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Listed: 10 Mozart Operas You've Never Heard (of) | reviews, news & interviews

Listed: 10 Mozart Operas You've Never Heard (of)

Listed: 10 Mozart Operas You've Never Heard (of)

As La finta giardiniera comes to Glyndebourne, we've got the pick of Mozart's lesser-known operas

Mozart wrote his first opera at 12, and went on to pen 22 in the course of his life

Mozart operas – we’ve all been there, whistled the arias, untangled the love triangles (quadrants/pentagons), dabbled in some cross-dressing, and sung a rousing chorus of general forgiveness. But for every ubiquitous Don Giovanni or Le Nozze di Figaro there are at least two or three other operas that have drifted from the repertoire, rarely performed and little known. 1784’s L’oca del Cairo, anyone?

Think of as many Mozart operas as you can (and feel free to include singspiels and any other works performed on stage in the list). Fewer than 10? Keep trying. Fewer than 20? Still not quite there. Mozart composed a whopping 22 operas during his lifetime – only to be expected really from someone who wrote his first full-scale one at the age of 12.

The operas themselves are a mixed bag, including early experiments and half-finished works, but also mature compositions that extend right up to the year before Mozart’s death. The chameleon-composer flirted with both the dramatic tradition of opera seria and the comic tradition of opera buffa, as well as the German singspiels that combine music with spoken dialogue.

This summer there’s a rare opportunity to see Mozart’s La finta giardiniera fully staged in a new Glyndebourne production, and it’s got us wondering what other works are lurking in the archives, waiting for an airing. So we’ve put together a list of our favourites: the top 10 Mozart operas you might never have heard.

 

Bastien und Bastienne (1768)

Where better to start for your first, pre-pubescent foray into opera than with a one-act comic singspiel (complete with magician and flock of sheep)? Short, with plenty of spoken dialogue, and no great emotional depths, Bastien und Bastienne is a trial run, a solid first attempt. It’s also an elegant satire of the popular pastoral genre. You know you've really arrived in a new genre when you are confidently ridiculing the attempts of all your older colleagues. Quite the calling card.

 

La finta semplice (1768)

A fair bit of scandal surrounds the precocious Mozart’s first major opera. Was it formally commissioned by Emperor Joseph II or was that just wishful thinking on the part of Mozart’s ambitious father? Then there were the rumours that in fact Leopold, not Wolfgang, had composed the opera. A complicated comedy of love and intrigue, if La finta semplice (The Pretend Innocent) is no equal of the Da Ponte operas, then it’s certainly a match for Mozart’s adult contemporaries. If there’s one stand-out aria it’s Rosina’s pastoral fantasy “Senti l’eco”.


Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770)

It’s hard to imagine what might have attracted the 14-year-old Mozart to Racine’s drama about a dominant father and his young sons… Perhaps it was emotional affinity that drew a work of such sudden musical maturity from Mozart. Listen to the exquisite duet for Aspasia and Sifare (the king’s fiancée and his son) “Se viver non degg’io” and marvel at the teenager’s astonishing precocity.


Ascanio in Alba (1771)

Written in just three and a half weeks for the celebrations of the marriage of Archduke Ferdinand Habsburg, Ascanio in Alba is less about musical depth than festive pomp. There are no fewer than sixteen choruses in the opera as well as lots of dancing, and if the plot lacks, well, anything original, it’s a neat little allegory for marital bliss, and who doesn’t love a good allegory?


Lucio Silla (1772)

Performed for the first time in the UK in 1967, Lucio Silla has been inexplicably slow to establish itself in the repertoire. The story is a typical Roman love triangle (think plottings, dungeons and daggers concealed in togas), enhanced by one of Mozart’s finest early scores. Rich orchestration and challenging vocal writing make this the first of the composer’s mature operas, substituting psychology for parody and satire.


Il sogno di Scipione (1772)

A work of purest pragmatism, Il sogno di Scipione (Scipio’s Dream) was originally written for Mozart’s patron, the never-knowingly-under-named Prince-Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach. When von Schrattenbach died suddenly, Mozart transferred the dedication to his successor. Even this couldn’t assure its success however, and the work probably had to wait until 1979 for its first complete performance. Which is shame, because there is some dazzling writing here, including Constanze’s “Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio” which rages with fiery coloratura brilliance.


La finta giardiniera (1774)

La finta giardiniera starts where most operas might end – at the moment that a man stabs his beloved in a fit of rage. Miraculously the lovers survive this minor bump in the romantic road, to continue to complicated intrigues and disguises, broken promises and mountainous wildernesses. It helps that Mozart’s instinct for drama and musical structure is beginning to come into its own, and the result is a charming and characterful work. Try tenor Don Anchise’s heroic “Dentro il mio petto” for Mozart melody at its best.


Il re pastore (1775)

More a serenata – a dramatic cantata – than an opera, Il re pastore (The Shepherd King) revolves around a quartet of lovers, a sort of prototype Così fan tutte. There are kings and shepherds, warring nations and thwarted love, and the occasional gem of an aria including Aminta’s lovely “Aer tranquillo”.



Zaide (1780)

Although unfinished at Mozart’s death – abandoned when the composer started work on Idomeneo and never completed – Zaide has all the makings of a hit. Mozart might not have written an overture or a final act, but contemporary directors (including, infamously, Peter Sellars) haven’t let this stop them from staging the work. The appeal? Some glorious and inventive vocal writing, including the well-known “Ruhe sanft”, which is up there with the very best of Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.


Der Stein der Weisen (1790)

Purists will say that Der Stein der Weisen (The Philosopher’s Stone) shouldn’t be included here, and it’s certainly true that Mozart was only one of many contributors to this delightful singspiel, but it makes the cut for the fascinating relationship it reveals with Mozart’s The Magic Flute. All his collaborators here would go on to work on Flute, whether performing, writing the libretto or conducting. There are many similarities between the two works, though light comedy would give way to something altogether weightier in the later opera. Of Mozart’s contributions to Der Stein, it’s certainly worth hearing “Nun, liebes Weibchen” (the “cat duet”) for comedy value.

You know you've really arrived in a new genre when you are confidently ridiculing the attempts of all your older colleagues

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