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The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical…

The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical Guide (original 1978; edition 1990)

by Charles Osborne

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Title:The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical Guide
Authors:Charles Osborne
Info:Victor Gollancz, Paperback, 1990. 8vo. 349 pp. First published, 1978. First published in Gollancz Paperbacks, 1986. Third impression, November 1990.
Collections:Your library
Tags:Music, Opera, Mozart, Musical Criticism

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The Complete Operas of Mozart: A Critical Guide by Charles Osborne (1978)



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Charles Osborne

The Complete Operas of Mozart
A Critical Guide

Victor Gollancz, Paperback, 1990.

8vo. 349 pp.

First published, 1978.
First published in Gollancz Paperbacks, 1986.
Third impression, November 1990.


1. Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots [1767]
2. Apollo et Hyacinthus [1767]
3. Bastien und Bastienne [1768]
4. La finta semplice [1769]
5. Mitridate, re di Ponto [1770]
6. Ascanio in Alba [1771]
7. Il sogno di Scipione [1772]
8. Lucio Silla [1772]
9. La finta giardiniera [1775]
10. Il re pastore [1775]
11. Thamos, King of Egypt [1779]
12. Zaide [1780]
13. Idomeneo, Re di Creta [1781]
14. Die Entführung aus dem Serail [1782]
15. L'oca del Cairo [1783] and Lo sposo deluso [1784]
16. Der Schauspieldirektor [1786]
17. The Marriage of Figaro [1786]
18. Don Giovanni [1787]
19. Così fan tutte [1790]
20. La clemenza di Tito [1791]
21. The Magic Flute [1791]
Some Books Consulted

* In square brackets: years of composition/premiere added for the sake of historical perspective.


Well, if anything, this volume about Mozart is certainly much better than the one about Wagner in the same Complete Operas series by Charles Osborne. Quite unlike the latter, here the author often expresses genuine enthusiasm and affection for the works he writes about; and when he does criticise, as he should, he does so with sensitivity, sensibility and entirely without animosity - which is definitely not the case with Wagner, but that's another story I have told elsewhere.

Just like its companion volumes, The Complete Operas of Mozart is wonderfully comprehensive. As Mr Osborne remarks in his half-page introduction, though four operas of Mozart are among the most widely performed worldwide - namely Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute and Cosi fan tutte - the genius from Salzburg actually composed no fewer than 20 musical works for the stage, the first two of them when was but 11 years old. There is no discrepancy with the table of contents though. There are 21 chapters there because Thamos, King of Egypt is included out of pure politeness; since it consists of three choruses and four instrumental pieces, it's actually an incidental music that could hardly pass for opera but it's nice to learn something about it. Indeed, Mr Osborne has included a number of small scale works, or unfinished ones, that stretch the definition of opera a good deal or are difficult to perform due to their incomplete state, but since they all were composed by Mozart, in each and every one of them some gems can be found. In his greatest operas hardly anything else is there indeed.

The structure of the book is again pretty much the same as in the other volumes in the series. It is a very fine one, beautifully organised and easy to navigate, that manages to compress huge amount of information in a most convenient manner. Each chapter - with the obvious exception of the fifteenth - is dedicated to a single work and contains a ''title page'' which gives the type of the opera - buffa, seria, singspiel, etc. - the number in the Köchel catalogue, dramatis personae, author and sources of the libretto, time and place where it is set, and finally some details about the first performance. The text itself is usually separated in three to five parts indicated by Roman numbers. As a general rule, the first part discusses the history of composition together with many major events in Mozart's life that are somehow related to the work in question; the second part gives the history of libretto, by whom and how it came to be written, usually together with a detailed synopsis; the third part, of course, discusses the music itself, number by number from the overture to the finale. In some cases, when the historical background needs a more a extensive treatment, the second part may be split into two or even three smaller sections. As it might be expected, there is a certain amount of repetition between the parts about the plot and about the music, but it's no big deal. All in all, one can easily find what one looks for: from the most famous aria to the most obscure quartet.

Charles Osborne is a fine writer whose style combines lucidity and succinctness in a most admirable manner. He seldom allows muddled passages or wasted words in his writing; unlike later volumes in the series, in this one he often demonstrates a subtle and charming sense of humour, although he certainly doesn't like mincing words and doesn't hesitate to call something nonsense when that's exactly what it is. In short, his writing is eminently readable and very enjoyable. One may well disagree with Mr Osborne on some points, like Don Giovanni's famous aria Fin' chan dal vino being a ''feverish explosion of sheer sexual drive'' for instance, but it's difficult to be angry with him or to neglect his opinions, especially when his passion for Mozart's music leaves no doubt of his sincerity. Sometimes his writing becomes a trifle too personal and, in addition to opinionated, he may also sound dogmatic and self-conscious. But I personally don't mind that very much, especially when the argument is sound and devoid of nastiness - which is almost always the case with Mozart and virtually never with Wagner, as I have mentioned in the beginning. To illustrate this idiosyncratic personal quality of Mr Osborne's writing style, I have selected few short excerpts from the chapters that deal with Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte and La Clemenza di Tito:

[On Donna Anna's famous aria ''Non mi dir'' from Don Giovanni: amusing but shrewd.]
Some very eminent critics have misguidedly bewailed what they regard as the bad taste of the coloratura in this aria. Berlioz called it 'shocking impropriety', and wrote that he would willingly give some of his blood to erase that shameful page, in which Mozart had committed 'one of the most odious and idiotic crimes against passion, taste and common sense of which the history of art provides an example'. One is tempted to exclaim, 'Look who's talking!' Ernest Newman sadly and ill-advisedly follows Berlioz by referring to the 'bravura second section that has always been a source of pain to most of [Mozart's] admirers, who find it difficult to understand why the singer should suddenly cease to be the sympathetic and noble Donna Anna and become transformed into a mere Madame This or Madame That, angling for applause'. This admirer of Mozart can only comment that, untainted as he is by the puritan tradition, he has never found the second part of 'Non mi dir' a source of pain for himself, and begs leave to doubt that Mr Newman could have been speaking for very many admirers of the composer. Coloratura can be as effective in conveying emotion as passages not requiring vocal agility from the singer, and there is, to my knowledge, no musical rule which equates plainness with quality.

[On the corrupting influence of Cosi fan tutte, rather perceptively.]
The late Cyril Connolly once confessed to me that it was the one Mozart opera he could not stand, because it condoned the corruption of innocence. I do not think it condones anything of the kind, nor do I think Fiordiligi and Dorabella essentially innocent. Cosi fan tutte, as I experience it, has a formal perfection denied to Giovanni or Figaro, though the range of musical and dramatic characterization is much wider in the two earlier operas. Cosi fan tutte deals with human relationships sympathetically, even profoundly, though totally without sentimentality. It is as serious a comedy as Figaro, and Mozart wrote for it some of his most deeply moving music as well as some of his most delightful. Perhaps it is an opera for the connoisseur of music rather than of opera, for the characters in the other two Da Ponte's operas are more interesting, and the action in them is more complex. But the music of Cosi fan tutte is certainly the equal of the other two operas, and in some moods it is easy to think it superior. The opera's musical statement is unique. There is no way of paraphrasing it: all one can do is go back to the notes.

[Rather unpleasant, not to say pointless, self-consciousness on Mr Osborne's part.]
La Clemenza di Tito is performed nowadays, and I have seen three very fine productions: by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in Cologne in the 1960s, and more recently in Salzburg, and by Anthony Besch in the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Anthony Besch's production, especially, brought the opera to vivid life for the period that one was in the theatre, but it does not resonate in my memory, nor, when I return to the opera in the excellent recording conducted by Istvan Kertesz, do I find my respect for Mozart's score ripening into love.

Self-conscious and opinionated or not, Charles Osborne certainly knows what he's writing about. He is a man to be reckoned with, at least as far as Mozart's operas are concerned.

My only qualm with the book - a very small one compared to the benefit one receives from it - is what's almost always the Achilles heel of musical criticism: the musical analysis itself. Now Mr Osborne does make a significant effort to avoid technical language but, inevitably perhaps, he doesn't always succeed; his parts about the music are packed with musical examples and often venture into realms incomprehensible for the layman such as tonalities and the like. It must be noted, though, that the author takes the trouble to indicate what he's talking about as accurately as possible, so that every music lover unfortunate enough to be musically illiterate can find the exact place and see for himself. In addition to this ''technical defect'', Mr Osborne does sometimes tend to be perfunctory and superficial; he passes some of the most amazing opera scenes ever composed - most notably the demonic finale of Don Giovanni - with a somewhat condescending nod of the head. At the same time, the author can on occasion indulge in excessive detail; twice does he tell us (though in different languages: Italian and English), with the same relish as Leporello himself, exactly how many women Don Giovanni had in different countries: 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey and, oh, 1003 in Spain. All in all, 2065 women in five countries. Don Giovanni, apparently, is a man of steel.

Having said that, Charles Osborne's musical analyses are just a little short of wonderful: they are uncommonly full of insightful touches or fascinating trivia. A fine example of the latter is the famous humming of Leporello in the end of his celebrated aria Madamina which was not a Mozart's idea at all but was apparently introduced by the great XIX-century bass Luigi Lablache; another one is Don Giovanni's ebullient ''Champagne aria'' which, Mr Osborne is quite convincing, neither has anything to do with champagne (which indeed came from a bad German translation of the Italian original) nor is there anything in the score or in the libretto about the great seducer drinking in the street as he is often made by presumptuous directors. As for the former, namely the insight into Mozart's music and especially into its dramatic significance, Mr Osborne is quite capable of showing one a completely new way to look even at the most famous scenes one foolishly thinks one knows everything about. Take, for instance, his remarks about the faster tempi in the end of the celebrated duet ''La ci darem la mano'', Don Giovanni's first attempt to seduce Zerlina:

Though Giovanni begins the duet without instrumental preamble, there is no sense of urgency. The tone contrives to be both elegant and sensuous, and the tempo indication is andante. Mozart did not indicate any change of tempo for the conclusion of the duet, after Zerlina has yielded, and those conductors who take it faster merely destroy its mood, introducing a suggestion of unseemly haste to get into bed. The eroticism of the recitative and the duet is best conveyed by keeping to Mozart's tempo.

Many conductors would do well to bear this in mind. So would many listeners, for that matter. As any great master in the art of seduction, going to bed with his ''victims'' is surely of far smaller importance to Don Giovanni than the actual conquest. And the eroticism of the scene is indeed almost palpable.

In the very next paragraph, Mr Osborne again offers a penetrating analysis, and not a little tantalising too, of another great scene: No. 9 ''Non ti fidar, o misera''. This is the vastly amusing scene in which Donna Elvira rants to Donna Anna and Don Ottavio what a scoundrel Don Giovanni really is, while the great lover tries to convince them that Elvira is completely ''pazza'' (crazy). It is riveting spectacle on the stage. Musically, the scene is graced with one of Mozart's most miraculous ensembles; when performed really well - which happens appallingly seldom, alas - the quartet is unforgettable. I know next time I'll be listening to it with different ears thanks to Charles Osborne:

The quartet is yet another remarkable instance of Mozart's genius for characterization allied to musical beauty. The situation has its comic aspect, as Giovanni attempts to convince Donna Anna and Don Ottavio that Elvira is mad, while simultaneously doing his best to prevent her from making any more damaging utterances. Yet the total effect is ambivalent, and at the end the orchestra's comment is made in sympathy with Elvira, to the phrase [Ex. 47] which she had first sung to the words 'Te vuol tradir ancor', ['He has already betrayed me,] and now he wishes to betray you.

This passage also nicely illustrates what I have mentioned above about Mr Osborne's technical language. When I look and ''Example 47'' I see a completely incomprehensible mess of black signs and staves; all I could gather is that a certain phrase should be played pianissimo by flutes and clarinets, which is not much as I haven't the least idea how the actual melody sounds. But when I know the exact text when it occurs, it is of course easy to locate it and thus profit from Mr Osborne's comments.

And in the very next paragraph there is another impressively subtle hint: that ''two-bar phrase low in the double basses, slow and as though in awakening, then the fortissimo crash of the full orchestra'' which tell us that Donna Anna has just realised the horrible truth, namely that Don Giovanni is the murderer of her father. I can go on like that for ages; the pages are brimming with such perspicacious touches. If I have concentrated mostly on Don Giovanni, it is because just right now this particular work happens to be very close to my heart, but any of Mozart's great operas is richly supplied with such extraordinarily revealing discussions. I guess this is the case with Mozart's early attempts as well, though these I have not yet listened to.

Mr Osborne's bibliography is a modest one but he obviously knows it pretty well and has made an excellent use of it. I don't know how accurate in terms of historical facts he is or how reliable his scholarship really is, but I suspect both are on a very high level. Even if some of his historical background is slightly dated, at all events Mr Osborne's synopses make a wonderful read and his musical analyses, as should be obvious from the above-quoted passages, are always completely fascinating and extremely helpful for raising one's appreciation to another level. That's why this volume is not just an excellent introduction to Mozart's operas for everybody seriously interested in them, but a great deal more than that. It will bear in the future lots of re-reading and consulting, certainly linked with pleasure and profit.

In short, indispensable book for every serious admirer of Mozart's operas, especially if he happens to be a novice as well. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Feb 23, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0306801906, Paperback)

The major operas of Mozart—Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, Cosìfan Tutte—are well known to music listeners everywhere, having secured a permanent place in the repertoire of companies throughout the world. But how much do you know about La Clemenza di Tito, Idomeneo, L'Oca del Cairo, Zaide? Charles Osborne here provides detailed descriptions of all of these and fourteen others in a volume that serves both a first-rate biography and an exhaustive critical guide to the Mozart oeuvre. Charles Osborne is obviously in command of the literature: He quotes copiously from the mountain of letters, contemporary journals, and the most recent scholarship dealing with the period. His fourfold approach—linking biography with musical, textual, and dramatic analysis—is uniquely satisfying for those seeking an integrated understanding of opera's many dimensions. With a plot summary and character listings of each work, The Completes Operas of Mozart can be read in one sitting for a panoramic sweep of Mozart's operatic genius or for reliable reference by the phonograph or radio.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:42 -0400)

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