January 26th Burgtheater Vienna
UK: May 9, 1811 His Majesty’s Theater, London
US: March 1922 Metropolitan Opera , New York
The premiere (conducted by the composer) featured the librettist’s (Lorenzo da Ponte - frequent collaborator with Mozart - FIGARO and DON GIOVANNI) current mistress (as a cleric forbidden to marry, da Ponte had several), Adriana Ferraresi del Bene (whom da Ponte very ungallantly called “his misfortune”) as Fiordiligi . The Don Alfonso was Mozart’s first Dr Bartolo and Commendatore, the Despina his first Cherubino and Guglielmo his first Figaro. It was a fair success.
The original libretto was called by Da Ponte (recalling Moliere or Marivaux) “LA SCUOLA DEGLI AMANTI ( “The School for Lovers”); Mozart gave it its title of COSI FAN TUTTE (the words which had appeared in the Act 1 trio from FIGARO). Its sources are varied. Legend has it that the plot idea was given to Da Ponte by the Emperor, Joseph II who had read of a similarly scandalous situation in a newspaper article. But the theme of lovers testing fidelity by the use of a disguise and often incorporating a wager of some sort went back to Greek mythology, Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES, Shakespeare (CYMBELINE), Boccaccio and more importantly for Da Ponte Ariosto’s brilliant 1532 epic poem ORLANDO FURIOSO (incidentally the source for many of Handel’s most well-known pieces). Many of the names in the opera come from Ariosto. There is evidence that Da Ponte had first offered his libretto to Salieri who set a little bit of it before deciding that the text was “unworthy of musical invention.”
After its premiere and the revival in Vienna in 1794 and several subsequent performances in opera houses in Germany, and in Prague and Amsterdam, COSI seemed to drop out of favor. Beethoven considered it (particularly its libretto) “immoral and trivial” and totally unworthy of Mozart’s genius (He also deeply disapproved of GIOVANNI). It was drastically cut, mutilated, adapted, bowdlerized, changed wholesale- all in the interest of saving the piece from its shockingly indecent libretto and to salvage Mozart’s “divine” music - or as one critic wrote “a mighty endeavor to save Mozart’s inspired score which dragged behind it Da Ponte’s contemptible libretto like a convict’s iron ball and chain.” Whole new librettos were introduced - in Paris a new text (by the librettists of FAUST ) based on Shakespeare’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST was attempted. As late as 1909 in Dresden the music was grafted onto an adaption from a play by Calderon
But from 1897 on a number of major conductors and productions tried to return to what Mozart and da Ponte had actually created. Richard Strauss in Munich, Gustav Mahler in Vienna , Thomas Beecham in London. Perhaps the most influential being the Fritz Busch - Carl Ebert 1934 staging at the newly opened Glyndebourne Festival (which led to the opera’s first recording) and now in many commentator’s or critic’s view COSI emerged as Mozart’s supreme operatic achievement . The French composer Reynaldo Hahn wrote “I swear to you that GIOVANNI and FIGARO are the work of an amateur compared to COSI.”
"This is Mozart’s most unreal opera - confined to a small space that might as well be Don Alfonso’s dreaming head. People behave in ways...that defy logic. Yet for the same reason COSI is Mozart’s most realistic opera, [it is also] his most mature, provocative and demanding. It is an astute study of human desires. The dreaming head may as well be a laboratory."
The US premiere of COSI took place at the Metropolitan Opera 132 years after the first performance at the Vienna Burgtheater. The conductor was Artur Bodansky, the design (which featured the novelty (at least at the Met) of a revolving stage was by Joseph Urban. It was a cautious success - the New York Times called it “a notable event.” The cast was distinguished including Florence Easton as Fiordiligi, Lucrezia Bori as Despina, Giuseppi de Luca as Guglielmo and Adamo Didur as Alfonso. It had eleven performances in the course of the next three seasons. An important and highly successful revival occurred in the 1951-52 season directed by the noted American actor Alfred Lunt and starring Eleanor Steber, Blanche Thebom, Patrice Munsel and Richard Tucker with Fritz Stiedry conducting. (A fascinating and quite compelling CD recording remains as a testament to the theatrical vitality of this production) It was sung in an English translation by Ruth and Thomas Martin.