Romantic Reversal: Mozart's 'Così fan tutte'

The opera has two acts, and in its original version, the action begins in an 18th-century café. In the production featured here, things are different. The Aix-en-Provence Festival has become known for opera productions that pointedly, and sometimes bitingly reset their drama's original action. This production of Così is set in Eritrea, in the 1930s, when the country was a colony of Italy -- and it takes a distinctly modern look at issues of racial and international conflicts.

As ACT ONE opens, two young naval officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, are bragging about the unswerving fidelity of their fiancées, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi. An older friend of theirs, Don Alfonso, tells them that no women are as faithful as all that. Alfonso bets the young men a substantial sum that if they do everything he says, their lovers will betray them. Ferrando and Guglielmo eagerly accept the wager.

Alfonso's plot is this: The two men will pretend they've been called away to war. Then, while the women are mourning their absence, the men will return in disguise and try to seduce each other's lovers. If they succeed, Alfonso wins the bet.

In Scene 2, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are heartbroken when they find their lovers are about to leave town. The sisters' maid, Despina, suggests that while the men are gone the two women should entertain themselves -- with new lovers. Their reaction is shock and indignation. But the underlying tone of the music hints at something a little different: that the women might just be tempted by a bit of extracurricular hanky-panky.

When the sisters leave the room, Alfonso gets Despina to help with his plan -- for a fee, of course. He tells her that two wealthy newcomers are in town, and are eager to meet her mistresses. The men are actually Ferrando and Guglielmo. Traditionally, they appear disguised as "Albanians." In this updated production from Aix-en-Provence, these Italian officers return with blackened faces, disguised as African mercenaries -- adding racial and cultural conflict to an already tense personal situation.

Alfonso brings the men in, and hides. Despina agrees to introduce them to Dorabella and Fiordiligi. But when the guys make their moves, the women are offended, and leave. The officers think they’ve won the wager. But Alfonso tells them it's not over yet.

In the act's final scene, Alfonso and Despina hatch the next part of their scheme. The women are in their garden, again pining for their absent lovers. The two "strangers" suddenly appear. They both say they can't bear any further rejection, and pretend to swallow poison. 

Despina goes with Alfonso to find a doctor. Then, as the women timidly approach the supposedly dying men, Alfonso returns -- bringing Despina disguised as a doctor!  Using dubious medical techniques she revives the men. At first, Fiordiligi and Dorabella express sympathy for their suicidal suitors. But when the two men immediately resume their pleas for love, they're rejected again.

In ACT TWO, the sisters are still confused over the passionate attentions of two strangely seductive, and possibly dangerous men. They still haven't figured out the truth: that the newcomers are actually their own supposedly absent lovers, in disguise.
Though the sisters have steadily rejected their advances, Despina tells the women they're being silly. She thinks any woman over the age of 15 should take advantage of this kind of situation.  You can survive without love, she says, but not without lovers. The sisters act scandalized, but they're beginning to think Despina might just be right.

Dorabella persuades her sister that it could be fun to lead these guys on. She decides she'll take the one with the deep voice -- Guglielmo -- leaving Fiordiligi with Ferrando. Unwittingly, the sisters have just agreed to switch lovers.

In Scene 2, Despina and Alfonso bring the two couples together and then leave, to let nature take its course. Both men turn on the charm, and one of them succeeds. Guglielmo persuades Dorabella to accept a gift, a small golden heart.  With her assent, he puts it in her locket, replacing her picture of Ferrando.

When the two men get back together to compare notes, things start to go sour. Ferrando has had no luck with Fiordiligi, and he assumes Guglielmo has also failed with Dorabella. Guglielmo first hedges a bit, but when he finally shows Ferrando his own picture, which was removed from Dorabella's locket, Ferrando is deeply wounded. Disguising his pain as anger, Ferrando resolves to have another try with Fiordiligi.

Scene 3 finds the sisters comparing notes. Dorabella has adopted Despina's carefree attitude; she's ready to marry her new lover. But it's Fiordiligi who feels most guilty. She rejected her guy, but now wishes she had acted on her passion. As a sort of penance for those feelings, she decides that she and Dorabella must put on military uniforms and try to join their true loves, who are supposedly off at war.

But Ferrando reappears, still in disguise, and Fiordiligi can't resist any longer. Before long she's in Ferrando's arms, with Guglielmo watching. Now it's his turn for anguish.

Alfonso says the two men might just as well marry the women. They were bound to be unfaithful eventually, so why not make the best of it? And just then, Despina announces that the women have agreed to a double wedding.

In the final scene, the couples uneasily drink to their future happiness -- while the two men are quietly seething. The versatile Despina arrives, this time disguised as a notary, and bringing a marriage contract. The women sign it. But before the men can do the same, Alfonso suddenly announces that the sisters' former boyfriends have returned from battle. Frantically, Dorabella and Fiordiligi send the new fiancés into another room.

The men sneak out the back, and return without their disguises. They feign horror when they learn that while they were "gone," their faithful lovers have signed a marriage contract. Alfonso points to the room where the two "other guys" are supposedly hiding.  The men go in with weapons in hand. They return carrying their disguises. The women finally realize they've been

Alfonso tells the four lovers that it's all for the best -- everyone is wiser now. They've seen each other as they really are, and can all have a good laugh at their own expense. There are apologies all around, and everything is forgiven. But even as the finale rings out, no one seems ready to laugh. And the audience is left to wonder: After all that deception and betrayal, on both sides, can these couples really have the same future they thought they had when the opera began?