Magazine article The Spectator

Master of All He Surveys

Magazine article The Spectator

Master of All He Surveys

Article excerpt


Master of all he surveys

Robin Holloway

Culpable (and unwonted) incuriosity to have gone so far through life placing Mozart's four canonical operas - the three da Ponte collaborations and the Magic Flute - at the summit of Parnassus, with Mommeo and Seraglio only a little below, without exploring the path by which such heights were reached.

In the last few weeks I've been making this omission good. Not counting the extra two, indispensable classics only since the second world war, there are 16 theatre pieces before Figaro in 1785-6: they range from full-length operas (four seria, four buffa) to shorter serenatas, occasional works; even a school show in Latin (Apollo et Hyacinthus - first in the long line, written at age 11). One, Zaide, though unfinished, is so substantial, and inspired, that it's not possible now to imagine doing without it. Thamos, King of Egypt, also impressive, only ever consisted of incidental choruses and orchestral interludes; two others, both begun in the wake of Idomeneo, are too fragmentary for rescue.

I've heard almost all, with wonder and delight, comingled with many a yawn. At the very least there is the reward for diligence in watching the prodigious boy then teenager learning the ropes - not just how to master the conventions, get the thing moving, build through complement and contrast, characterise, but how to cope equally with singers' recalcitrance, vanity, stupidity as with their spectacular endowments; how to respond at speed to challenges and emergencies of every kind (including positives, like some exceptionally accomplished instrumentalist); how to get on with and if necessary around his librettists. Plus plentiful exposure to the messy machinations endemic to theatrical life then as now, but then compounded by the politics of Court, Church, Nobility, lying at the heart of the ancien regime

From the vantage point of the later masterpieces it's obvious that his comic genius will be Mozart's most fruitful way forward. Not, though, to the young composer hungry to succeed and bursting with ideas. For him the greatest aspiration was opera seria in all its, to us, frigid panoply of unreal people in stilted situations exercising impossible clemency or villainy. Of course the characters and situations of comedy are just as stereotyped to begin with; but it's with them that the future lies. Or with a mixture. And while there's no doubt that there's more pleasure and value in Mozart's earlier stage - endeavours on the buffa side, and that all the worst longueurs are seria - what one sees is the progressive breakdown and intermingling of these seemingly watertight separations. Ahead by a very few years lie the co-existence in Fiagro of high and low equalised in the exigencies of desire and the cunning needed to fulfil it; the tragic nobility and the rustic peasantry who dance obedient to the tune of master and man in Don Giovanni; the invasion in Cosi fan tutte of absurdity and parody by real, sharp, painful emotion. All this is being tried out already in the earlier pieces; sometimes the connection is tenuous; more often it is so strong as to induce a shock of precognition.

Tedium first. Mitridate, re di Ponte was written for Milan in 1770 when Mozart was 14; so successful was it that Ascanio in Alba was requested the following year. …

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