Peter Lo | August 2022 | Hong Kong

In 1784 a play called Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Beaumarchais was performed for the first time in Paris.  It was a great success and ran for 68 successive performances.

The story was that of a valet who outwitted his master who had dishonourable designs upon his betrothed.  The valet (previously a barber in Seville) was Figaro.  He had assisted Count Almaviva in obtaining the hand of the heiress Rosina and went on to become the Count’s valet.

The play aroused interest and controversy even before performance. It was deemed politically incorrect because a valet had triumphed over his aristocratic master, and the old establishment was shown in an unflattering light.  Even Louis XVI was said to have expressed an opinion on the play, saying that it would never get past the censor.  But somehow, it got through the censor and was allowed to be performed, and the Parisian audience loved it.

The fame (or notoriety) of the play spread to Vienna.  Mozart was in Vienna at the time.  He must have thought the play would make a good opera.  During his short life (1756–1791) Mozart wrote 22 operatic compositions, consisting mainly of opera buffa, a form of Italian comic opera, and Singspiel (literally “sing-play”), a form of German music drama with spoken dialogue and a comic or romantic plot.

Figaro was a much more complicated exercise.  It had a good story, but the plot was complex and involved numerous characters in various intrigues.  Moreover, it needed to be re-worked into an opera-book to be turned into an opera.

Fortunately for Mozart, and for posterity, a skilled operatic dramatist was in Vienna at the time.  This was Lorenzo da Ponte.  Da Ponte was a baptized Jew and a Catholic priest.  It seems the strict discipline of the Catholic priesthood was not strictly enforced at the time.  Da Ponte had a wife and children, and was reportedly party to a number of scandals involving women.  At that particular time he was working as a librettist for Antonio Salieri, the composer who was in charge of the Italian opera at court.

In the event Mozart and da Ponte got together and produced The Marriage of Figaro.  The first performance took place in Vienna in 1786.  The court censorship problem was solved through the manipulative skills of da Ponte, and the Emperor attended the first performance.  The opera was a success and is now said to be amongst the most performed of any opera ever written.

The collaboration between Mozart and da Ponte must have been a happy one, and led to two further collaborations between them: Don Giovanni, first performed in 1787 and Cosi fan tutte, first performed in 1790.

All three of the da Ponte operas were presented as opera buffa.  The intended effect was comedy, though in the hands of da Ponte and Mozart, they achieved an emotional depth and meaning that made them much more than light entertainment.  The women characters in the operas made significant contributions towards achieving that result.

Figaro opens with scenes of bustling activity.  Figaro and Susanna are busy making preparations for their marriage, but meantime the Count, assisted by various members of his household, is nurturing sinister designs on Susanna.  There are plots and counter plots.  Further, a lovesick youth Cherubino who is falling in love with inappropriate women also came into the picture.  He is becoming a bit of a nuisance to everybody and Act 1 concludes with a decision by the Count to send him away into the army, to the sound of a gleeful aria sung by Figaro.  According to Michael Kelly, an Irish tenor who took part in the first performance, the entire cast was frozen in rapt attention when they heard the aria (“Non piu andrai”) for the first time, and burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the spirited little march which concluded the aria.

However, when the curtain rises on Act 2 the audience is presented with a wholly different situation.  We meet the Countess for the first time and she is sitting alone in her boudoir.  She sings the cavatina Porgi amor showing her to be in a sad situation: her husband has become indifferent to her.  There is no catastrophe or melodrama, but her situation could mean the loss of everything important to her.  Da Ponte and Mozart understood women.

Porgi amor colours the entire context in which we view the relationship between the Count and the Countess and that in turn creates a tragic undertone to the opera.

The situation of the Countess is given further emphasis in Act 3, when she sings the aria Dove Sono.  At that point she is effectively a tragic figure, hoping against hope that her former happiness could be restored.  The Countess is nevertheless party to the intrigues going on with a view to teaching the Count a lesson, though she is a somewhat reluctant participant.  There are wonderful scenes of the intrigues, exhibiting great dramatic and musical ingenuity.  Lorenzo da Ponte’s genius for farce reaches its height in a scene in which Marcellina, the woman whom Figaro was contractually bound to marry as a result of an old  debt, turned out to be his mother.  Accordingly this attempt to stop Figaro marrying Susanna failed.  Following all the discovered history and disguises and misunderstandings, the opera ends with forgiveness and reconciliation.  Nevertheless the Countess leaves the indelible impression that life does not consist of happy endings.

In the year following the first performance of Figaro, Mozart was invited to visit Prague, at the time a thriving provincial city.  While in Prague he received a commission to write an opera on the Don Juan legend.  There had already been a number of operas based on Don Juan, but the composer of the highly successful Figaro could be trusted to produce a superior product.  Lorenzo da Ponte is said to have been the impulse behind the commission.  He and Mozart then worked together for the second time and produced Don Giovanni.

The intention was to produce a comedy, and the finished opera was billed as a “dramma giocoso” with the moralistic alternative title of “il dissoluto punito”.

Don Juan was famous for his exploits with women.  How was this to be shown in the opera?

Three women were cast in the opera:  Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Zerlina, and the Don had a relationship or attempted relationship with each of them.

The Don’s attempts on Donna Anna and Zerlina were unsuccessful.  Donna Anna was from inception out of the running as an object for pursuit, as the Don had killed her father the Commendatore in the first scene of the opera after the Don was discovered trying to seduce his daughter.

The Don almost succeeded with Zerlina, as when he sang the sexually charged duet “La ci darem la mano”.  However, this and a subsequent attempt were both frustrated.  Zerlina seemed not unwilling, but maintained her respectability.  Her betrothed Massetto got jealous, but got beaten up as a result.  At the end they returned to domestic felicity.

Donna Elvira was a different story.  She had been seduced and deserted by the Don before the action in the opera began, and re-appeared in the opera.  There was therefore a continuity and development in her relationship with the Don.  In essence, she wanted him back.  But as portrayed in the opera, he was heartless, though he could put on the occasional charm.

She met the Don a few times.  The first time she caught up with the Don, she allowed herself to be distracted by Leporello and the Don slipped away.  Leporello tried to tell her that the Don was not worth it by singing the “catalogue aria” (“Madamina”).  But of course she refused to listen.

The second time she accosted the Don was after his attempt to seduce Zerlina.  Much to his annoyance she got Zerlina out of his clutches.

Then she met the Don again in the company of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio.  She told them about his wickedness but they were in some doubt until Donna Anna recognized the voice of the Don as that of the man who killed her father.  Donna Anna then told Don Ottavio to avenge her father.  He said yes and proceeded to sing his beautiful aria “Dalla sua pace”.

There was a further confrontation when the Donna Anna party attended a ball hosted by the Don.  The Don was at it again with Zerlina but she made an escape, throwing the ball into great confusion and bringing Act 1 to a conclusion before the Donna Anna party could do anything.

So far, Donna Elvira was an avenging fury, but things began to take a turn in Act 2.  Donna Elvira was at an inn and the Don and Leporello turned up in an attempt to seduce her maid servant.  However, they were recognized by Donna Elvira.  This time the Don tried to sweet talk Don Elvira and asked her forgiveness. Like a fool she believed him and came down from the inn to meet him.  But the Don slipped away and the one who met her was Leporello disguised as the Don.  She was strung along by Leporello, wanting to be deceived yet again, until the Don turned up as a robber threatening violence, whereupon Donna Elvira and Leporello both made a hasty exit.

Just before his fateful dimer with the statue of the Commendatore, Donna Elvira turned up again to make a plea to Don Giovanni to reform, which he dismissed.  Donna Elvira made a quick exit as the statue turned up for dinner.

Da Ponte and Mozart made Donna Elvira a very persistent woman.  She began as a sort of avenging fury, but as the opera progressed, the music given to her acquired a degree of pathos.  The trio in Act 2 “Ah, taci, ingiusto core” shows a woman wanting to believe lies, desperately hoping that they were true.  Donna Elvira is a tragic figure, even more so than the Countess in Figaro.  In the opera she eventually retired to a convent.

But how was the Don Juan story to end?  There was no question of a happy ending, the dissolute had to be punished, and in a spectacular manner appropriate to a good dramma giocoso.  Hence the statue scene in which Don Giovanni ends up being dragged into hell by devils.  But the opera did not end there, as Mozart composed a finale in which an account is given of all the surviving characters.

Donna Anna would finally marry Don Ottavio but there was to be an interval of one year before that would happen to enable her heart to heal.  Zerlina would go home with Masetto and have dinner together.  Leporello would look for a new master and Donna Elvira would enter a convent to end her life.  Then everybody joined in to do a bit of moralizing in a learned fugato “Questo e il fin di chi fa mal” (“This is the fate of miscreants”).

In the 19th century there was much debate as to whether this finale should be performed.  According to Otto Klemperer Gustav Mahler chose to end the opera with the statue scene, as did many other productions.  It seems Don Giovanni, as portrayed in Mozart’s opera, had become a sort of cult figure, a force symbolizing human defiance.  However, the great conductor came to the conclusion that the finale should be performed, as he saw it as Mozart’s ironical comment on society’s conventional moralizing.

After Don Giovanni came into the world Figaro was revived in Vienna.  It was again a success and the Emperor Joseph II commissioned another opera from Mozart, with da Ponte assigned as librettist.  The plot was to be based on certain events that had happened in Vienna.  In modern terms the plot would be described as being “based on a true story”.

True story or not, Mozart and da Ponte went to work and the product of this commission was Cosi fan tutte.  The story was exceedingly artificial, but for the purposes of an opera buffa that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that it had to be dramatically coherent and entertaining.  The opera-book of Cosi fan tutte had great charm and symmetry and provided ample opportunity for great singing and great ensemble work at which Mozart excelled.  But more importantly, the developments in the opera were psychologically and dramatically true.  This made the drama real for the audience as it is performed.  There was also a hint of irony in its full title: it included the words “ossia La Scuola degli Amanti” (“or a school for lovers”).

The action consisted of two military officers who were challenged to bet on the fidelity of their beloved women by making them undergo a series of tests.  Each of the officers was to woo the other officer’s beloved.  Initially the women passed the tests but eventually they succumbed to the importunities of the wooers.  When the men found out they had lost their bets they were forced by the man who had devised the game to repeat the words “cosi fan tutte”.  In the finale all was revealed and there was forgiveness and reconciliation.

The drama is to be found in the temptation of the women, Fiordiligi and Dorabella.  The comical and the playful become the passionate.  There emerges a disturbing reality about how they felt, and there is an element of tragedy in their loss of innocence.

While all this was going on, the music never ceases to be charming and moving.  The situations are artificial, but the emotions expressed are sincere.

When the tenor sings “Un’ aura d’amorosa” one is transported into another world.  The aria does not advance the action of the opera, nor does it tell us much about the character singing it, but it is beautiful.  The soprano sings “Come scoglio” to great comic effect.  It is a vocal display piece.  It is essentially an exaggerated representation of the character of Fiordiligi, but it is charming.  Opera is about singing, isn’t it?

A wonderful make-believe world is created and sustained by the music.  Nevertheless a powerful emotional undercurrent is present.  There is true pathos in the self-examinations of Dorabella and Fiordiligi. In the Act 2 duet “Fra gli amplessi” passion breaks through.  One begins to sense the danger of play-acting becoming reality.  There is a great abyss underneath the polished surface.  This ambiguity is to be found throughout the opera, and accounts for its lasting fascination.  Reality breaking through could be a great inconvenience in life, perhaps even resulting in tragedy, but Mozart always maintained a fine and subtle balance, without breaking the decorum of an opera buffa.

In 1790 after the success of Cosi fan tutte Mozart’s fortune took a turn for the worse.  The Emperor Joseph II died in February 1790.  His successor Leopold II was unenthusiastic about music and Mozart lost hope of becoming a court composer in Vienna.  His financial circumstances deteriorated but a commission to supply music for a fairy play was offered by an actor manager called Emanuel Schikaneder.  This was a very different kind of production from the da Ponte operas, and has been described as “a fairy play to be acted in what was little more than a wooden barn, to an audience that cared only for trivial and vulgar melody, gag and business of the silliest kind, crude spectacular effects and the introduction of a whole menagerie of animals on the stage”.

But whether it was because he needed the money or there were other reasons, Mozart accepted the commission and the result was the opera The Magic Flute.

The plot of the Magic Flute was assembled from a number of sources which have been diligently traced by scholars and researchers.  But the opera could be enjoyed as is without going into Masonic rites or Egyptian mythology or allusions to now obscure sources.

Again the events in the Magic Flute take place in a make-believe world, but the music sounds true and it is unnecessary to look for logic or other connections.  One takes in each situation as it occurs, and eventually some mysterious amalgamation takes place and one experiences a harmonic whole.  Again, as with Cosi fan tutte, it is Mozart’s music that results in the creation of a harmonious whole.

The opera opens with Tamino (for “historical” reasons described as a Japanese prince) being pursued by a great snake.  Three ladies appear and killed the snake.  The effect is amusing and can be said to be superior to the somewhat inexplicable swan in Lohengrin, to which one is expected to ascribe a meaning.

The Three Ladies were ladies-in-waiting to the Queen of the Night, and through dialogue one is given a certain amount of information.

Then comes the bird catcher Papageno singing his charming little song.  Tamino meets him and the Three Ladies and through dialogue we learn a bit of what’s going on.  The Three Ladies give Tamino a portrait of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night and Tamino falls in love the girl in the portrait.

The Three Ladies tell Tamino that he must rescue her from the captivity of the evil demon Sarastro, which Tamino swears to do.

The Queen of the Night then makes her grand entrance and implores Tamino to rescue Pamina from Sarastro, after which Pamina will be his forever.  For the benefit of the audience the aria ends in a display of coloratura fireworks.

So far we have the good and bad lined up, with the Queen and Pamina on one side and Sarastro on the other.

We next meet Pamina in the custody of Monostatos, an evil slave master under Sarastro.  Papageno enters and he and Monostatos are both scared by the appearance of the other and run away, thereby freeing Pamina.  Papageno and Pamina then sing a duet to the comforting power of true love.

Tamino in the meantime is led by Three Boys to the temples of Wisdom, Reason and Nature to seek enlightenment.  Monostatos has caught up with Pamina and they all appear in the presence of Sarastro.  It seems the picture painted by the Queen of the Night needed correction.  Sarastro was in fact the chief priest of the Temple of Wisdom protecting Pamina from the evil influence of her mother.  Sarastro sends Tamino and Pamina into the temple of trial.  If they passed the trial they would become like gods.

Stated in terms of what happens, the action is bewildering, but with the music, everything feels like as it should be.  The general feeling is that Sarastro is a good influence and Tamino and Pamino will achieve a higher level of existence.

However, before the final test the mortality of the characters is still getting in the way.  At one point Pamina thought she had lost Tamino and sings a great, quietly tragic aria.  Papageno, though not looking for a similar degree of enlightenment, was about to commit suicide when he thought he had lost Papagena whom he planned to marry, but was saved by the magic bells which were given to him by the Three Ladies.  So there was a happy ending for them, though at a less exalted level.

Eventually Tamino and Pamina pass the great tests, accompanied by a mysterious tune on the magic flute, and become part of the elect.

Sarastro makes a grand entrance and the evil Queen and Monostatos are banished and the opera ends with a grand chorus.

The story of The Magic Flute does not make a great deal of sense, except as a simplistic moral tale of the triumph of good over evil.  But that does not seem to matter much.  What it has got are situations and characters which are psychologically and emotionally true, expressed through great music.

The women characters in The Magic Flute are not dramatically developed as they are in the da Ponte operas.  There is genuine pathos in the great Pamina aria, and the Queen of the Night has two great display numbers.  But we are never quite sure why she hated Sarastro.  Actually a suggestion that comes to mind is that Pamina is the daughter of Sarastro and the Queen, and that they have had a bitter divorce.  This is nowhere suggested in the libretto, but it is a sort of situation that could have been spelt out by Wagner!

But perhaps The Magic Flute is not about individuals, but about a greater reality in which individuals play only a subsidiary part.  We might have Emanuel Schikaneder to thank for inventing an almost nonsensical plot, but which provided a sort of scaffolding and support for the writing of great music, and which fell away as irrelevant as we hear the sound of the music!