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The Scottish Chamber Orchestra has established impeccable Mozartian credentials and its previous forays into operatic repertoire have been highly critically acclaimed. Conductor Christian Baldini makes his recording debut with the orchestra in this repertoire that is so close to his heart. They are joined for the arias by award-winning soprano Elizabeth Watts who uses her considerable Mozart experience to create highly memorable performances.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
Idomeneo was commissioned for Munich by Carl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, and composed between the summer of 1780 and early 1781; it was premiered on 29 January. The libretto is an adaptation by Giovanni Battista Varesco of the tragédie lyrique of the same name by Antoine Danchet. This is the first of Mozart’s mature operatic masterpieces, and it represents an astonishing advance in his development, not least in the wonderfully imaginative instrumentation, which was inspired by the Mannheim orchestra, among the most admired ensembles of the period. Idomeneo derives in both subject matter and musical form from French models quite separate from the Italian opera seria with which it is usually, and rather approximately, categorized. Yet after just three Munich performances, it was, like Così fan tutte, almost entirely neglected for over a hundred years, and it remained unperformed in Britain until a 1934 production in Glasgow. Though it lacks a development section, the overture is nonetheless a work of imposing stature: it signals the intensity of the drama to come, and its subdued ending is perfectly judged to enhance the anguished entrance of Ilia, whose first accompanied recitative and aria follow directly on from the overture. The orphaned, exiled daughter of Priam, who was vanquished in the recent Trojan war, was among some captive Trojans sent ahead to the island by the victorious Cretan King Idomeneo. But Idomeneo’s son Idamante has rescued her from a storm, and Ilia is torn between hatred of the King and growing love for his son. She vents her contradictory emotions in the richly expressive G minor aria ‘Padre, germani, addio!’
Don Giovanni was Mozart and Da Ponte’s second collaboration. Following a relatively short-lived success in Vienna, where it had run for only nine performances, Figaro had created a sensation in Prague later the same year—its melodies could be heard on every street—and an overjoyed Mozart found himself immediately commissioned by the Prague National Theatre to compose Don Giovanni for the following winter season; the premiere took place on 29 October 1787. Mozart was the third major composer (after Caldara and Gluck) to base an opera on the life, sexual conquests and death of the Spanish libertine Don Juan. Dozens of playwrights, poets and novelists, including Molière, Byron, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Pushkin, Shaw and Camus, have drawn inspiration from the famous legend, and Mozart’s opera has come to be one of the most written-about and debated works in the history of music. The tantalizing theory that Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, whose literary status is under-appreciated in Britain, made a contribution to the libretto—he was living near Prague at the time when Mozart was making final revisions and Da Ponte was away in Vienna—has little evidence to support it, though it is believed that he did write an alternative version of Leporello’s escape in Act II Scene 9.
The overture begins in D minor with the intensely dramatic chords later to be heard when the statue appears in response to Don Giovanni’s dinner invitation. Sudden loud–soft alternations and sinister scale-passages combine to create a menacing atmosphere, before giving way to a faster section in D major, music initially reminiscent of the first Allegro of the ‘Prague’ Symphony. In the development section Mozart concentrates with unusual obsession on the second subject, a robust five-note phrase with a soft but restless answer in the first violins. Ernest Newman suggested that the first phrase might be interpreted as the sternness of Fate, while the violins’ answer might represent Don Giovanni’s unconcerned flippancy.
In Act I Scene 3, Zerlina, the fiancée of the peasant Masetto, appears. Immediately attracted to her, the Don dismisses Masetto and begins his latest seduction, only to be interrupted. In the following scene, Zerlina tries to win back the jealous Masetto with the aria ‘Batti, batti’. First she dares him to beat her, then, at a change from 2/4 to 6/8, she appeals to his finer instincts: ‘let us make peace’. The instrumentation of this aria, with its cello obbligato, is both delightful and economical. In Act II Scene 1, Zerlina finds Masetto beaten by Giovanni with the flat of his sword. He exaggerates his injuries and she reassures him in ‘Vedrai, carino’ that her love for him is the perfect remedy.
Returning to the opera seria genre for the first time since Idomeneo, Mozart composed La clemenza di Tito, to a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà after Metastasio, during the last months of his life, when work on Die Zauberflöte was already well advanced. The opera had been commissioned in July by a Prague impresario, Domenico Guardasoni, to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia; Mozart, who was approached only after an overworked Salieri had turned it down, was offered an excellent fee. La clemenza di Tito was successfully premiered on 6 September 1791 at the Estates Theatre in Prague, and retained its popularity for perhaps 20 years. Thereafter, however, it would be regarded—until the mid-twentieth cedntury—as an inferior, hastily written work. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the first of Mozart’s operas to be staged in London, in 1806; it was apparently not performed in the city again until the 1950s. Only in 1969 did a revelatory production in Cologne, by the French director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, set in train a major shift in appreciation. Anthony Besch’s 1974 staging at Covent Garden was a further landmark, banishing received opinion and revealing what can be achieved when a work has the total belief and love of director, stage designer, conductor and cast: Andrew Porter and Stanley Sadie were not the only authoritative critics to completely revise their opinion of the opera. A full and lasting reinstatement of La clemenza di Tito to the repertoire ensued, and during the 1980s it was staged in more than 20 major opera houses around the world.
Strangely neglected as a concert piece, the overture to Tito is superb, its opening trumpets and drums imposingly enhancing the evocation of the Emperor Tito’s majesty and power. The initially contrapuntal development section goes on to convey, with increasing dissonance, drama, anguish and a sense of danger. The opening music returns only belatedly, after a reverse recapitulation in which the woodwind-led second subject reappears first.
Servilia, sister of Tito’s patrician friend Sesto, sings ‘S’altro che lacrime’ in Act II; the aria is marked ‘Tempo di Minuetto’ and at 52 bars is among the opera’s many concise numbers. Vitellia, daughter of the deposed Emperor Vitellio, is racked with guilt and indecision because Sesto, who is in love with her, is about to be sentenced for a terrible crime he has committed on her instruction. Here Servilia gently chides Vitellia for ‘useless pity’ amounting to cruelty: her tears will not be enough to save Sesto, who awaits Tito’s judgement.
Mozart was 18 when he composed his ninth opera, La finta giardiniera, to a libretto believed to be the work of Giuseppe Petrosellini. Completed in January 1775, the opera was premiered in Munich on the 13th of that month. Five years later Mozart converted it, with some necessary musical alterations, into a German Singspiel entitled Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe, and until a copy of the original Italian version was rediscovered in the 1970s, the complete opera was known only in the German adaptation. The chief drawback of La finta giardiniera, a mixture of opera seria and opera buffa, is the convoluted libretto, which a less youthful Mozart would surely have improved. As Alfred Einstein commented, once Mozart had reached maturity, ‘he was no longer satisfied with dramatic nonsense’. At the opera’s opening, Marchioness Violante, having narrowly escaped being stabbed to death by her lover Count Belfiore, has assumed a new role as Sandrina, a gardener’s assistant (the eponymous ‘pretend gardener’). Subsequently, the two leading characters become deranged, and a kidnapping then stretches credibility even further. Nevertheless, musically this is one of the finest of Mozart’s early operas: the orchestration is distinctive, and there are occasional hints of the deeper characterization typical of the mature operas. The overture, which comprises an ‘Allegro molto’ bristling with energy and an ‘Andantino grazioso’, is almost a miniature symphony. The buffa maidservant Serpetta sings the aria ‘Appena mi vedon’ in Act I. In it she mercilessly provokes her admirer Nardo (Violante’s servant, also disguised as a gardener) with the inescapable truth: men everywhere find her simply irresistible.
Così fan tutte was the last of Mozart’s collaborations with Da Ponte. Composed during the latter half of 1789, it was first staged at the Burgtheater, Vienna, on 26 January the following year. That it received only five performances had nothing to do with public reception, but was due to the closure of the theatre for two months during the period of mourning upon the death of Emperor Joseph II in February. After five more performances that summer, however, Così was not staged again during Mozart’s lifetime. In the nineteenth century, while Le nozze di Figaro maintained its position in the repertoire, Così was considered immoral, a connoisseur’s opera, and it was generally neglected and misunderstood until as late as the mid-twentieth century. Yet it is in many ways the most remarkable of Mozart’s operas. The treatment of an apparently frivolous idea—two men depart from their loved ones then return in disguise to test their fidelity—is transcendently beautiful.
The overture begins with a brief ‘Andante’ that culminates in the phrase later to be sung to the words of the title (the only music the overture has in common with the opera). This leads seamlessly into an exuberant ‘Presto’ in which three principal ideas, all piano, are introduced: chattering quavers in the violins, elegant, fluid phrases passed around the woodwind, and a serpentine theme for the violins with syncopated flutes and oboes accompanying. (Mozart’s lightness of touch in this section surely surpasses even that in the overture to Figaro.) In Act II, Fiordiligi is in love with Guglielmo but succumbing to the attentions of Ferrando, the two men having returned disguised as Albanian noblemen. In ‘Per pietà’ she sings of her conflicting feelings as she is torn between desire and conscience.
Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2015