Putting Mozart in his place

Iain Scott argues for his supremacy in opera


First, a credo and a challenge: There are three great gods of opera–Verdi, Wagner and Mozart–and the greatest of these is Mozart. Is there any reader of this magazine who would dissent from this view, or wish to amend it?

Let me try to defend this credo, starting with the exclusive nature of opera’s Trinity. There are many other admirable–but I would argue, lesser–opera composers who may justly be enrolled in the Operatic Pantheon, but who fall just short of this most exalted category. Some opera-lovers might nominate Janácek, Strauss, Mussorgsky, Berlioz, Britten–and some even Puccini–for promotion. Any discussion of their candidacy, however, would engage us in a debate on the essential characteristics of greatness in opera–or, indeed, calibrating inspiration in any of the arts. What weight should be put on craftsmanship, for example? To what extent is popularity a valid measure?

Wisdom, universality and profundity are imprecise criteria, but I would argue that only Verdi, Wagner and Mozart consistently reveal to us the deepest universal truths about mankind and invariably engender the most profound insights into the nature of humanity. These three are able, repeatedly and indelibly, to sear our souls. They consistently take us further and deeper than their rivals, beyond mere empathy with an individual character to all-embracing compassion for all who suffer. To encounter the art of any of these three is not only to glimpse the essence of wisdom but also to ponder what it means to be human.

And the greatest of these three? Verdi’s enormous commiserating heart is all encompassing. Wagner’s penetrating intellect and his ceaseless quest for meaning beyond mere entertainment are awe-inspiring. But Mozart, despite his youth, is the wisest and deepest of all. He takes us even closer to an understanding of the divine. Paradoxically, he is also the most benevolent of all composers in his sympathy for the imperfections of human frailty.

To reinforce this, I would also argue that the most magical moment in all opera comes from Mozart. It is that unparalleled insight into the nature and necessity of forgiveness, mercy and compassion that comes when Countess Almaviva replies to her husband’s contrite plea, “Contessa perdono,” at the conclusion of Le nozze di Figaro. The miraculous balm of her exquisite vocal line not only resolves all the follies of the day, it is also a soothing salve to the soul of all who are privileged to hear it, no matter how frequently.

Mozart deeply understood the potential of opera to be the greatest of the arts. In the imperial capital of Vienna in the late 18th century, opera came in three very different forms. Over the lamentably short decade of independent maturity, 1781-91, Mozart not only perfected but also advanced the development of each of these three forms. In so doing, he produced seven of the greatest masterpieces in all operatic literature. Two of his operas were written to the principles of Italian opera seria, three were in Italian opera buffa form and the remaining two were German Singspiels.

His three best-known Italian works, all variants on opera buffa, are his series of inspired collaborations with the multifaceted Venetian poet, Lorenzo da Ponte. The first of these, Le nozze di Figaro, is a clear-eyed exploration of eight aspects of love, the plot focusing on the inter-relationships between and within four couples. Two of these (the Count and Countess, and their personal servants, Susanna and Figaro) are animated by the inter-dependencies of their social castes. The other two couples (Cherubino and Barbarina, and Basilio and Marcellina) illuminate the foibles of youth and the quirks of old age. The interactions of all eight lovers are concentrated by their claustrophobic communal setting. Mozart’s unparalleled ability to devise music that exactly captures the essence of each of these diverse characters has established this work unassailably in the first rank of great operas.

Mozart and da Ponte’s next work, Don Giovanni, is frequently lauded and admired for its “message”–not only by those who see its hero as an admirable embodiment of unrestrained self-determination but also, paradoxically, by those who see him as a despicable exemplar of inappropriate behavior. The Don’s thwarted quest for connection (or conquest, depending on your point of view) is refracted through his relationships with three very different women: an ice-cold aristocrat, Donna Anna, a hot-blooded peasant, Zerlina, and a deeply emotional and caring soul from his own class, Donna Elvira. The most celebrated aspect of this monumental work, even more than its deft characterization, is the gripping truth of the music drama in the scene where the stone guest miraculously comes to dinner. Nothing approaching the riveting electricity of this scene had ever been attempted in opera before. It has rarely, if ever, been equaled since – and has never been surpassed.

For many, Così fan tutte is Mozart’s darkest and most troubling work, notwithstanding its sublime feast of exquisite arias and ensembles. Here, da Ponte asks us to participate in a managed process of disillusionment. We are reminded that to achieve maturity, we must experience and confront the bitter lessons of life. This may indeed be necessary, but we see the terrible cost of demolishing our treasured delusions. We realize why with wisdom often comes sadness.

The second form of Italian opera, opera seria, had dominated the taste of courts and centres of government for generations. By the end of the 18th century, a clear, formulaic set of principles had emerged, designed to reflect the concerns of an exclusively aristocratic audience. Dramatically, the subject matter was invariably the tension between self-indulgence and duty for those in positions of power. Each work ended with a clear moral message stressing the higher value of responsible behavior. Musically, these works were vehicles for solo display singing by the best-trained vocal artists that money could buy, and frequently starred imported Italian castratos.

Mozart’s first big break, his first mature commission, came from Munich, which boasted the finest concentration of vocal and orchestral virtuosi in Europe at the time. For the Bavarian court, he produced Idomeneo, which tells of the return of the king of Crete, Idomeneus, from the Trojan War. Here, the central moral conflict is whether the king should keep his promise to a God, Poseidon (to sacrifice the first person he sees on his return home), or to be a loving father, since the fated victim turns out to be his own son. If Mozart’s intention was to assert and demonstrate that he could write exquisite music for both vocal and orchestral virtuosi, he succeeded magnificently.

Ten years later, Mozart was given a second opera seria commission, this time from his own Imperial Court. He was asked to produce an opera for the celebrations associated with a coronation. The new Austrian Emperor was to be crowned as King of Bohemia, in Prague. This work, La Clemenza di Tito, is the culmination of decades of development for the opera seria form. It may well be the greatest opera seria ever written. Here, no intervention by a deity is required. A very human Roman emperor concludes that clemency and forgiveness are the best leadership policies, even if provoked to baser action when confronted by the conspiracy and treachery of his closest friends.

Mozart’s most profound, most instructive work is his final opera. It was written not to either of the Italian forms of opera but in the vernacular German. This is his second Singspiel, written almost a decade after Die Entführung aus dem Serail. For many, Die Zauberflöte is one of the wisest works in any form of artistic endeavor. This is in spite of, or perhaps because of, its extremes of the most exalted moral philosophy and the basest human vulgarity. His music tells us that only when we fully integrate male and female principles can we achieve maturity and wisdom. The essence of this insight is brilliantly captured in the final image from Ingmar Bergman’s film of The Magic Flute, which smiles on Papageno, his wife and his many children.

One cautionary, concluding comment to temper this outpouring of awe and admiration for the greatest of all opera composers. Many thoughtful vocal connoisseurs observe that fully staged productions of Mozart operas rarely achieve the sublime promise implicit in excerpts from his works. Perhaps in a full performance, there are so many rapturously familiar arias and ensembles that sometimes, in context, their impact may seem diminished. Perhaps it is the essence of connoisseurship to savor details. Mozart’s operas can also feel strangely long to modern audiences, although no one would want a single note cut. Eighteenth-century expectations of dramatic pacing are sometimes at odds with our contemporary desire for exterior action.

But in the end, for me, the most satisfying summation of the multi-layered pleasures of Mozart at any time is in the oft-quoted remark of the theologian Karl Barth: “It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart.”