Why opera? Part 3



When the great spin-bowler Bill O’Reilly died, Keith Miller, his all-rounder team-mate, said that after Bill O’Reilly, there was space – before you get to the next great bowler.  This is sometimes called the blue sky test.  Well, with Mozart you can take the blue sky of Bradman, Phar Lap, Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali all rolled up into one.  There may have been a competitor in the concert hall or in the opera house – but someone who could be ranked with Mozart in both?  The very idea is insane.  In the concert hall, Mozart comes between Haydn and Beethoven.  Haydn’s operas are forgotten.  Beethoven’s one opera, Fidelio, is dour and not box office.  At any given time, you may find four or five of Mozart’s operas among the ten most popular in the world.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was born in Strasburg, the youngest of seven children.  Five of those children died in infancy.  That is a sobering reminder of the dice-board of Providence.  Mozart remained very fond of his sister.  His father was a musician and composer who soon discovered that his son was a prodigy.  He was playing the piano at three and composing at four.  He had written more than half of his forty one symphonies by the time he was twenty.  He is now thought to have come of age in opera at the age of twenty-four, with the opera Idomeneo, which may have been his personal favourite.  It was then that he was showing his own personal command of values in drama.  In corresponding about the drama, Mozart certainly felt old enough to say that if ‘the Ghost’s speech in Hamlet were not so long, it would be far more effective.’

His father showed him off on road-shows across Europe and their relationship grew rocky.  The child prodigy would become the leading pianist in Vienna, the musical capital of the world.  Mozart had a happy marriage that produced some children who survived.  It is hard to assess his finances, but he never looked settled.  He relied on patronage.  He was only thirty-five when he died, and, as was the custom, he was put in a common grave.  The film Amadeus gravely offended a lot of people, but it may not have been too wide of the mark, and it led many people to some of the most beautiful music ever written.  Mozart was a freak, but like most of us, he had to work to pay the rent.

To that end, his output was staggering.  It covers more than 200 CD’s.  He wrote about twenty–two operas.  He also wrote many concertos for piano, piano sonatas, and string quartets.  It is said that he wrote his last three symphonies – each one a masterpiece beyond that of any other composer ever with possibly one exception – in six weeks.  His letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel.  He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.

Mozart liked to compose in the fresh air.  Don Giovanni was said to have been written on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden.  In a letter that he wrote in a garden, he said that he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am!  One of the greatest artists the world has seen sat down to eat with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’  (He was only about five feet in height.)  Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof.

When Mozart died, he was working on the Requiem.  He had previously composed the Ave verum corpus (‘Behold the true body’), possibly the most refined sacred music ever written.  Einstein (the music critic) said of it that Mozart had ‘resolved the problem of style’.  Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.

A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), had written to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer holds any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling….I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’Some say that those who are beloved of God die young.  This small young man probably never hurt a soul, but he did so much for all of us that we are all under obligation to his memory.

Before our big four operas of Mozart, I may mention The Abduction from the Seraglio, a farce sung and spoken in German, a singspiel?  It is seriously funny when well done on the stage, but is also very easy to listen to.  The Victorian Opera production in 2016 was hilarious.  I may have been the only non-German speaker in the Athenaeum.

That brings us to The Marriage of Figaro, which Stendhal said was ‘a sublime mixture of wit and melancholy, which has no equal.’  He was dead right – it is farce laced with misgivings.  (Don Giovanni is the reverse – it is heavy drama with comic asides.)  The magic is in the mixing.  Mozart was under thirty when he wrote it – ridiculous by our standards; old in Mozart years.  It was the first of three miraculous combinations with a baptised Italian Jew, Lorenzo Da Ponte.  It was based on a play by Beaumarchais that had been a smash hit in Paris.  That play was revolutionary in more senses than one.  It was an attack on the aristocracy.  Its most famous line was ‘Monsieur Le Comte, what have you done to earn your exalted position?  You put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more.’  The French nobles thought it was hilarious – until a few years later when they felt the worst kind of blade.  (A few years after that, they were effectively extinct.)

A randy old count, with a disappointed wife, has eyes on the maid who is to marry the hero that day.  All the action takes place in one day, and a lot of the farce is supplied by a randy young lad, played by a woman, who is accident prone, and who has the hots for the countess.  Historians have differed about the so–called ‘first night’ (prima noce) rights or rites, but you will see already that this show is about class privileges.  And that’s what the French Revolution was about.

Start with the overture.  Try the Vienna Philharmonic – possibly the best band in the world – playing in Japan and conducted by a young Italian.  Not many girls, and one fiddle looks to be held together by a rubber band, but you get the dignified courtesy of the concert hall, and the urgent drama of the music.  Then go to the aria ‘Se vol ballare’, not my favourite, but this is when the hero throws down the gauntlet to the ancien régime, which is what the show is about.  Try the great Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel at the Met in 1998.  Both in singing and acting, this part is blood to a tiger for Terfel – who has moved on to heavier parts in Wagner.   Then go to Cherubino singing ‘Non so piu cosa’ (‘I no longer know what I am or what I am doing’).  Try Frederica Von Stade with Solti at the Opera Garnier or the Latvian Elina Garanca who is very much á la mode.  Then try Christine Schafer.  She is a distinguished singer who is drop dead gorgeous – she could have started a riot the way she turned out as Lulu at Glyndebourne.  Here she makes a heroic sacrifice to art by turning out as schoolboy in glasses and a sawn-off haircut and a flattened chest.  Listen to the wonderful Jessye Norman on ‘Porgi amor’. Then go to the underlying melancholy of the opera in the other great aria ‘Dove sono’ of the Countess.  This was a role well suited to Kiri Te Kanawa, but her Met Centennial piece in 1983 is not to my taste.  Try Mirella Freni, who was pre-eminent in her day, or the delicious Lucia Popp.  The Countess will move from being a passive victim to an agent of reconciliation (as David Cairns remarked). Finally go the Finale, where all participate and where the Count asks for forgiveness.  Those who have seen the movie Amadeus will recall the glum horror of Salieri as he heard this miracle unfold.  Try the amazing John Eliot Gardiner version.  This great expounder of Bach has a complete mastery of the drama of Mozart.

There you have a picture or slice of one of the great works of art of the western world.  The magic is in the blending of music and drama and of humour and sadness.  Frankly, if you haven’t found this to your taste, and you stay that way after seeing or hearing the whole show, there may not be much point in reading these pieces any further.

As mentioned, in Don Giovanni, it’s the darkness that comes first, edged with humour, most of it very black.  It was at least in part composed in Prague, and it was first performed there.  (You can visit Bertramka, the house it was written in.)  The people of Prague still have a soft spot for the author.  This show too is shot through with references to the privileges of the aristocracy, but the Don makes the Count in Figaro look like a saint.  He is a gross sexual predator with more form than the current President of the United States.  He begins by murdering the ageing father of a woman he has seduced or raped.  He has to deal with past victims while he tries to seduce a peasant girl about to be married.  Eventually his past catches up with him – the ghost is like Hamlet in reverse – but he goes out unrepentant.

A demonic force, unlike anything else in opera, underlies the whole show.  All emotions arrive at high pitch.  The great German poet Goethe said: ‘How can anyone say that Mozart ‘composed’ Don Giovanni?  It is a spiritual creation, the detail like the whole, made by one mind in one mould, and shot through with the breath of life…[the author] bidden by the daemon of his genius to do what he did.’

Again, start with the overture, and hear that demonic force.  One critic says that it began with ‘the most magically evocative chord in the history of music.’  Try Ricardo Muti, who is terrific with Mozart, or if you want a slice of history, go to Furtwängler at Salzburg in 1954.  (He got into trouble with the Americans for shaking hands with Hitler; the great Von Karajan went further – he joined the party – twice.)  Well, you know from the start that you are in for a big doom laden night.  Now try ‘La ci darem ma mano’ (‘Give me your hand’) with the Don in serenade mode.  Try Bryn Terfel with the gorgeous Renée Fleming, in concert, but delivered with massive assurance and style.  And try Thomas Allen with Susanne Mentzer at La Scala (with Muti).  I studied Allen in this part at a summer school at Oxford and the evil he could evince was uncomfortably close to being frightening.

Near the end of Act I, two female victims meet with the male friend of one of them in masques to go to a ball put on by the Don.  Don Ottavio just schleps about getting knockbacks, but he gets two gorgeous songs and a part in a trio ‘Protegga il giusto cielo’ (‘May just heaven protect.’)  One version I have is an EMI recording conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini that features Joan Sutherland and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf with Luigi Alva.  It is on the internet and the trio is at I hour 13 minutes 30 seconds.  It just exceeds two minutes, but it is I think what Mendelsshon thought was the most beautiful music he had heard.  If you find something closer to God let me know.  This is the precise point where this artist reminds me most of Shakespeare – some of the most beautiful music ever put down is an interlude in nowhere, almost a throwaway line.  It’s the sheer bloody profligacy of it all!

The trio comes at a time of eerie tension – you can feel the tempest coming – and it is followed by a defiant Don celebrating ‘liberty’ when he means ‘licence’.  That brings the first act to its thunderous end.  Then go the scene with the Commendatore at the end of Act 2 with Thomas Hampson at La Scala.  This scene is very famous – part of it was in Amadeus – but it’s not hard to get it wrong.  Allen’s acting is riveting.  If you stick with us, and if you come across a piece of theatre as strong as this scene, you might let me know.  Offhand I could think of one bit of theatre that some might put in that league, and I will try to recall it when the time comes.  This is drama at its most elemental.  Sophocles and company would have gone big on this kind of drama.  For me personally, I have not seen drama like that since the 1964 Grand Final.  (And, yes, with the curse of Norm Smith, that was the Demons’ last flag.)

Cosi fan tutti has had an up and down ride.  It is tricky in what might be called a political sense.  Take the title for starters.  ‘All women are the same.’  You could be shot for less.  Two young blades are conned by a nasty old codger into betting on their brides to be, and, not incomprehensibly, the result gets what NRL footy callers describe as ‘ugly’.  It’s like ripping off a scab.  But it is a remarkable ensemble piece and it is often the favourite of the musically literate.  It is a great night out for those who like great music and theatre, but not many go home thinking that all will be well with the lovers.

My preferred version is James Levine on DG with the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast that includes Kiri Te Kanawa and Ann Murray, whose credits include ‘Animal Crackers in my Soup.’

But there was a production in 2006 at Glyndebourne directed by Nicholas Hytner.  It is nothing if not modern and opulent and hot.  The Guardian said:

Rather than allowing Ferrando and Guglielmo (Topi Lehtipuu and Luca Pisaroni) the usual measure of comic absurdity when they don their disguises to begin their games of seduction, Hytner re-introduces them as a pair of glamorous Byronic brigands, whose sexuality is an unstoppable force. It’s a touch of genius that allows us to understand not only why Ainhoa Garmendia’s coldly rational Despina finds their poses so absurd, but also why Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Miah Persson and Anke Vondung) are so swiftly swept off their feet.

What follows is often deeply erotic, as the two pairs of lovers find their emotional security undermined by desire. The scenes between Pisaroni and Vondung are particularly incendiary.

So, that may or may not be a show for aunty, but it is available on the internet.  Check out first the trio ‘Una bella serenata’.  The two heroes are insolently good looking, and riding for a fall.  Then check out the two gorgeous ladies in ‘Soave sia il vento.’  The heroines and the malefactor farewell the lover boys – and, yes, it’s another two minute miracle trio.  (This one is very well known – I don’t why the Don Giovanni trio is not as well known.)  The women are as pretty as the boys, and they’re not holding back.  You can compare this with Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Thomas Hanson.  Then at Glyndebourne get the sextet ‘Alla bella Despinetta.’  The two idiots are in stupid disguise, and the maid (who is perfect) is in on the joke, but the women respond like country gals whose portraits get shown in Country Life.  This is adult musical comedy and it is hilarious.  Then check them when they are dotty in ‘Prendero quel brunettino.’  If you compare it to the Gardiner version, you will see the premium that is now placed on acting in this famous duet.  Then go to the uneasy bodice ripping quartet ‘E nel tuo’ before the traditional finale ‘Fortunato l’uom che prende’.

This is sensational – bravura – musical comedy, but it does come with an edge.  Perhaps, therefore, it is a show for our times.  Indeed, 2006 was a bumper year for Cosi.  The Glyndebourne production, that is part of the boxed set of the complete operas, is in my view as close to perfection as we can decently hope to get in opera.

By contrast, there is something almost holy about The Magic Flute.  Mozart was a devout Catholic and a dedicated Mason.  The two come together in a piece that combines the sacred and the profane, the farcical and the sacramental.  His accomplice for this his last opera was not Da Ponte, but an actor-manager-playwright called Schikaneder.  He was into popular theatre, and that conjunction troubles some snooty people who see themselves as purists.  Balls.  The show combines high sentiment and pantomime, and it has been admired by poets from Goethe to Auden, but it has inspired almost as much conjecture as Wagner.  The plot – about the elevation of a bird catcher – inspired the English philosopher Isaiah Berlin to fresh heights in a famous essay.  When I saw it at a matinee in the opera house on Unter den Linden, a lot of the Germans brought their neatly attired children who sounded like they enjoyed at least the panto parts.  The text is in German.

My preferred version is the EMI Classic with the great classical conductor Otto Klemperer, and a cast that includes Nicholai Gedda, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, and Christa Ludwig.  That is serious music and I may not recommend this show to a first timer.  Start with the overture – try Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic.  This time the fairy music is mixed with the sacramental and the result is almost symphonic.  Then try the aria ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ with the great Placido Domingo.  Then go to Papageno’s Song.  There is a version in Swedish directed by the great Ingmar Bergman.  Then go to the finale – this is not a show that responds to fragmentation.

If you want the full Masonic treatment – this is definitely one opera that I prefer just to listen to – try Kathleen Battle at the Met in 1991.  (Battle’s behaviour was so bad the Met fired her in 1994.  She was due for a comeback in 2016.  After a stint at San Francisco, some staff wore T-shirts ‘I survived the Battle.’  She was once in a limo in New York.  She rang her agent, I think in Europe, to get him to ring the limo company to get the air con changed by the driver sitting three feet away.  Perhaps she had read too much about divas, and believed some of the propaganda.)

Well, there are Mozart’s big four.  When Rossini was asked which of his own operas he preferred, he replied ‘Don Giovanni.’  Shortly before his death, Richard Strauss put his hand upon a score of Mozart’s clarinet quintet and said ‘I would have given anything just to have written this.’  We have a kind of convention that when it comes to genius in art and letters, both as to output and as to range, there are Shakespeare and Mozart, and then there is blue sky.

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