Dueling Mozarts
Two operas show contrasting sides of the master

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During his brief life, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart changed the very nature of symphonic and chamber music, as well as opera. In the next few weeks, Wisconsin fans will be treated to contrasting sides of the master’s operatic style, as Wisconsin’s premier opera companies mount two of his greatest works.

Madison Opera leads the way, closing its 2012-13 season with a production of “Don Giovanni” on April 26 and April 28. Next month, Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera ends its season with May 10 and May 12 performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” the opera Mozart wrote immediately prior to “Don Giovanni.” 

The works show the composer in two different lights, according to Madison music writer Jacob Stockinger, author of the daily classical music blog “The Well-Tempered Ear.” “Figaro” is lighter and the narrative more forgiving of its characters, while “Giovanni” has an undeniable darkness. Yet both works contain elements of the other, with music and emotions that run deeper than a first hearing might reveal.

“Figaro” was written in 1786, when Mozart was 30. The composer wrote “Giovanni” in 1787, four years before his death. The two operas share the same librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also supplied the libretto for Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutti.”

Do the two works mark an autobiographical progression in the composer’s life? And if so, what do they tell us about him? Stockinger turned to Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director, and William Florescu, Florentine Opera’s general director, for answers to these and other questions.

Jacob Stockinger: “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” share similarities, yet they represent very different sides of the composer. Is one opera superior to the other? 

William Florescu: Well, of course, “Figaro” is superior!  But, kidding aside, “Giovanni” feels more like it looks back to the Baroque era, whereas “Figaro” is more a look to the future.  However, at the end of the day, they are both towering masterpieces that explore various facets of human existence through matchless music.

Kathryn Smith: Since I have frequently gone on record naming “Figaro” as my favorite opera, I can’t now claim “Don Giovanni” is superior. However, there are people who think it is, and one or the other is always in any opera lover’s top 10 list. I don’t necessarily agree that “Giovanni” is a look back and “Figaro” a look forward – I think Mozart wrote music to suit the story – but I second the “towering masterpieces” statement. 

Listeners often are exposed to “music box Mozart” – that precise, delicate and memorable quality – without thinking about the artistry and depth of the greater works. How do the two operas expand the listeners’ knowledge of Mozart as both an artist and a man?

WF: Well put! Mozart is much meatier and richer than the music-box label allows.  In “Giovanni,” moments like Anna’s “Non mi dir” show a musical and dramatic depth that frankly have not been equaled. In “Figaro,” the Count’s final “Contessa perdono,” where he begs for his wife’s forgiveness, is both musically and dramatically poignant and ironic, since you know he’ll be back at it the next day. These moments in Mozart are what make him immortal in my opinion.

KS: I’ve never heard the phrase “music box Mozart,” and I don’t particularly like it – even the piano pieces he wrote at age seven are more than that. But I would agree that his music in these two operas shows an emotional depth that those who only know his orchestral music may not know. The “Contessa perdono” moment is the definition of sublime.

Based on what we know about Mozart, was he more like Figaro or Don Giovanni? 

WF: The knee-jerk answer here is Giovanni, though I would say in reality Figaro, because, like Figaro, he was always in the employ of those in power. Da Ponte the librettist, on the other hand, from what we read, was much more like Giovanni!

KS: I would say neither. The characters are so well written and three-dimensional, they reflect Mozart’s character because they reflect parts of all of us. 

It’s been said that “Figaro” and “Giovanni” were revolutionary and subversive in their time, each in its own way. Do you think this is true? 

WF: I suppose this is true musically. From a political standpoint, Mozart and Da Ponte took much of the politics out of “Figaro.” Dramatically, the pieces were subversive because in both cases nobles were shown in less-than-flattering light, and the character Figaro breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience.

KS: I concur on “Figaro.” The Pierre Beaumarchais play (on which the opera is based) is vastly more political than the opera, with some very specific speeches that Mozart and Da Ponte omitted. On the other hand, the play was banned in Vienna but the opera was not, so perhaps it was necessary editing to get even the minor points across.

Mozart has been described as a “tipping point,” after which classical music was never the same. Did he revolutionize music, and how is that represented in the two operas?

WF: Like Bach, Mozart took the popular forms of the day and expanded them to their farthest point, which then opened the door to the Romantic era that followed.  Mozart took the recitative form and made it orchestral at times throughout the score, which of course led to the concept of through-composed operas. From a dramatic standpoint, Mozart assured that the subject matter of operas in the future would be about real people rather than only the nobility, and that gods and goddesses as subject matter were pretty much a dead issue.

KS: I think Bill said it well, although I would add that Mozart was a working musician. Some of what he wrote, he wrote in order to get paid. That so much of his work is brilliant testifies to his genius, but he also composed to pay the bills.

What is the most important aspect audiences will take away from your productions?

WF: A simple answer here really – Mozart’s humanity and his ability to express it musically and dramatically.  This fits everything we’ve been talking about.

KS: Again, I agree. Mozart tells us more about who we are – the good and the bad – than any other composer has before or since. At the same time, the pieces are entertainment. If you don’t want to spend the evening thinking deep thoughts – and sometimes we don’t – then Mozart provides musical theater that one can simply enjoy. 

WF: Mozart knew what classical composers in later times have sometimes forgotten – art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive.

On STAGE

Madison Opera ends its season with a production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” on April 26 and 28, at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts. Go to www.madisonopera.org.

The Florentine Opera ends its season with two performances of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” May 10 and May 12 in Uihlein Hall in Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Go to www.floretineopera.org.