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Uneasy in Love: Mozart's 'Cosi fan tutte'

When it comes to choosing entertainment, people seem to think in categories.

When you open up the TV listings, or check your on-screen program guide, the vast majority of shows are designated as either "Comedy" or "Drama." Online movie outlets direct people to "browse by genre," although with movies there are more categories to choose from — including "Action-Adventure," "Sci-Fi," "Westerns" and maybe "Foreign," along with any number of sub-categories.

And music? Just check out the top of this page, with its handy genre tabs.

Still, in every form of entertainment, there are works that defy simple characterization. And in opera, no composer was better at bursting the categories than Mozart.

The story of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at first seems awfully silly: A couple of young guys dress up in outrageous costumes to impersonate foreigners and their own fiances don't even recognize them. It makes for a lot of good laughs.

But then, on a bet, the guys try to seduce each other's girlfriends — actually tempting the women they love to betray them. And it works. Not so many laughs now, as both couples find out exactly how flimsy "true love" can be.

Cosi fan tutte was the last of three stellar collaborations between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte — the other two were The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. They were all composed between 1785 and 1790, and they are all great operas. But of the three, Cosi may have drawn the most criticism over the years. Some say the music and the libretto simply don't match — that sentiments in the libretto are set to such deeply stirring music that the words and the score seem at odds with each other.

But perhaps that emotional disparity is actually Mozart's way of making sure the opera's unlikely story hits its mark. And maybe that's why this outwardly comical masterpiece often leaves audiences feeling more than a little uneasy.

Deep down, Cosi fan tutte is a sharp reminder that the feelings we're most desperate to express often come out garbled — obscured by inadequate words and betrayed by predictable actions. That's what happens to the characters in this opera. They wind up dumbfounded by their own emotions. But when their words are inadequate to express their feelings, it doesn't matter — Mozart's music does it for them.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Cosi fan tutte in a production from one of music's most prestigious venues, the Vienna State Opera.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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