Mozart and His Operas

By Burton, Deborah | Notes, December 2007 | Go to article overview
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Mozart and His Operas

Burton, Deborah, Notes

OPERA Mozart and His Operas. By David Cairns. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. [xi, 290 p. ISBN-10: 0520228987; ISBN-13: 9780520228986. $29.95.] Bibliographic references, index, illustrations.

The cornucopia of literature available on Mozart's operas makes a many-coursed banquet-some might say a groaning board-for the interested reader. David Cairns, in his new book, admits as much in his first sentence: "Another book on Mozart and his operas may not be needed" (p. 1). Authors on this topic have whipped up their own concoctions out of much the same ingredients, producing an almost endless variety, from delicacies to square meals to basic field rations. But the question is: can anyone bring anything new to the table?

In the late 18th century, magnificent feasts of five to six courses were the norm. So before the question above can be answered, let us sample some of the main treats already prepared. Brigid Brophy's Mozart the Dramatist: A New View of Mozart, His Operas and His Age (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1964; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), like a savory appetizer, is a brilliant meditation on the intellectual and cultural connections of the operas, with references as far afield as Sigmund Freud, Alexander Pope, Antoine Watteau, Soren Kierkegaard, Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Alma Mahler. It is somewhat dated in its unquestioned Freudian and anti-Beethovian stance, but it is full of surprising details and is organized by topic ("Anarchy, Impotence and Classicism," "Women and Opera"), rather than chronology.

For those who are ravenously hungry, William Mann's The Operas of Mozart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) is an encyclopedic reference work that provides music examples and English translations of every solo aria. It contains fascinating asides that focus on, for example, contemporary notions of key characteristics, and provides much historical and cultural background. Although this work is also a bit dated (he mentions the "age of Aquarius" on p. 1), it offers, in its author's words, "the genesis of each opera . . . exactly what words and music are contained in each musical number . . . a commentary on the whole dramatic action as it develops, as well as a critical consideration of each work." (p. 4).

But by far the most satisfying dish has been brought forth by Daniel Heartz with Thomas Bauman, Mozart's Operas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990). Although it only treats the "operas of Mozart's mature years" (p. xii), i.e., Idomeneo to The Magic Flute, and eschews being an "operatic Baedeker" (p. xiv), Heartz provides contextual information on the operas from original sources, autograph studies, and other musicological inquiries. The book has extensive music examples, illustrations, parallel translations of texts, reliable references, and goes a long way to correcting previous misunderstandings. This work does presume a lot of background knowledge on the reader's part, and contains some musical analysis (forms, key relations), but is stuffed with enough interesting tidbits ("Mozart wrote the bass part especially large throughout his autograph so that the continuo cellist, old Innozenz Danzi, could read it," p. 47) and useful tables to sate a non-musician.

Two final tastings are works that put Mozart's operas into cultural context: Mary Hunter's The Culture of Opera Buffa in Mozart's Vienna (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999) and Andrew Steptoe's The Mozart-DaPonte Operas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988). Hunter's book is a true scholarly work, offering invaluable social, political, gender-related, and musical contexts. She treats Mozart's buffa operas as part of a "dialogue between individual operas and generic conventions of plot, character, dramatic function, musical 'type' and vocal behavior" (p. 5), and the appendices contain a list of operas she consulted (79!), the formal structures of buffa arias, and rare plot summaries.

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