Two Early Mozart Operas

Article excerpt

Simon Rees has a dramaturgical encounter

One way of discovering, in the year of his quarter-millennium, whether the infant Mozart was an over-hyped, talented brat or an incipient genius, is to get inside one or another of his early opera scores. I had the good fortune of doing so last year, at the invitation of Michael Burden at New Chamber Opera and Aidan Lang at the Buxton Festival, when I received commissions to translate, respectively, La finta semplice, by Mozart aged 12, and Ascanio in Alba, by Mozart aged 15. Having translated Alessandro Stradella's Il Trespolo tutore for the former company, and matrimonio segreto for the latter, I felt confident that each company would do its best with the translation I provided and that I could set to work in the expectation of finding out a great deal about the early Mozart.

Translating opera libretti is a crossword puzzle of an activity: there are blanks to be filled, each requiring a particular pattern of syllables and stresses, with forbidden words (try to avoid consonant-clusters like 'strength' or 'texts') and impossible rhymes (most Italian librettos have 'amore' and 'core/cuore' somewhere about them). The translator into English has to avoid producing what Krazy Kat called Anguish Languish, a ghastly hotchpotch of inversions, mis-stresses (how one longs, sometimes, to rhyme 'mistress' with 'distress', but you can't) and strings of rhymes on 'capture/ rapture', 'cherish/perish' and so forth. The rhyming dictionary (Willard P Espy's is a good one) lets you have 'combat/wombat' and 'image/scrimmage', but what use are they?

The job begins - in these web-ridden times - by downloading the original libretto from one of several sites, formatting it to double spacing, and printing it out on sturdy paper that will stand up to a lot of erasure. With a pencil and rubber, you then write in the English under the Italian, checking bar by bar with the vocal score, and finally ink it into the score, or send it to a friendly editor to do the job on computer. It is work that (if you're in a touring opera company) can be done on the train between gigs: several scenes can be completed between Cardiff and Liverpool and back, more if there's a hold-up at Crewe!

The libretto of La finta semflice has the great advantage of being by Carlo Goldoni, the greatest Italian comic playwright of his rime. The plot, concerning two noble brothers, Don Cassandro (a boor) and Don Polidoro (a twit), and their awkward relationship with Rosina, the feigned simpleton of the title, who is not as dim as she seems, is a rumbustious farce with little subtlety, but plenty of opportunities for a pre-teenage Mozart (who must have been puzzled by some of the sexual innuendo and the marital politics) to provide barking-dog music, a drunken aria for Cassandro, and a pizzicato Serenade. But there is far more than this. The opening to Polidoro's aria is heartbreakingly beautiful, although the aria tumbles into burlesque after a few bars. …