What exactly is being taught here? »La scuola degli amanti«, »The School for Lovers« is the subtitle of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto (the poet actually intended it to be the main title). Don Alfonso’s primary educational goal as the »old philosopher« is to dispel all illusions about love and fidelity. En route, the lovers are instructed in all the primary and secondary topics of a complicated (love)life. Trust, seduction, deceit, surrender. The final conclusion that leads to the title, »That’s how they (women) all are«, needs not be the end of the education. What they make of this assumed recognition is a question for all participants.
With Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart had finally found the poet with whom he could join forces to form the »true phoenix«, as he described the combination of a »good composer« and a »modest poet« in a letter to his father in 1781. The »good composer« was meant to be someone who »understands the theatre, and who is also capable of specifying something«. This was Mozart. Così fan tutte shows this even more clearly than the earlier Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Of the 31 musical numbers in the Scuola degli amanti, only 11 are solo arias, the rest are ensembles. Mozart and Da Ponte continued with the practice initiated in Figaro (14 solo arias in 28 individual numbers) of discarding the conventional ratio between recitatives which move the action along and »static« vocal numbers. More and more elements of the action are moved into the musical numbers. Originally, the busy Lorenzo Da Ponte had not written Così fan tutte for Mozart. Instead, Antonio Salieri had begun a setting (probably in 1789) but had soon aban- doned it again. For Mozart’s opera, there are Da Ponte’s changes in the text indicating a series of requests to the poet by the composer.
New in this third and last collaboration between Mozart and Da Ponte is that the poet was not working from a direct play or libretto but created an »original libretto« from numerous sources. For example, he took the motif of a test of fidelity by a jealous spouse, or someone commissioned by him to see if the wife can be seduced from the story of Cephalus and Procris in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Ninth Tale of the Second Day of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron.
This also involves the motif of a bet on fidelity, which in Da Ponte becomes the bet that Guglielmo and Ferrando make with Don Alfonso. Finally, all the female characters in Così fan tutte have counterparts in a classical work. In Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516) we encounter a Fiordiligi, true wife of Brandimarte; a Doralice who surrenders to the seductive arts of a Saracen prince; and finally, a Fiordispina, who falls unhappily in love with the female warrior Bradamante. The work has a wealth of references to literary tradition (there are also traces of Shakespeare and Marivaux), although for a long time it was dismissed as the worst of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas. Right from the world premiere, many people found the plot where Dorabella and Fiordil- igi abandon their absent betrotheds and take up with two strangers to be outrageous. In fact the closing »così fan tutte« serves as a continuation of the gender image which the tale from the Decameron conveyed, that even man as the crown of creation is often unable to be faithful, so it can hardly be expected of women as beings dominated by the senses. In the Decameron, this assignment of roles is required for the male fantasies of lustful nuns and adulterous women who populate Boccaccio’s tales. In Così fan tutte, the ending is one of reconciliation, leaving scope to consider the question which the work poses along with Mozart’s wonderful music – what is »seduction«, and how does it work? How does a disguise work which makes it impossible to recognize your own betrothed and your sister’s? And finally, what motivates a character like Don Alfonso, whose only triumph – apart from the money he won – lies ultimately in shattering the trust of a few young people in love and in each other?