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8.660040-41 - MOZART, W.A.: Ascanio in Alba

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Ascanio in Alba


Milan, 17 October 1771

Ascanio in Alba received its first performance as part of the celebrations at the wedding or Archduke Ferdinand, the third son of Empress Maria Theresa (his two older brothers later became Emperors Joseph II and Leopold II), and Principessa Maria Beatrice d'Este. The marriage consolidated Austria's position as the main power in northern Italy. It took place in Milan where Ferdinand was currently serving as governor and captain-general of Lombardy. Lavish festivities were laid on, and music naturally played its part in them. An opera was commissioned from Johann Adolf Hasse and a serenata (what we would call today a mini-opera) from young Wolfgang Mozart.

Old Hasse, who had been born a few weeks before the close of the previous century and whose contribution to the festivities was his opera Ruggiero, is supposed to have said when he heard Mozart's serenata: "That lad will get us all forgotten." Though probably apocryphal, the remark is a fairly accurate reflection of what was currently happening in Germano-Italian opera. Today, Ascanio seems old-fashioned and even trite with its collection of baroque stage conventions. An example of this is the regular succession of arias and recitatives which had been regarded as the acme in opera for over a century. Yet our ear detects something new, something which looks forward to the demise of the glorious old genre. After Ruggiero, Hasse himself never wrote another opera, even though he still had a good ten years to live. In his retirement in Venice, he continued to write church music which had no truck whatsoever with any of the "newfangled oddities" which had become fashionable on the opera stage.

At fifteen, Mozart lacked the maestria which later enabled him as early as the Serail and especially in his three "Da Ponte" comedies to revolutionize the operatic conventions of his day. For one thing, he was not yet in a position to choose his librettists. Who cares who wrote the libretto of Ascanio? Whether or not it was based on an idea by Count Claudif, Stampa, Parini's concoction is identical in every respect to those which Metastase and company produced regularly for the moral and artistic edification of Maria Theresa's abundant progeniture. These tragedies and serenatas were never written for music's sake they were part of an educational programme intended to inspire young princes with a taste for virtue, fine language and noble attitudes.

As a piece of literature, Ascanio in Alba is indistinguishable from its precursors, and its plot is no more than a distinctly ponderous allegory of the state wedding it was written to celebrate. Even though mythology takes more than a few knocks in the process, the libretto's symbolic references are appropriately grand. Ascanio is the son of Venus, as Ferdinand was the son of Maria Theresa. He is lined up to marry Princess Silvia, a direct descendant of Hercules, in whom it is not too difficult to recognize a certain principessa descending from the great Ercole d'Este. Once Cupid has been recruited as a go-between, the subsequent events require no great effort of the imagination to be understood. The whole thing lumbers along so obviously that it is hard to understand why Parini took so long to gel round to delivering it. Though the commission for the serenata had been issued in March, he did not provide Mozart with the libretto until the very end of August 1771.

Ultimately, the late delivery of the libretto can be seen as a disguised stroke of providence. Forced to start work before the libretto arrived, Mozart was free to write as he chose. By the time the thing did turn up, he had all-but completed the overture. Nonetheless, he had to work overtime during the few weeks left before the wedding. At the time, the fourteen-year-old genius was trying to find a middle way between Italian and German styles of composition, and the speed at which he was obliged to work set him free from all kinds of constraints. If ever a piece of music justified the legend that Mozart sang as spontaneously as the birds and angels, this occasional serenata dashed off in the space of a few weeks is that piece of music.

The purists have naturally criticized its weak construction, its relative lack of thematic cohesion and its extreme flippancy of style. Judging the child by the man, they have forgotten to praise the work's rich inventiveness and the enthusiasm with which the composer contrives to maintain our interest throughout this most tedious of plots.



Act I

The opening scene introduces Venus and Ascanio, the son she had by Aeneas. The goddess vaunts the charms of Alba and invites her son to go and rule there. She urges him not to reveal his identity to Silvia, a nymph to whom he is betrothed, but to introduce himself to her under a false identity to test her virtue.

While the shepherds summon their promised ruler, Fauno reveals that the smiling face of Aceste, a priest, is a sign that the day will be a day of supreme happiness. Obeying the goddess, Ascanio pretends to be a foreigner attracted by the beauties of the place.

Aceste tells the shepherds that their valley will be the site of a fine city and that they will have a sovereign, Ascanio, before the day is out. He also informs Silvia that she will be Ascanio's bride, but she replies that she is in love with a young man she has seen in a dream. The priest reassures her, saying the young man in her can be none other than Ascanio. Venus then appears to Ascanio and asks him to test the girl a little longer before revealing his true identity.

Act II

Ascanio spots Silvia among the shepherds and tries to talk to her. The girl immediately recognizes the young man from her dreams. Fauno intervenes and suggests to "the foreigner" (Ascanio) that he should go off and announce the building of Alba in foreign parts. Convinced that the foreigner is not Ascanio, Silvia runs off declaring she will never marry anyone else.

Aceste consoles Silvia, saying that her tribulations are about to come to an end. Venus is invoked by a magnificent chorus. Sylvia and Ascanio add their voices to the chorus and the goddess descends on her chariot surrounded by clouds.

Venus unites the two lovers and explains how she had intended her son to discover the virtue of his fiancee. Aceste pronounces an oath of fidelity and loyalty to Venus, who then retires. It only remains for Ascanio to perpetuate the race of Aeneas and guide the city of Alba to prosperity.

At the weaker moments, we get rather shallow but inoffensive Italianisms: at the best, we get a foretaste of the Serail or The Magic Flute. Between these two extremes, Mozart gads briskly along, leaving the ponderous opera seria far behind him. Except in Silvia's aria Spiega il dieso, he invariably uses free forms, revels in the choral writing and shows he can make even Parini's long-winded recitatives seem lively and interesting. His audiences in Milan showed how clear-sighted they were by crowding in to hear Mozart and staying away from Metastase and Hasse's Ruggiero. Rather than as a pointless attack levelled at an established musician and his librettist, their applause to which we enthusiastically add our own should be seen as a manifesto in favour of youth.

Jean-Francois Labie
Translated by Roger Greaves

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