Note from William: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the San Diego Opera, I will be re-printing program notes that the opera company commissioned me to write. The fifth of these, re-printed with the kind permission of the copyright holder, the San Diego Opera, appeared as the program notes for their February 2014 performances of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s two greatest operas – “The Marriage of Figaro” (1786) and “Don Giovanni” (1787) – were created midway between two tumultuous challenges to the “old order” that existed in the late 18th century – Great Britain’s final defeat in 1781 in its war to retain its American colonies and the French Revolution (1789).
It is far from inevitable that Mozart would have composed either opera. The world is fortunate that events broke as they did, and that Mozart was in position to benefit from them.
In most of Europe, theaters and opera houses were licensed by each sovereignty. Government censors inspected the content of works to be performed, to be certain no radical political thoughts, nor even negative inferences to the ruling elites, were being advanced.
Expressions of erotic feeling, at odds with both Catholic and Protestant teachings, were closely scrutinized and censored. Anything defined as sacrilegious was prohibited.
In an era when theatrical content was suspect, operas that glorified the vocal virtuosity of singers, with no intention of promoting a message through the opera’s plot, suited the authorities (as well as the singers). Operas of the earlier Renaissance and baroque periods typically were based on classical or mythological themes.
A small group of libretti, comprised of safe works that caused no problems for the censors, were constantly reset to music. During that decade Joseph II, son of Austrian Hapsburg empress Maria Theresa and brother of Marie Antoinette, succeeded to the Austrian throne on his mother’s death.
[Below: the Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who approved the libretto for “The Marriage of Figaro”, even though based on the controversial Beaumarchais play; edited image, based on a painting from life by an unknown artist.]
Supremely confident in his own intellect, he famously ruled as an “enlightened despot”.
Among his policies were successful efforts to strengthen the merchant class of Prague, capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, a possession of the Austrian Habsburg Empire.
Although not a religious Catholic, the Emperor did not interfere with Catholic efforts to reform Prague’s educational system, stressing music as a safe emphasis for the historically rebellious Bohemians.
The 30-year old Mozart had very clear ideas on how to reform opera: infuse it with dramatic situations, sex and popular melody. He had impressed the Emperor by composing 1783’s German language opera “Abduction from the Seraglio”.
Meanwhile, Beaumarchais’ incendiary play Le Mariage de Figaro whose indictment of aristocratic privilege is considered by many a contributory cause to the French Revolution that took the life of Joseph II’s sister, had been banned in Austria as it was elsewhere in Europe.
Because the Emperor liked Mozart and his proposed librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, he allowed Figaro to be composed and to premiere in Vienna in 1786.
It turned out to be an unsettling experience for Mozart. Embittered by the intrigues that surrounded Figaro’s Viennese reception, Mozart, dependent on commissions for whatever music royal patrons desired, might well have spent what were to be the last five years of his short life neglecting the operatic genre.
Fortunately for posterity, later in 1786, “The Marriage of Figaro” became a giant hit with the musically literate, urban bourgeois theatergoers of Prague. The Bohemian kingdom’s major opera house, the Nostitz Theater, had been built only three years earlier.
[ Count Nostitz’ Theater (now the Estates Theater) in Prague; edited image of a photograph from wikipedia commons.]
There, Mozart’s “Seraglio” and his Italian “Figaro” were so successful in Prague that it encouraged Prague’s opera house director, in order to capitalize on Prague’s ecstatic adulation of Mozart, to commission Mozart and da Ponte to team up to create “Don Giovanni” for the next year’s Prague opera season.
Today, we celebrate seven Mozart operatic masterpieces, which might have stopped at three masterpieces – “Idomeneo”, “Seraglio” and “Figaro” – had not the success of “Seraglio” and “Figaro” in Prague inspired and refocused Mozart’s enthusiasm for opera – which led to four last masterpieces – “Don Giovanni”, “Cosi fan Tutte”, “La Clemenza di Tito” (which premiered in Prague) and “The Magic Flute” – in the five final years of his life.
The concept of opera as an entertainment for middle class audiences was a departure from opera’s early history as a diversion for royalty and courtiers.
The Bohemian nobility preferred to spend their time in the Vienna-based imperial court. This resulted in Prague’s smaller population being more “middle class” than Vienna’s, and more musically literate due to the Bohemian educational system.
Da Ponte remarked that it was Prague where Mozart’s music was understood from the first moment it was played. Prague’s discerning citizens recognized that Mozart’s beautifully composed and richly orchestrated music continuously illuminates the dramatic action of “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” with their long sections in which no break in music or drama occurs.
[Below: In his final hours, Don Giovanni (Ildebrando d’Archangelo, above) embraces Donna Elvira (Myrtò Papatanasiu, below) in the 2015 San Diego Opera production of “Don Giovanni”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
They also appreciated the infusion of enlightenment ideas – Figaro’s tirade against the noble class, Don Giovanni’s refusal to bow to religion or social custom to renounce the “pursuit of happiness” that he believed to be his right. They relished the sexy plot lines in which empowered women were the intellectual equals of their menfolk.
What was appreciated in Prague continues to be treasured in the 21st century. There is no opera written before “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” that is remotely as popular as either of these immortal works. “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” transcend all operas that preceded them because Mozart and Da Ponte were able to free themselves from decades of government regulations and musical fashions and traditions that hobbled opera’s ability to meet its dramatic potential.
[Below: Don Giovanni (Marius Kwiecien, right) seeks to seduce Zerlina (Andriana Churchman, left) on her wedding day in the 2014 Robert Falls production of “Don Giovanni”; edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
Baroque era arias might represent a separate emotion – love, anger, despair. But, however charming the beautiful baroque melodies, the inherent dramatic content of such works is minimal.
The source material for “Marriage of Figaro”, based on an incendiary French play that devastatingly ridicules aristocratic privilege is radically different from “Don Giovanni’s” old, often-used libretto that taught the moral consequences of degeneracy.
Yet Mozart and da Ponte infused into each work highly dramatic, psychological character studies. None of Mozart’s predecessors or contemporaries created either characters or dramatic situations with the psychological depth we recognize in these works.
Mozart’s triumphant Prague “Don Giovanni” inspired another brilliant opera with Da Ponte: “Cosi fan Tutte”. After that there yet another work for Prague “La Clemenza di Tito” in 1791, this one based on another old libretto, updated for the coronation of a new King of Bohemia to promote the ideal of an enlightened monarch. A similar theme was evoked in “The Magic Flute”, Mozart’s final opera.
During the decades following the French Revolution (whose effects were still being felt when Mozart died) the hand of censors of operatic content was strengthened.
It’s highly improbable that the libretto of “Figaro” (that Joseph II had approved, reversing his own earlier bans on performing Beaumarchais’ play) would have received approval a half-decade later. Likely also, the da Ponte libretti with their open sexuality and enlightenment ideas challenging authority, would have fallen from favor.
Fortunately, the success of “Figaro” in Prague led to the amazing half-decade of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. Ultimately, what was first appreciated in Prague, became known to the whole world – that Mozart was a dramatic as well as a musical genius.
The most poignant “what-if” in operatic history is the question of what might have resulted, if Mozart, like Giuseppe Verdi, composed operatic masterpieces until he was 80. Perhaps a more sobering question is whether Mozart would have written his last four operatic masterpieces, if the operagoers of Prague had not taken Mozart’s “Figaro” to heart and inspired him to continue writing operas. :