Così fan tutte. “All women are like this.” That is, fickle, as Don Alfonso says in Mozart and Da Ponte’s third joint opera. The grooms who pretend to be Albanians, the chambermaid who disguises herself as a notary and a host of comic situations result in an uproarious comedy – but the laugh sometimes sticks in our throats. The faithfulness of two sisters is tested as they are lured by their lovers to fall in love with each other’s fiancés.
Oscar-winning director Jiří Menzel tells us this bitter-sweet story.
“Women’s faithfulness is like the Arabian phoenix. Everyone says it exists, where it is no one knows,” Don Alfonso exclaims in a café in Naples. Ferrando and Guglielmo, two army officers, are shocked, and they claim that their fiancées, Fiordiligi and Dorabella respectively, are real models of faithfulness. They demand Don Alfonso to prove his statement. “Mad wish to attempt to discover the evil which makes us wretched when found,” Don Alfonso warns the two young men, but eventually offers a wager: he bets 100 ducats to prove that even their fiancée’s hearts can waver. The two young men accept the wager with light hearts.
The two sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella are looking at their fiancés’ portraits with delight. “I am happy! If this heart of mine ever changes its desire, may Love make me suffer while I live.”
The show begins. Don Alfonso arrives and announces the “bad news”: the two officers have been summoned to war. Ferrando and Guglielmo come to say farewell; the two heartbroken sisters almost die in their sorrow. Martial music is heard from outside, calling them to war – the officers must depart. The inconsolable girls stand at the window and watch as the ship disappears with – as far as they know – their fiancés aboard.
Despina, the maid, watches her two mistresses with puzzlement as they suffer. They complain that their fiancés have sailed away from Naples. Despina consoles them in her simple manner: they should not cry for them, as other men will arrive in their place. There is no point expecting men to be faithful (especially if they are soldiers), the maid claims. “O women, let us pay with the same token this maleficent, indiscreet species. Let us love for our convenience.”
Don Alfonso begins to “set the trap” for the girls. The officers will return disguised as Albanian nobles and court each other’s fiancée: Guiglielmo will woo Dorabella and Ferrando will woo Fiordiligi. First they test Despina to see if she recognises the officers in disguise: but the maid only sees two strangers in unfamiliar costumes. Don Alfonso asks the girl to help him escort the two young men to the sad ladies while he hides.
Fiordiligi and Dorabella angrily try to shoo the strangers out of the house, but Don Alfonso stops them: he pretends to recognise old friends in the “intruders”, and ensures the ladies that they do not need to worry. The two men explain that the reason for their arrival is love. The ladies are shocked. Fiordiligi resolutely rejects the courting: their faithfulness and love are rock solid! Don Alfonso asks the girls to be more forgiving, or the two young men will kill themselves on the spot because their love has been rejected. Guiglielmo begs Dorabella: in exchange for a little kindness, they could make the ladies happy. When the sisters leave them alone, Ferrando and Guglielmo burst out laughing: they believe their fiancées’ faithfulness to have been proven. But Don Alfonso warns them: the trial is not over yet… He again asks for Despina’s help to make to two ladies more open to the strangers’ approach.
Fiordiligi and Dorabella are musing over their sad fate when they hear the “Albanian” courters’ sighs from outside: Don Alfonso is trying to prevent them from committing suicide. With a phial of fake poison in their hands, they appear before the adored ladies, drink the “lethal beverage” and collapse. The frightened ladies cry for Despina, who leaves the “dying ones” to their care while she and Don Alfonso call the doctor. Finally, the girls begin to feel sorry for the two suffering men. Don Alfonso returns with the doctor – who is Despina in disguise. She touches the dying men with Mesmer’s magnetic stone, and they are revived immediately: they gratefully kiss the sisters’ hands. “It's the effect of the poison still; don’t be afraid,” the “doctor” explains. The young men start again: ”Give me a kiss, my treasure, a single kiss, or I’ll die here.” But this is too much for the sisters, who reject the courters again.
The sisters do not know what to do. ”Are you made of flesh and blood, or what are you?” Despina asks. She acts out what every woman should know: how to use a light titter and some tears to seduce someone, how to tell a lie without blushing and how to achieve anything she wants. The sisters are contemplating: “Enjoying ourselves a little and not dying of melancholy is not betraying our word.” Fiordiligi is still hesitant, but Dorabella has made up her mind: ”I’ll take the little dark one.” They each chose one of the two men, and, unaware of their identities, opt for the one who is actually the other sister’s fiancé. Don Alfonso calls together the four young people. Ferrando and Guglielmo cannot utter a word, so it is Don Alfonso who speaks for them; and Despina replies instead of the girls, who are giggling in their embarrassment. The two “mischief-makers” try to bring the young people together, and then leave the four of them alone. Guglielmo gives a small heart as a present to Dorabella, who accepts it. When he wants to replace Ferrando’s portrait with this heart in Dorabella’s medallion, the girl resists for a while but then succumbs. They leave the scene arm in arm.
Ferrando, however, is not so “successful”: Fiordiligi continues to reject his approach. The girl is left alone with her doubts and remorse.
“Victory!” Ferrando tells his friend happily: Fiordiligi’s faith cannot be shaken. Guglielmo cannot provide such good news: he shows his friend the portrait that has been removed from Dorabella’s medallion… The distraught Ferrando is about to leave, but Guglielmo does not let him go: it is not worth crying about a woman who forgets her love within a day. Don Alfonso acknowledges the developments. Guglielmo is delighted and demands the 50 ducats he has earned as his Fiordiligi has remained faithful. But according to the agreement, Don Alfonso has until the following morning: Guglielmo should not be so confident.
The desperate Fiordiligi complains to his sister and Despina: she is suffering from terrible pains because it is now not only Guglielmo for whom her heart beats. But she is resolute to remain loyal to her fiancé. Then the “solution” occurs to her: she and her sister should put on their fiancés’ spare army officer uniforms and flee to the battlefield to fight by their fiancés’ side and even die if necessary. Guiglielmo proudly listens to his fiancée behind the door, but Ferrando “steps in”. It is not long before Fiordiligi surrenders: “Cruel man, you’ve won... Do with me what you will.” Don Alfonso can hardly hold back the raging Guglielmo. The two cheated men ask their old friend to help them take revenge on the women. “Marry them,” he replies promptly. “Nature could not make an exception. (...) All women behave thus.” Despina brings the “good news” that the ladies are ready to marry the new courters.
A crowd of friends gather for the wedding of the two sisters. The two couples enter and give a toast: “Let no memory remain of the past in our hearts.” The notary arrives, who is actually Despina in disguise. The marriages are sealed, the documents are signed. At the same moment, the sound of martial music is heard: the soldiers have returned from battle! Panic breaks out: Despina and the grooms hide, and then the latter sneak out of the house. The sisters’ blood freezes. According to the “royal countermand”, Ferrando and Guglielmo arrive. Their “faithful” fiancées stand speechless. Despina, disguised as a notary, emerges from the room, saying that she has just come home from a ball and is about to get changed… The puzzled sisters watch the chambermaid and do not understand what is happening. Don Alfonso “accidentally” drops the marriage contract, which is found by the young men: they read the document with astonishment, and set off to find the seducers furiously. As they come back from the room, they reveal themselves: “Here, my lady, I give you back the little portrait for the little heart,” Guglielmo says to Dorabella. The three women gasp for breath. The lovers reconcile. The question arises: who will be coupled with whom?