By Rod Webb
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart might have felt flattered by Thomas Beecham's comment that "If I were a dictator I should make it compulsory for every member of the population between the ages of four and 80 to listen to Mozart for at least one-quarter of an hour daily for the coming five years".
The nice irony is that much of Mozart's work shows the influence of a movement that was, until that time, history's greatest challenge to absolutism: the Enlightenment. His brief lifetime (1756-1791) saw, among other things, the publication of Rousseau's Social Contract, Smith's The Wealth of Nations, the invention of the spinning jenny and the steam engine, the discovery of nitrogen and oxygen, and the French and North American revolutions.
Mozart was, however, less the great thinker than the consummate artist reflecting the shifts of public sentiment in those revolutionary times, and he was always mindful of who was paying for his supper. Thus one of his 1791 operas — La Clemenza di Tito, commissioned for the Prague coronation of Leopold II — glorifies a just and sensible ruler and the other — The Magic Flute, seen by many as his closest valedictory — calls for universal social harmony. And along the route of satisfying rulers and audiences, Mozart gave us music full of life, love and, above all, beauty.
There are many opportunities to discover the genius of Mozart in the bicentenary year of his death. To me, the operas offer more insights per minute of listening, but if opera-going is not to your taste, there are many concerts and, with staggering frequency, new releases of CDs of everything Wolfgang ever wrote: try, for instance the new Muti version of The Marriage of Figaro on EMI, or the piano concertos played by Anda (on DG) or Perahia (CBS).
Sydney scores well with Australian Opera (AO) productions of the last four operas: Flute, Clemenza, Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni. Melbourne has already seen the Clemenza, and the Victoria State Opera will give Figaro and Flute in Melbourne and Cosi in a regional tour, while the WA Opera does Figaro, and the SA Don Giovanni.
The AO productions are largely the creations of director Goran Jarvefelt and designer Carl Friedrich Oberle. Jarvefelt died before his work was complete, so Moffatt Oxenbould and Lindy Hume finished off Clemenza and Don Giovanni, respectively, and Ross A. Perry "realised" Cosi. Each has a similar look: a raked floor of bleached pine, lots of space and light symbolising the Enlightenment, and a refreshing emphasis on the
music and the drama within.
Cosi responds best to such treatment. It's a perfect ensemble piece, with each voice getting its share of the limelight. Its August reprise will be with a combination of the two casts already seen, notably David Hobson, Stephen Bennett and Fiona Janes. Its story (the title is a quote from Figaro: "All pretty women are the same") — wherein two men conspire to test the fidelity of their girlfriends — will outrage some, but the musical rewards are enormous to those who accept the book's simple conceit.
The Don Giovanni production, on the other hand, is infuriating in its "modernity". In attempting to transform Giovanni from 18th century all-round shagger to modern lecherous madman, Jarvefelt/Hume have introduced the dangerous idea that rapists are lunatics. The rapists may indeed be mad, but they're all around us as parts of — not exceptions to — a mad society.
Giovanni's first appearance in black leather jockstrap thus invites the audience to mirthfully ignore the fact that he's just tried to rape Anna and has murdered her father! Stephen Bennett, as the servant Leporello, does good work as the social conscience of the play, but is undermined by regrettable emphases on some of the lines most vulnerable to the "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" treatment, and by the portrayal of Anna's lover Ottavio as a foppish wimp.
But under the baton of Gyorgy Fischer, some of Mozart's darkest and most sophisticated music shone through regardless. The principal voices were competent but unremarkable save for Bennett, whose part in the winter season will be taken by Gregory Yurisich. Natale de Carolis, making his AO debut, will replace Geoffrey Black as Giovanni.
The story for Clemenza comes from the born-again clemency of the Titus who ruled Rome (79-81 AD) under the slogan "love and enjoyment for the human race", after being reviled as a tyrant and debaucher during his co-reign with his father Vespasian. In seeking to suggest that Leopold II was a better sort of bloke than that Frenchman Louis XVI (who was to lose his head within 15 months of Clemenza's premiere), Mozart's benefactors were smart to approve Metastasio's libretto about an emperor who forgave his betrothed for loving someone else, his best friend for trying to kill him and his newly betrothed for putting his best friend up to the murder before she realised she was next in line for the First Lady job.
If its political background doesn't encourage any but the most dedicated historical materialist to see Clemenza when it returns to Sydney in July, there are other notable aspects: it's in opera seria form, an archaic exception to the extraordinary
innovations in the rest of Mozart's final five, and one aria is said to have inspired a Beethoven fantasia and another a Shelley serenade.
The Sydney premiere marked the impressive AO debut of soprano Akiko Nakajima, and Suzanne Johnston was stunning in a breeches role which will be taken by Fiona Janes in the winter performances.
Some critics seem to suggest that The Magic Flute is such a terrific opera that one should see it regardless of the quality of the current production, first presented in 1986. I sense the current disappointment lies mostly in the casting. Only Deborah Riedel (Pamina) and John Pringle (Speaker) seem to have the strength to do justice to Mozart's towering song of hope, despite the solicitudes of conductor Richard Bonynge.
This is one occasion where Jarvefelt's austere approach is less than appropriate. I suspect the strategy stems from the need to accommodate a number of young singers with promising — if not yet strong — voices in principal roles. This is a commendable policy, for without it there will be no steady development of talent.
We should applaud productions which don't overwhelm developing voices — except, please, productions of The Magic Flute. Sarastro and the Queen of the Night must have strong voices and be complemented by a scenic grandeur that underlines their dialectical oppositeness.
Stephen Bennett does an acceptable job, but I'm afraid Lynne Murray just wasn't up to delivering the required fire and loathing. And the staging seems almost to ignore her presence at a moment when she should be capturing every imagination in the auditorium.
Nevertheless, I reckon it's best to accept that we get the opera we more or less deserve and look on the bright side of each production. Accordingly, I'd rate Cosi a must, Clemenza a historical curiosity which you're unlikely to see again, Don Giovanni an ideological worry with some good performances, and Flute a less than satisfactory experience of one of the greatest operas ever written. Fanatics will see the lot; others wishing to pay due homage to Mozart (and themselves) will see the rarer ones and buy the Figaro CD set and a couple of the later piano concertos.