Personalities | Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Classical Era | Opera

1756–91, Austrian

Alone of the great Viennese classical ‘trinity’ – Haydn, Mozart and BeethovenMozart (1756–91) was a born theatre animal. From boyhood, opera was his greatest passion and he built on existing conventions to enrich and deepen three distinct types of opera: opera seria, opera buffa and German Singspiel.

The Child Prodigy

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg on 27 January 1756, the son of Leopold Mozart, violinist and composer at the Salzburg court. From early childhood Wolfgang displayed what one contemporary called ‘premature and almost supernatural talents’, and Leopold was quick to promote his son’s gifts in a series of concert tours. On a visit to London, Wolfgang astonished the philosopher Daines Barrington by improvising recitatives. At nine he had already absorbed the language of opera seria. His own earliest operas, though, were both comedies: the ingenuous La finta semplice (‘The Feigned Simpleton’, 1768); and the little pastoral Singspiel Bastien und Bastienne (1768), performed at the home of Franz Anton Mesmer, the famous Viennese experimenter in magnetism.

The Conquest of Italy

Two years later, on his first trip to Italy, Mozart landed his first major commission: an opera seria for the Milan carnival season of 1770–71. He plunged himself excitedly into the new work, Mitridate, rè di Ponto (‘Mithridates, King of Pontus’, 1770). Although preparations were dogged by malevolent intrigue, Leopold Mozart wrote that the first night ‘met with unanimous approval’. The Wunderkind had ‘arrived’ as an international operatic composer with a work whose brilliance and mastery prompted a commission for another opera seria. Premiered in Milan, Lucio Silla (1772) is, if anything, an even finer work, with strong Gluckian resonances, especially in the darkly coloured music for Junia.

In the meantime Mozart had composed two more allegorical works: for Milan, Ascanio in Alba (‘Ascanius in Alba’, 1771), and for Salzburg, Il sogno di Scipione (‘Scipio’s Dream’, 1772). Then, after a two-year hiatus, came the opera buffa La finta giardiniera (‘The Pretend Gardener Girl’, 1774–75), staged at the Munich carnival in January 1775. Lavish in its invention, La finta giardiniera foreshadows Figaro in the multi-movement ensembles of chaos and bewilderment that end the first two acts. Three months later, a royal visit prompted the last opera Mozart completed in Salzburg: Il rè pastore (‘The Shepherd King’, 1775), a static, serenata-type piece in the pastoral tradition.

Triumph in Munich

After his fateful journey to Mannheim and Paris in 1777–78, Mozart began a Singspiel with a fashionable oriental setting – Zaide (unfinished, 1779). Its many beauties include a glorious quartet and, uniquely in Mozart’s works, passages of melodrama – declamation accompanied by highly charged orchestral music. However, there was no opportunity of performing Zaide in opera-starved Salzburg, and Mozart abandoned the score just before the final denouement. In the summer of 1780, however, his frustrated operatic ambitions were finally fulfilled when he received a commission to write an opera seria for Munich. The opera in question, Idomeneo, was...

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