The Salzburg Festival, 2006
A Feast of Mozart
This year is the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth and Salzburg rolled out the red carpet in its annual Festival to honor its most illustrious local son. Mozart’s happy memories of his home town were few and far between. Salzburg has treated him far better in death than life. In his last season as Festival artistic director, Peter Ruzicka staged all 22 of Mozart’s operas. Seven of these are well known; most of the others are very rarely performed. There was thus a unique opportunity for both the casual opera lover as well as the connoisseur to listen, enjoy and understand why most of Mozart’s operas are not performed.
Throughout his career, Mozart explored the three main operatic genres current at the time. The singspiel, a German-language musical drama, has spoken dialogue along with musical numbers. Opera seria consists of recitatives and arias with a plot generally based on Greek mythology or Roman history. Its counterpoint, opera buffa, revolves around comedy with simple plots. Both the latter are sung in Italian.
Lucia Silla composed at the age of 16 years was one of his earliest opera seria. This relates the story of the Roman dictator, Sulla (Lucia Silla) who banished the Senator Cecilio since he desires the latter’s wife. The production was by incoming festival artistic director Jurgen Flimm. The main action was played out at center stage but its effect was lost since Christian Bussmann’s cluttered staging filled out both sides with so many props and supernumeraries that it was distracting. This opera has mainly solo arias with few duets and ensembles. Nevertheless even in this early work, Mozart’s mastery of the voice was very evident. In some of the arias, one could hear the precursors of his last great opera seria, Clemenza de Tito. Particularly effective was soprano Annick Massis, who took the role of Giunia, the subject of Lucio’s desires. She pulled off her horrendously difficult arias with aplomb.
In a brilliant twist, director, Thomas Reichert, united the plots of two short works, Bastien and Bastienne, his first singspiel composed when he was 12 years old with The Impressario (Der Schauspieldirektor) which was composed in the same year as the Marriage of Figaro. This production was presented in conjunction with the Salzburg Marionette Theatre and puppets were cleverly integrated into the production. In Der Schauspieldirektor, an impresario deals with the vanity of two competing sopranos who are both ultimately hired to sing the role of the shepherdess Bastienne. Bastienne is falsely told by the wily Colas (who also takes the part of the impresario’s assistant) that her lover Bastien has deserted her. This production was probably one of the most interesting and innovative in the festival.
Two incomplete opera buffo fragments composed by Mozart three years before Figaro, Lo Sposo Deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom), which details the travails of a deluded bridegroom and L’Oca del Cairo (The Goose from Cairo) about a girl imprisoned in a tower by her father, suffered from weak plots and librettos. Director Joachim Schlomer got round this by having a master of ceremonies in a non-singing role explaining the intricacies of the plots. Despite glorious ensembles and melodies from the mature Mozart, these operas never achieved popularity.
Thus poor plots and inadequate librettos explain why so many of Mozart’s operas are unknown. This emphasizes the vital contribution of the librettist to the ultimate success of the opera. Difficult vocal requirements producing casting difficulties are probably another factor. Mozart’s best known operas performed at the festival will be reviewed next month.