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8.578064-65 - MOZART, W.A.: Ultimate Opera Album (The)
The Ultimate Mozart Opera Album
Famous since his tenderest years as a child prodigy when his father Leopold travelled with him throughout Europe, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) composed no fewer than 22 works in a variety of genres that we refer to today as ‘opera’. From the small-scale works of his youth to the full-fledged masterpieces of his maturity he had, as David Cairns puts it, ‘an extraordinary capacity…for seizing on and assimilating whatever in a newly encountered style (was) most useful to him’.
Today, few of his earlier works, from the sacred Singspiel Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (The Obligation of the First and Foremost Commandment) or the ‘music for a Latin drama’ Apollo et Hyacinthus, both composed in and performed 1767 in Salzburg, to Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), composed and performed in Vienna in 1786, are regularly experienced on the operatic stage although all have been recorded.
However, the dramma per musica Idomeneo, re di Creta (Idomeneo, King of Crete) of 1780–81, the Singspeil Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) of 1782, the opera buffa Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) of 1786, the dramma giocoso Don Giovanni of 1787, the dramma giocoso Così fan tutte (All women are like this) of 1790, the opera seria La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) and the Singspiel Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) of 1791, have ensured his fame as an operatic composer. Each generation has discovered and enjoyed Mozart’s extraordinary ability to bring his characters vividly to life.
As we see above, Mozart and other 18th-century composers used various terms to describe each of the different types of opera, which can be grouped into two main categories, Opera seria (‘serious opera’) or dramma per musica (‘drama for music’) and opera buffa (‘comic opera’). These terms refer to stage works sung in Italian, the former an elevated ‘high art’ form with royal, aristocratic or mythological characters involved in dramatic plots based on conflicts of love and duty, the latter a less prestigious but increasingly popular form with characters drawn from contemporary life involved in farcical plots often entailing servants outwitting their masters. Both types of opera usually ended with happy resolutions to their complicated plotlines. In dramma giocoso (‘jocular drama’) high drama and comedy were mixed, creating something close to today’s romantic comedies. Singspeil (‘song play’) differed from Italian opera because it was performed in German and included both spoken dialogue and sung texts (arias, ballads, ensembles usually in a lighter musical style) and was less prestigious than opera buffa but even more popular with middle- and working-class audiences.
The secret of Mozart’s success lies foremost in the sophisticated way that he used the variety of theatre-music styles available to him to create life-like characters who are immediately recognisable in terms of their status (servant or sovereign, noble or nobody, European or foreigner), gender (males or female, or in the case of little Cherubino—a fetching boy sung by a young woman—a cheeky gender-bender) and personality or frame of mind (loyal or lascivious, devious or devoted, bewitched, bothered or bewildered). In Don Giovanni for instance, the narcissistic Don Juan and his comedic servant Leporello are clearly distinguished in musical terms as a nobleman (however ignobly he behaves) and a working man (who, though loyal to his master, is actually heartily sick of it all). The Magic Flute boasts a cast of characters from many stations: the fiery Queen of the Night (whose famous aria parodies the high-falutin’ opera seria style) contrasts with the mystical Sarastro (equally noble but enlightened and humane), while the Javanese prince Tamino and the Chinese princess Pamina are counterposed with the lowly but lovable birdcatcher Papageno and his mate Papagena.
Indeed, Mozart was also a master of musical irony. His characters often sing one thing but their music tells us something else. In Così fan tutte, we soon realise that when Fiordiligi sings ‘Come scoglio immoto resta / Contra i venti, e la tempesta, / Così ognor quest’alma è forte / Nella fede, e nell’amor ‘(Like a rock, we stand immobile / against the wind and storm, / and are always strong / in trust and love) it won’t be long before she falls for her best friend’s boy and vice versa, the boys having been convinced to test their lovers’ fidelity by disguising themselves as Albanians and wooing each other’s partners! And when Don Giovanni declares his singular devotion to a particular lass or lady, we recall that Leporello’s long list of his amorous conquests—2,065 ‘women of every rank, every shape, every age’—has already revealed the heartless truth of the situation.
Even when excerpted from its fully-staged operatic context, the marvellous selection of music on The Ultimate Mozart Opera Album reveals his astonishing gift for laying bare the inner lives of the many beloved characters from his most famous operas. Whether embroiled in farce or defying fate, seeking wisdom and true love, vengeance or the return of happier times, getting their just deserts or just getting by, these characters remain as alive for us today as when Mozart first brought them to life. Indeed, it is hard not to see ourselves represented in these marvelously three-dimensional creations, which was surely Mozart’s point in presenting them to us.
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