At this point something changes. Suddenly the two men become competitive with each other, not with the sisters, each thinking so well of himself that he now wants to conquer the other's lover. Ferrando sings a sentimental aria about love bringing love: "Un' aura amorosa" (A breeze of love"). For the first time, all six characters are on stage at the same time. Their sextet is glorious.The Albanians depart, leaving Don Alfonso alone with Despina to discuss their scheme to further break down the ladies' resistance.


(ACT I continued)

Scene 4: The garden of Fiordiligi's and Dorabella's house.

The sisters express their melancholy in the duet "Ah, che tutta" ("Ah, what a destiny"). Just as they finish, Ferrando and Guglielmo rush in, each holding a bottle from which he has presumably drunk poison. They go through all sorts of fraudulent contortions to demonstrate their poor physical condition, and the sisters respond sympathetically. Don Alfonso returns with the doctor (i.e. Despina in disguise). Knowing that doctors speak Latin, she speaks "mongrel Latin", making up the words as she goes along. She uses a magnet to restore the Albanians to health. The magnet was a tribute to German physician Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, a patron of the arts who had been willing to arrange a performance of Mozart's Bastien and Bastienne opera written when the young genius was only12 years old. Mesmer's field was animal magnetism, better known as hypnosis. As the officers begin to feel better, they resume their amorous antics. The scene ends with a lovely quintet as the sisters leave in disapproval.

ACT II: The Countess's apartment

Scene 1: A room in Fiordiligi's and Dorabella's house.

The sisters are indignant about the behavior of the Albanians. Just as Don Alfonso lectured the men in Act I, Despina now lectures the women. Once again dressed in her own clothing, she suggests that the attractive Albanians may help the two address their sadness in an interesting manner. Left alone, the sisters discuss Despina's suggestion, deciding that if they act discreetly, they might actually have some fun with the foreigners. In a charming duet, "Prendero quell brunettino" ("I'll take the dark one"), Dorabello chooses the dark one, Guglielmo, and Fioridiligi takes Ferrando – the reverse of the actual relationships that appear to be on hold for the moment. As Professor Robert Greenberg mentions in his lectures on this opera, perhaps the new pairings are the more suitable, given the personalities of the four characters. Don Alfonso enters and invites the sisters to the garden, where a surprise awaits.

Scene 2: The garden.

Ferrando and Gugliolmo, still disguised, are now on a barge moored to the landing place. Accompanied by singers and players, they sing a duet to the sisters. They continue their courtship when the sisters appear. Walking alone with Dorabella, Guglielmo places a heart on a chain around her neck and simultaneously removes a necklace with a miniature of Ferrando: "Il core vi dono".  Meanwhile, Ferrando returns from a short walk with Fiordiligi, still unsuccessful in his wooing. The two men share their experiences. Ferrando is furious about Dorabella's susceptibility to Guglielmo's courtship. Adopting Don Alfonso's philosophy, Guglielmo blames the situation on the women, singing his marvelous aria "Donne mie, la fate a tanti! ("Women, my you do it to many!"). Although Guglielmo asks Don Alfonso to pay his portion of the bet, all agree that at this point, the bet is half won. Don Alfonso is confident that Fiordiligi will eventually show herself to be as vulnerable as Dorabella.

Scene 3: A room in the house.

Despina congratulates Dorabella on her sensible behavior. Fiordiligi enters with an air of displeasure. Although she does not approve of her sister's behavior, she may actually envy her sibling. Fiordiligi decides to take a step in the right direction. She calls on Despina to fetch the uniforms of Ferrando and Guglielmo, which for some reason are in the sisters' wardrobe. She suggests that the two sisters wear the uniforms and join the men at the front. Ferrando hasn't given up, however. He enters and again expresses his love for Fiordiligi. She wrestles with her conscience and her obbligato recitative, "Ei parte" runs the gamut of feeling by moving from Bb to E. Finally, she claims that she loves him in the aria "Per pieta ben mio" ("Forgive me, my love").

Don Alfonso and Guglielmo have been secretly watching the seduction unfold, and now Guglielmo is embarrassed. At first, the men talk of redress for the faithlessness of their sweethearts, but Don Alfonso counsels them otherwise. In the song "Tutti accusan le donne" ("All blame the women") he tells them that the sisters are no different from all other women; it's best to marry them. Besides, he says, they love them, don't they? Despina arrives to say that the sisters plan to marry their Albanian suitors and have sent for a notary.

Scene 4: A large room in Fiordiligi's and Dorabella's house.

Don Alfonso is overseeing the wedding feast. The four protagonists enter, joined by a chorus of jubilant townspeople. The sisters and their officers, still disguised as Albanians, thank Despina for her part in making the event happen. When the guests depart, the four drink a toast.

In the midst of the festivities, Despina appears in yet a third costume, that of a notary. With grotesque courtesy, the contract arrangements are agreed upon and signed. A drum roll sounds in the distance. Don Alfonso runs to the window to announce the return of Ferrando's and Guglielmo's regiment. In great turmoil, the Albanians are rushed out of the room. Don Alfonso consoles the panicked sisters while the two men don their real uniforms. Ferrando and Guglielmo enter, surprised at both the less than enthusiastic reception from the sisters and the presence of a notary. Don Ferrando deliberately drops the marriage contract, and Ferrando picks it up.

Don Alfonso sends the men to the other room for a quick change of clothes, and they emerge as the Albanians. Guglielmo gives Dorabella the miniature of Ferrando and both men praise the doctor who helped them through their doses of poison.

The ruse is revealed, and the sisters are humiliated. Don Alfonso comes to the rescue, claiming that all that occurred was for the good of the lovers. The opera ends with a lively finale stating that it's best to take things as they come: "Fortunato l'uom che prende" ("Happy is the man who looks at everything on the right side").

Highlights of the Opera

  • Cosi Fan Tutte is one of the three great operatic collaborations between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. All three deal with the subject of infidelity. Although Da Ponte wrote the story, the plot line of infidelity and couple swapping was standard for the improvised plays of the Commedia dell'arte.* Given all that was going on in Mozart's personal life and marriage, Cosi is the most personal of his operas. Mozart and his wife Constanze were having marital difficulties, and Costanze had gone to Baden to "take the cure." It was possible that she was having an affair and actually conceived a child at the very time that Mozart was composing Cosi.
  • Cosi is an example of the relatively new genre of Italian-language opera called opera buffa or comic opera. Opera buffa typically mocked the pretensions of aristocrats. Cosi is also what is called a "numbers opera" because it alternates between fully sung and orchestral accompanied musical numbers that can be separated from one another. Recitatives are half-sung, half-spoken, harpsichord-accompanied segments that connect the numbers – i.e. the arias, duets, trios, quartets, ensembles and choruses.
  • Although Cosi is considered to be the most psychologically insightful of the three Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations, the first two operas, Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, are generally the more popular ones. The first performance of Cosi took place at the Burgtheater in Vienna on January 26, 1790. After five performances, Emperor Joseph II, who had commissioned the opera, died. Following a brief shutdown, there were five more performances. The American premiere took place at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1922.
  • Although most agree that the plot of Cosi is less deep than that of the other two collaborations with DaPonte, some elements of the opera receive less attention than they should. For example, some see Cosi as revealing a dark side to the Enlightenment – i.e. an antifeminist sadism. The characters of the women are more fully developed than those of the men. Dorabella comes to grasp her own lightness. One very interesting question is that raised by Robert Greenberg. Are the two couples mismatched, and should each sister really be marrying the Albanian of her choice, not her true fiancé?

Recommended Reading

  • Bolt, R. (2006). The Librettist of Venice.
  • Braunbehrens, V. (1986). Mozart in Vienna.
  • Brown-Montesano, K. (2007). Understanding the Women of Mozart's Operas.
  • Gay, P. (1999). Mozart.
  • Greenberg, R. (2002). The Operas of Mozart, Part 1 of 3, Lectures 6-8.
  • Hildesheimer, W. (1982). Mozart.
  • Kerman, J. (1988). Opera as Drama, rev.ed.
  • Landon, H.C.R. (1990): 1791: Mozart's Last Year.
  • Osborne, C. (1978). The Complete Operas of Mozart.
  • Rushton, J. (1997). Cosi fan Tutte in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Volume 1.
  • Solomon, M. (1995). Mozart. A Life.
  • Till, N. (1992). Mozart and the Enlightenment. Truth, Virtue and Beauty in Mozart's Operas.
  • Wignall, H.J. (1991). In Mozart's Footsteps. A Travel Guide for Music Lovers.
  • Wolff, C. (2012). Mozart at the Gateway to His Fortune.

Good Listening and Watching

  • DVD (2021). Zubin Mehta conducting Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Orchestra and Chorus with Berzhanskaya Benedetta Torre, Mattia Ilivieri, Matthew Swensen, and Thomas Hampson.
  • DVD (2009). Recorded at the Salzburg Festival. Adam Fischer conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Staatsopernchor with Miah Persson, Isabel Leonard, Florian Boesch, Topi Lehtipuu, Patricia Petibon and Bo Skovhus.
  • DVD (1983). Richard Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Staatsopernchor  with Margaret Marshall, Ann Murray, James Morris, Francisco Araiza, Kathleen Battle, Sesto Bruscantini and Gerhard Paul.
  • DVD (2007). Glyndebourne production. Ivan Fischer conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne Chorus with Topi Lehtipuu, Luca Pisaroni, Nicolas Riveno, Miah Persson, Anke Volndung and Ainhoa Garmendia.

About this Website

The website contains links to the music we will hear and other background information.

Questions and Additional Information

Please reach out to Instructor Margie Satinsky with questions and requests for additional information. Contact information is: (919) 383-5998 (home/work), or (919) 812-2235 (cell/text), or margiesatinsky@icloud.com.