Term Paper: Mozart's Operas

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Mozart's Operas

An Analysis of the Operas of Mozart

The opera was Mozart's favorite mode of artistic expression and he composed twenty-two of them in varying shapes and sizes before his death in 1791 at the age of 35. The "great awakening" of Mozart's operatic achievement, however, comes in the final flourish of his life, beginning with Idomeneo (Cairns 2). Thereafter followed a succession of masterpieces, which culminated in Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute). This paper will look at Mozart's operas -- those that are considered to be his best as well as those that preceded -- and show how the composer incorporated the themes and styles of his contemporaries and transformed them (like Shakespeare did upon the stage in London) into something unique, original, and alive.

As David Cairns suggests, to understand Mozart one must know his operas: "To see beneath the beautiful patterns, to realize all that the music's impeccable control concealed…(requires) familiarity with the operas" (8). These operas are generally seven in number (those composed within the last decade of his life), and of these seven, four are considered masterpieces: The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte, and The Magic Flute (Loomis 2). The beginning of Mozart's maturity as a composer is typically dated from 1780. The composer had set aside the German opera Zaide (a work that would not be performed during his lifetime), and taken up the subject of the King of Crete with the librettist Giambattista Varesco -- the Salzburg court chaplain and precursor to Lorenzo de Ponte (who would work with Mozart on his most famous Italian operas). Giambattista's script for Idomeneo was "stilted" and clunky -- but Mozart, now in full possession of his talent, infused it, shaped it, and altered it to his own liking (Loomis 2).

In structure, Idomeneo is a work of formal 18th century Italian opera seria -- its subject is taken from classical Greek mythology and its tone is serious: it is in essence a typical form of the sacrifice drama for which the Hellenes were known, and for which Iphigenia was immortalized. Mozart's desire to adapt Idomeneo into an opera from the French drama by Danchet, with which Mozart came into contact in Paris in 1778, found fruition in Munich and put Mozart "into competition with Gluck" for revitalizing Grecian mythology in opera (Heartz 7). The themes of Idomeneo are of course serious -- as are all the themes of Mozart's operatic masterpieces: but here they are treated in a seriously dramatic fashion.

However, with the exception of La Clemenza di Tito (performed in 1791), all of Mozart's other mature operas would be comedic (buffa or giocoso). Don Giovanni, for example, would be listed as both a dramma giocoso and an opera buffa -- even though today there are many who consider it to be quite a serious work. The fact is that Mozart and his infamously jolly librettist Lorenzo de Ponte had saved the Italian Opera house in Prague from a poor financial season with the showing of their Figaro in 1786. They were commissioned to follow up that comedy with another -- and the tale of Don Juan (their next collaboration) was modeled both on the spirit of the times (embodied whole-heartedly by de Ponte himself) and on the times' comedic operas: as Henry Simon states, "A good deal of (Don Giovanni) was closely fashioned after the libretto of Il Convitato di Pietro (The Stone Guest), a popular opera…by Giuseppe Gazaniga and Giovanni Bertati" (4). What Mozart and his talented librettist were able to do, however, was take the conventional light opera and bring it to life in such a way that it would become one of the oldest operas to still be performed regularly around the world today (Simon 3).

The Marriage of Figaro, just like Don Giovanni which followed, was based on a popular comedy of the time. Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais had penned La folle journee, ou Le marriage de Figaro in 1778 -- but it took the comedic stylings of de Ponte and the genius of Mozart to bring the play to life with music and characters that would "redefine comic opera" (Loomis 2). The play was actually a sequel to Le barbier de Seville, which Rossini would later adapt into his most popular opera. For Mozart, the sequel served his purposes and provided him an opportunity to create 28 new musical compositions, which, with the overture, constituted the score for Figaro (Loomis 3). The plot itself is a complicated yarn full of entanglements, intrigues, seduction, desire, and love -- but in the hands of Mozart the play becomes both human and divine, effecting through music the range of emotional and intellectual ardor that constitute the various elements of experienced love (from the adolescent to the mature). The ironic aria which ends Act I, Non-piu andrai, did as much to secure Mozart another commission as the hi-jinks of the opera did to win over the audience. Mozart married music to words in The Marriage of Figaro in a better way than he had ever done before: comedies about love and human foibles were his forte.

Of course, Mozart had desired nothing more than to compose operas and his early career is marked with operettas. Opera was, for him, the ultimate expression -- the total work of art which Wagner would set out to confect in the following century. And for all composers after him, Mozart essentially set the bar. As David Barber jokingly asserted, "Mozart is just God's way of making the rest of us feel insignificant. Whenever you have just composed a piece of music you think is particularly good, it is humbling to think that Mozart probably wrote a better one when he was nine years old" (70). Indeed, Mozart's first choral piece was penned at the age of nine -- and three years later at the age of twelve he composed his first opera, La Finta Semplice (The Feigned Simpleton), which had its first performance in the Archbishop of Salzburg's Palace in 1769. Like his later works, this one written in his adolescence was an opera buffa. It is safe to say that Mozart always kept about himself a youthful spirit, energy, and vitality that allowed him to manifest all of life's experiences (from the dramatically sorrowful to the delightedly joyful) in musical composition. Above all, Mozart possessed a childlike sensibility that rose above both time and place to find something in common with all generations.

Indeed, as Daniel Heartz points out, Mozart scholars of the 20th century (like Edward J. Dent) uphold Mozart's operas as great examples of the ideals of Western culture that are everywhere mysteriously vanishing: "And more than ever now, in these times of turmoil and confusion, do we need the profound and noble sincerity of Idomeneo and the serene spirituality of The Magic Flute" (ii). However, that which made Mozart great also marred: the "pointed satire" that filled Figaro in 1786 and brought audiences flocking also served to ostracize him from "any number of Viennese aristocrats" (Greenberg), and the passion which drove him to convey so much of life in his operas also came at a time when life in Vienna was suffering from a war with the Ottoman Empire. His operas may have been comedic -- but life was not always so.

Mozart was nonetheless geared to tackle yet another project with de Ponte in 1789 with Cosi fan tutte -- a comic opera of infidelity that could have been written by none other than the duo that had brought the house down with Figaro. Like Figaro, Mozart's and de Ponte's sharp wit were in full exercise: the title itself translates into "All Women are like That" -- and de Ponte's libretto is a "cynical romp in which two young men test their sweethearts by pretending to go off to war and then return in disguise to woo the reluctant ladies until they capitulate" (Loomis 3). There is nothing cynical about the overture or the ending -- for both are light-hearted and fun -- and forgiveness rounds out the tale. But, indeed, the overture itself signals what the audience may expect from the opera by incorporating into itself the wind instruments that "star in the opera's score" -- the oboe, flute, and clarinet (Loomis 3). With characteristic grace, Mozart's Cosi overture develops from a slow introduction to "an insouciant allegro caper" that shows the composer at the height of his powers (Loomis 3) -- but more than that, it revealed a fact about the composer: he and de Ponte had harnessed a zest in life and livened up the Age of Enlightenment in a way that was pure, real, and biting all at once. Mozart was in his stride.

However, he was also running into debt. Cosi would prove to be the last collaboration between de Ponte and Mozart -- but Mozart himself had one more opera to compose to round out his masterful quartet: this was The Magic Flute. Die… [END OF PREVIEW]

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