Composed in the years 1789-90, Cosi fan tutte was first performed on January 26, 1790 in Vienna under the composer’s direction. The opera is in two acts to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. The story revolves around the character Don Alfonso’s bet with two young men, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that their much-enamoured ladies would not remain faithful to them under temptation. Accordingly the two young men leave their beloveds, ostensibly to go to war, but to return disguised as Albanians. Each attempts to seduce the other’s woman and eventually succeeds, which makes Don Alfonso win the his wager. The plot is a tapestry of numerous intricacies, the details too many to mention, but the title, Cosi fan tutte, explains it all, as it is freely translated as “All women do it.”
A critic in Berlin in 1805 noted that “this evidence of infidelity of all women was regarded merely as a jest is precisely the delicate charm of the whole opera, and that this infidelity, on the other hand, is let off so easily is proof of the playful sense of beauty on the part of the composer. Everything is only masquerade, playfulness, jest, dallying, and irony.” This type of opera is called opera buffa, or old-fashioned Italian comic opera. True to its genre, the opera is set in 18th century Naples. Although the premiere in Vienna was favorably greeted, it was only during this century that Cosi fan tutte became a consistent feature of the international repertory.
The Overture is marked with the ebullient wit abounding throughout the opera, accompanied by a mock sentimental tune played by the oboe after the opening chords. The phrase “cosi fan tutte,” as sung by the men in Act II, is then stated in the low strings, and the Overture whirls to an effervescent presto conclusion with sparkling woodwinds and strings.