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A fascinating musical journey through the Italian arias of Mozart, from one of his earliest works Lucio Silla (composed when he was just 16) through to his final Italian opera La Clemenza di Tito. The English tenor Jeremy Ovenden has established himself as being among the best Mozart tenors of his generation (notably in the role of Don Ottavio) and has become a familiar figure on the stages of the world's opera houses and concert halls and at major festivals. He is joined for this, his first solo recording, by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and conductor Jonathan Cohen.
Mozart’s first full-length opera—and only his second work for the stage—was the opera buffa La finta semplice, K51/46a (The feigned simpleton), composed at the age of 12 in 1768. Leopold Mozart had taken his son to Vienna and, anxious to increase his reputation, invented a story that the Emperor himself had taken a fancy to Wolfgang’s music and thus persuaded the impresario Giuseppe Afflisio to commission an opera from him for 100 ducats. The work was rapidly written but fell foul of Viennese musical politics, so the Mozarts returned to Salzburg, where the work was performed at the Archbishop’s Palace the following year. The plot, in the manner of the commedia dell’arte, derives from a farce by Goldoni. In the aria ‘Sposa cara’, the timid Polidoro tells his proud brother Cassandro that he should not be so rude to the baroness Rosina, who loves him. If he is upset, he suggests, then he should beat Polidoro, not her.
In strong contrast to this amiable comedy stands Lucio Silla, K135, a ‘dramma per musica’ composed by the 16-year-old Mozart for performance in the theatre at Milan (which was then under Austrian rule). The last opera he would write for Italy, this is an ambitious and almost dramatic work, somewhat in the tradition of the older opera seria, full of long bravura arias. The libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra (revised by Metastasio) is loosely founded on events in the Roman dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla in the first century BC. The first performance, in the Teatro Regio Ducal, Milan on 26 December 1772, was a near-disaster since the audience had to wait three hours for the opera to begin (owing to the delayed arrival of the Archduke) and the work itself, already four hours long, was filled out with three ballets. Nevertheless it played to full houses on 26 subsequent evenings; but like most of Mozart’s early operas was long forgotten until the 20th century. ‘Il desio di vendetta’ finds the dictator Silla in a rage because Junia, whom he desires, has declared her hatred for him, as the daughter of his defeated rival Marius and the fiancée of his enemy Cecilio. All his affectionate feelings for her have turned to hatred, and he resolves to kill her. She may beg him for her life, he says, but he will not grant her a pardon.
Despite its earlier Köchel number the one-act ‘serenata drammatica’ Il sogno di Scipione, K126 (Scipio’s Dream) is probably a little later than Lucio Silla. In all probability it was composed in mid-1771 for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the ordination of Mozart’s patron, Archbishop von Schrattenbach—who died before the anniversary arrived. The ‘serenata’ may then in fact have been performed to celebrate the arrival of his successor as Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymous Colloredo—with whom Mozart would later have such a fraught relationship—though no certain record of the event survives. The libretto, by Metastasio, had already been set by several composers, and is founded on a story in Cicero in which the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus dreams that the goddesses of Constancy and Fortune tell him he must choose one of them as his protectress. Transported to heaven, he consults his ancestors on which goddess he should choose, but eventually selects Constancy of his own volition. ‘Quercia annosa’ is sung by the spirit of Scipio’s adoptive father, Publio. Scipione wishes to leave the mortal world and remain in Heaven, but Publio tells him that it is not yet time. Like an oak tree growing strong against winds and winter, Scipione must go through many trials to strengthen him before he is ready for heavenly life.
La finta giardiniera, K196 (The feigned gardener), a three-act opera buffa to a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini, was commissioned in 1774 for the carnival season at Munich. Originally scheduled for performance just before the end of the year, its difficulties demanded additional rehearsal time and the premiere took place on 13 January 1775 at Munich’s Salvatortheater. It was later adapted as a Singspiel in German, with spoken dialogue. A comedy of errors and misunderstandings leading to a triple marriage, it is a work of bucolic simplicity for the most part. In ‘Dentro il mio petto’ Don Anchises, governor of the fictitious town of Lagonero, has just declared his love for Sandrina and sings now of the sound of the orchestra with its flutes and oboes and its drum and trumpets: a feast of sound that almost drives him insane.
Il re pastore, K208 (The Shepherd King) is not a full-length opera but a two-act drama to a libretto adapted from one that Metastasio had based upon a 16th-century play by Torquato Tasso. Contemporary writers also refer to it as a serenade or a cantata, which rather suggests that the premiere—which took place in the Archbishop’s Palace in Salzburg on 23 April 1775—was a concert performance rather than staged. The work had been commissioned to celebrate the fact that a son of the Empress Maria Theresa was visiting Salzburg. In it, Alexander the Great restores the rule of Sidon to its rightful king, Aminta, who has been living as a shepherd and would prefer to remain one.
‘Se vicendo’ is an aria for Alexander (Alessandro), in the Greek military camp. He has decided to leave Sidon now that Aminta has assumed the kingship, and also to wed Tamyris to Aminta. Believing he has thus made everyone happy, he sings that as long as he leaves peace and happiness behind him, he has fulfilled all his wishes. But in ‘Sol può dir’ Alexander’s friend Agenor, who is in love with Tamyris, laments the torture he is going through by losing his love to Aminta through Alexander’s decree.
Six years passed before, in 1780, Mozart composed the ‘dramma per musica’ Idomeneo, re di Creta, K366—another work commissioned for performance in Munich, but which stands at the beginning of the series of his mature operas. Premiered at the Residenz Theater on 29 January 1781, the work was held to be a success, but its only revival in Mozart’s lifetime was an amateur performance in Vienna in 1786, for which he partly revised the score. An epic drama of conscience and filial love complete with sea-monster, Idomeneo was among Mozart’s most ambitious operas, for which he produced a score of unrelenting intensity. In ‘Il padre Adorato’ Idamante, the son of Idomeneo, greets his father, whom he has not seen for 20 years. His joy turns to consternation, however, when Idomeneo runs away from him. We discover the reason in ‘Vedrommi intorno’, where Idomeneo himself recalls how, shipwrecked, he promised Neptune he would sacrifice the first person that he met if he was saved from the wreck. Now, saved indeed, he imagines how the ghost of the sacrificed person will haunt him for his entire life. Finally in ‘Fuor del Mar’, Idomeneo confronts the sea-god Neptune who, even though sparing Idomeneo’s life, is still torturing him: escaped from the sea, Idomeneo still has a sea raging in his breast.
The remaining extracts are from the great operas of Mozart’s last few years. The one that we know as Don Giovanni, K527 was in fact originally performed as Il dissoluto punito (The libertine punished). After the enormous success of Le Nozze di Figaro in Prague, Mozart’s librettist Lorenzo da Ponte suggested he should capitalize upon it by writing another work for performance there and suggested a version of the Don Juan legend. Responding with alacrity, Mozart produced his archetypal study of hubris and its punishment. ‘Il mio tesoro’ is a revenge aria sung by Don Ottavio, the fiancé of Donna Anna, whom Don Giovanni wishes to seduce. Sure that Giovanni was the person who killed Anna’s father, Ottavio swears that he will make sure she is revenged on the rascally nobleman.
Mozart’s third da Ponte opera was the highly sophisticated two-act opera buffa Cosi fan tutte, K588 (All women behave so), produced at the Burgtheater, Vienna on 26 January 1790. According to legend the Emperor Joseph II commissioned the work and he is said to have suggested the subject—two men testing the faithfulness of their fiancées by each, in disguise, wooing the other’s beloved—though doubt has been cast on this attribution. True or not, da Ponte made of this suggestion a wonderfully rich and humane comedy. After its initial performances the opera was pretty well neglected until the 20th century, but is now generally accepted as one of Mozart’s greatest works. In ‘Un’aura amorosa’ Ferrando, in love with Dorabellai, praises the fact that she has (so far) resisted the advances of his friend Guglielmo. The recitative ‘In qual fiero contrasto’ and its following cavatina ‘Tradito, schernito’ reflect, on the other hand, Ferrando’s confusion and turmoil when he realizes that his inammorata has, in fact, fallen for his friend and thus betrayed their love.
Mozart had hoped to write another opera for Prague after Don Giovanni, but La Clemenza di Tito, K621, which proved to be the last opera he wrote, was actually commissioned by the Bohemian Estates to celebrate the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as King of Bohemia. Though in poor health, Mozart laboured over the work and travelled to Prague to complete it in time for the first performance, which took place in September 1791. His exertions may well have contributed to his death on 5 December. In a sense La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) returns to the old-fashioned form of opera seria, but with the richness and dramatic power of Mozart’s late style. The libretto, as so often, was by Metastasio, and deals with a subject from Roman history – a political drama about a plot by star-crossed lovers against the life of the Emperor Titus. The aria ‘Se all’impero’ is sung by the Emperor himself as, after an internal struggle, he tears up the death warrant on one of the conspirators and declares that if the world wishes to accuse him of anything it will be for having an excess of mercy rather than the desire for revenge.
In addition to full-scale opera, Mozart wrote numerous concert arias for independent performance: glimpses, as it were, of an unwritten drama, whose antecedents and consequences we are left to imagine for ourselves. One such is the recitative and aria Misero! o sogno, K431 written for the tenor Johann Valentin Adamberger (1740-1804), a Mason and friend of Mozart, who wrote several other works for him. Adamberger sang this aria in concerts by the Vienna Tonkünstler-Societät in December 1783. The authorship of the text is unknown: it feels as if it might be part of an existing libretto, but if so this has never been identified. Strongly dramatic—even prophetically looking forward to Beethoven’s Fidelio—it finds the tenor character imprisoned in a dark and scary cave. He shouts to his captors to release him, to open the hellish door, but no one answers his plea: all he hears is the echo of his own voice, and implores the winds to carry his sighs to the ears of his beloved, whom he will never see again. In the last part of the aria, his mind becomes increasingly agitated at the thought of never getting out; he can find no peace. The musical result is a fascinating blend of the Baroque and proto-Romantic.
Malcolm MacDonald © 2011
I wanted the programme for this CD to be a musical journey through Mozart’s life but concentrating solely on his Italian repertoire. Jonathan Cohen and I spent some time going through every Italian aria that Mozart ever wrote and began the fascinating task of creating our disc.
I not only wanted to record the famous arias, but also to rediscover Mozart’s early arias, and so I came up with the title of the CD, Mozart: an Italian Journey: a journey of discovery through Mozart’s music. I also wanted listeners to embark on their own journey, discovering for themselves just how the young Mozart developed as a composer as he journeyed from childhood into adulthood.
We started with Lucio Silla which he wrote when he was 16 years old and ended with ‘Se all impero’ from La Clemenza di Tito, the very last Italian opera aria that Mozart wrote before his death at the age of 35. We chose the concert aria Misero! o sogno o son desto as the centrepiece of the CD—an aria which is rarely performed, fiendishly difficult to sing and emotionally draining, but that shows so well the brilliance of Mozart.
I hope this CD takes you on an enjoyable musical journey and that you discover for yourself how the young Mozart changed and became the Mozart that we know today.
Jeremy Ovenden © 2011