Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Genius flexes his new found strength

In the winter of 1769 Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart set off by coach in the snow on an Italian Journey. Saying goodbye to the family, and luckily writing often, they were on a mission. As usual the goal was to make money and reaffirm contacts with the influential and the nobility (the prospect of work for the future). The significant part of this trip was to present the now mature musician to the world and to make this point Mozart was prepared to write his first true opera seria, Mitridate re di Ponte, commissioned for the Carnival in Milan. In the eighteenth century being a teenager meant getting on in the world, no one would have stood for or ever sympathized with our modern convention of the extended childhood (who could afford it?). At thirteen going on fourteen young Wolfgang was still regarded as a curiosity and something of a wonder. That he was a formidable virtuoso, talented improviser and supremely gifted composer was clear, but he was still only a beginner. There was much to learn and the boy had come to Italy to submit to the supreme masters who lived and worked in the Italian academies and universities. In this case Padre Martini, one of the greatest of musical pedagogues of the era who taught at the University of Bolonga. Possessed of a 17,000 volume personal library - his pupils included Andre Gretry, Josef Myslivecek, J. C. Bach and Mozart.

Wolfgang could really put on a show - he was witty and playful at dinners (and lucky, his father had an accident and he ran free for a while) he often filled churches and concert spaces playing and conducting from the keyboard. All of this was however only a prelude to what was to be his crowning achievement after completing an examination given by Martini and fellow academics. Their test was suppose to take three to four hours and was knocked out by Mozart in thirty minutes and then in a true show of his abilities, the young genius was then going to out Italian the Italians on their home ground with Mitridate. This almost no one believed: to play the magician (or clown) on the concert circuit was one thing, to submit to the discipline and challenge of a mature, extended dramatic work would require much more. Rumors circulated that "the boy" had bitten off more than he could chew. Here no one could have anticipated Mozart’s superhuman capacity for work, chronicled in detail in his letters home. Perhaps a portrait painted at the time says it best: seated at the keyboard before his own music and dressed in a red and gold jacket as one historian said "It’s the strangeness of the eyes. Those of a knowing child …"

courtesy of Wikipedia

The plot of the opera would include a five way love affair, pitting father (Mitridate) against two sons (Sifare and Farnace),add in a war (Pontus against Rome), and a sibling rivalry, (with two heroines Aspasia and Ismene ,who makes five …) Mozart complicated his task by adapting a text by no less than Racine, animating Roman history and writing virtuoso arias for four great castrato voices. The recitatives almost did him in; writing home to mother he cried about his aching hands. In anticipation of failure, several Italian composers offered the singers their music as "interpolations" (a common practice at the time) but, after reading over Mozart’s score no subtitutions were accepted. Mitridate re di Ponte was a complete success and was repeated twenty-one times. How did he do it? The answer was the structural solution - alleviate the constant harpsichord recitative accompaniment with orchestral writing of incredible delicacy. As one critic put it "He created a musical necklace in which the arias were a string of pearls." Some like the unforgettable Lungi da te , running 6 - 9:00 minutes with exquisite horn obliggato: 
Lungi da te , mio bene
Se vuoi ch’io porti il piede,

If you wish to wend my way
Far from you my beloved,
Do not remember the sufferings
You experience, my dear

Tune in to this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and experience what the Italians did in 1770. Who knew a mere boy could upset their sense of Italian supremacy in opera as much as Mozart‘s Mitridate re di Ponto? And we have a cast that suits the occasion: Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay, Sandrine Piau, Brian Asawa and Juan Diego Florenz among others. All of this at noon, on KPAC and KTXI.

by Ron Moore 


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