An Exhibit of the Diehn Composers Room, Old Dominion University Libraries

The 18th Century: Fantasy and Reason

The musical drama of the 18th century was less a product of the Age of Enlightenment's examination of humanity in society than an expression of desire and fantasy. Tragic opera in Italy (opera seria) continued to defend itself against churchmen, academics and the illiterate masses by combining great singing and staging with high literary standards. French tragic opera (grand opéra), however, appealed to a wider audience through productions and libretti full of wonder and spectacle. More importantly, music everywhere began asserting its power over the spoken word to move and inform. Music painted in the heart what the words said to the mind. The comic operas of both nations (opera buffa, opéra comique) continued their earlier tradition of mordant social criticism through satire.

By the 1760s, like many forms of art opera had shifted away from its thematic emphasis on the public square to depicting individuals in private settings. New themes such as the cult of the family, heroism of the humble, the dignity of non-Christian nations, the horrors of arbitrary power and unjust detention, begin to appear (Howard Maye Brown, "Social practice").

Musically, the fantastic theatrical elements (murders, suicides, gothic settings, supernatural events) "naturally called for spicier musical language, especially with regard to harmony and orchestration. But even the more traditional subjects were treated with strongly diversified poetic and musical means concerning the stage action, aria types, the number of characters involved and the use of choruses; large-scale tonal planning and the use of recurring motifs promoted an overall 'musicalization' of opera to which contemporaries were keenly responsive." (Ellen Rosand, "Stylistic Evolution: Up to c1760")

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

The operas of W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) collectively epitomize operatic compositional and theatrical practice of his century. Julian Rushton writes "His comprehensive mastery of three genres, opera seria, opera buffa and Singspiel, is unmatched in operatic history..." ("Mozart, (Johann Chrysostom) Wolfgang Amadeus") .

Central to this exhibit are 3 of his greatest operatic achievements.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Unfinished portrait by Joseph Lange, c. 1790.

Marriage of Figaro

An opera buffa setting of the second play of the Beaumarchais Figaro trilogy, and Mozart's most popular opera. While clearly satirizing the lascivious conduct of a nobleman (the Count) in his pursuit of a much younger woman (Susanna), the opera's elevation of Figaro and Susanna through their cunning and of the Countess through her heart-felt appeals to the god of love softens considerably the bite. The libretto is full of plays of mistaken identity, theatrical conventions such as hidden characters, cross-dressing, anonymous letters, the pleasant garden full of confusion and danger. Musically, Mozart's ensembles, rather than locking characters in place, move the action forward. His arias are brief and direct and convey the essential personality of each character. It is the most perfect of all of Mozart's operas and establishes a new dramatic use of sonata form which is Mozart's signature contribution to opera.

Marriage of Figaro. Sketchleaf for Countess's and Count's arias.

Don Giovanni

Following the enormously successful production of Marriage of Figaro in Prague (December 1786), the impresario Guardasoni commissioned Mozart to do a new opera on the Don Juan type created by Tirso de Molina in the Burlador de Sevilla . After Abduction from the Seraglio it was the most performed of Mozart's operas during his lifetime. The gothic and the supernatural embodied by the specter of the stone statue of a conquest's father coming to life to avenge his own death are core to this Singspiel, standing in sharp contrast to the antics of the servant Leporello, the ridiculous amorous pursuits of Don Giovanni himself, and the joyous dance music that pervades the entire work. Also contrasting with Don Giovanni's mercurial, chameleon character is the psychologically complex Elvira. Musically based on the innovations of Figaro , not yet anticipating romantic theatric conventions of a true beloved who can save the Don Juan figure from divine retribution, Mozart's rendering is firmly footed in his century.

Read Opening Night Reactions...

Don Giovanni. Act II. "Pentiti, scellerato!"

Magic Flute

This Singspiel was composed the year of Mozart's death, 1791, and was an allegory intended to be a coded representation of Freemasonry, in which both the composer and the librettist Schikeneder were part. Again, fantasy combined with a dramatic text full of popular conventions and a superlative score has made this opera part of the repertory of every generation. Yet the serious message of equality, particularly of the sexes through the fruits of love and domestic harmony, is strikingly bound to Enlightenment philosophy. The prince Tamino, accompanied by the quaking bird-catcher Papageno, has been commissioned by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter from the tyrant Sarastro; yet it is the Queen who turns out to be the power-hungry tyrant, and initiation into the priesthood saves both the lovers and vanquishes the Night. "The musical numbers function by contrast, employing an unprecedented stylistic range... Diversity and discontinuity, however, do not deprive the score of the right to be considered as an entity, the masterpiece of Mozart's late style." (Julian Rushton, "Zauberflöte, Die")

The Magic Flute. Chorous and priests during Salzburg production. 1967.


Copyright © 2006 Old Dominion University Libraries
Diehn Composers Room

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