The Operas of Mozart

Apollo et Hyacinthus


Words by:  Rufinus Widl

Composed at:  Salzburg

First performance:  May, 1767 - Salzburg University

It is called an intermezzo and is written to a comic Latin text (comic not in the sense that it is funny, but in that its ending is not tragic) for performance at Salzburg University.  It consists of a small overture in one movement, followed by recitatives and arias, some of which possess a definite lyric charm.

Bastien und Bastienne

German Operetta

Words by:  Weiskern

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  October 1768 at the garden theatre of Dr. Anton Mesmer; (its "official" premiere wasn't until 1890)

Legend has it that this German popular comic opera was commissioned by Dr. Anton Mesmer, the friend of the Mozarts who invented the medical use of magnetism.  There are, however, a number of questions about the accuracy of the story and it must remain unconfirmed and suspect.  Whatever the case, this work shows Mozart as much a master of the short, melodic type of ariette, dependent upon a simple, song-like structure, as he was of the Italian aria, with its complex and necessary coloratura.

This is considered Mozart's first Singspiel and was composed when he was twelve years old.

La finta semplice (The Pretend Simpleton)

Opera buffa

Words by:  Goldoni / Coltellini

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  May, 1769 - Salzburg

This work was actually commissioned by Emperor Joseph II of Vienna.  It was written and ready to produce when, for unknown reasons, the singers, who had been happy with their arias, began to complain that they could not sing them.  The orchestra complained of having a child conduct them.  Rumors began to spread that Wolfgang was not fluent enough in Italian, that the music was worthless, and that Leopold had actually written the music.  The opera was not staged and Leopold, in petitioning the court, alienated the Emperor and his mother.  The opera was eventually performed in Salzburg.

The libretto is like so much 18th-century comedy in that it builds its story around the old characters of the "commedia dell'arte."  As we expect, each character conforms to a stereotype and neither the librettist nor the composer thought to create any of the distinctively human characterization that was to be Mozart's greatest contribution to the genre.

Mitridate, rè di Ponto

Opera seria

Words by:  Cigna-Santi

Composed at:  Milan

First performance:  December 1770 - Milan

This was Mozart's first, full-blown opera, which was the result of a commission from Milan in 1770.  The libretto was taken from Racine by Vittorio Cigna-Santi, and has been described as "the best libretto for an opera seria that Mozart would ever have."  It is possible that Mozart was too young to do the libretto justice, since he still accepted certain conventions of the time in a way that a more experienced composer might have rejected.  But the boy's concern was to please his singers first and his audience next.  He succeeded in both respects.

Most of the arias fall into the category of da capo arias with truncated recapitulation and most have a concerto-like, long opening ritornello.  The vocal writing includes much coloratura, and places are reserved for cadenzas for the soloists.

Lucio Silla

Dramma per musica / Opera seria

Words by:  Gammera / Metastasio

Composed at:  Salzburg and Milan

First performance:  December, 1772 - Milan

This is the last opera Mozart wrote for Italy.  Despite the conventional plot and stock types of this work, Mozart gives early indications of his rapidly developing personal style.  The orchestra is given much more to do and its effect is considerably richer than in "Mitridate."  The pervasive texture is reminiscent of chamber music in that all parts contribute vitally to the whole, rather than function simply as accompaniment.  The da capo aria with its heavy load of coloratura is still prevalent but the sequence of aria types is varied.  It is in the melodic and harmonic usage, however, that the most telling signs of the future are to be seen.  Even more significant is the harmonic vocabulary with which he accomplishes the expression of mixed emotions.

Lucio Silla had an inauspicious first performance, which began three hours late and did not conclude until two in the morning.  There were a number of other mishaps as well.  The work itself was successful, but it failed to generate other commissions from Milan and it was never performed beyond that city.

La finta giardiniera

Opera buffa

Words by:  Calzabigi

Composed at:  Salzburg and Munich

First performance:  January 1775 - Munich

The play is described as a farce, and the libretto is the kind of thing that, five years later, he would probably have rejected.  It is, however, an effective vehicle, full of misunderstandings that create stage situations of broad comedy and Mozart's music reflects the plot magnificently.

Despite the occasional duet, this is an opera of arias and the exit aria dominates, a sure sign that Mozart was not yet fully emancipated from the seria tradition.  We have here the first of the real Mozartian finales, in which the crowd on stage becomes larger and larger and the dramatic situation more and more tense; but the essential feature of the later finale, the interplay of characters, is absent.  Like "Lucio Silla," it was not taken up elsewhere, despite the enthusiasm it aroused initially.


German Opera / Singspiel

Words by:  Schachtner

Composed at:  Salzburg

First performance:  unfinished

This work remains an interesting torso embodying the only fruits of Mozart's short-lived enthusiasm for the style of word-setting called "melodrama" (music interspersed with the spoken word).  Why it was never finished is not known:  perhaps because the death of the old Empress, Maria Theresa, closed the Viennese theaters for a period of mourning, or perhaps because he became fully occupied with a commission to compose the Carnival opera for Munich -- and Munich had been for years a goal quite as attractive as Vienna.

Idomeneo, rè di Creta

Opera seria

Words by:  Varesco

Composed at:  Salzburg and Munich

First performance:  January 1781 - Munich

In the Fall of 1780, Mozart was asked to write for the orchestra he most respected -- the Mannheimers -- and for voices he knew, an opera in Italian, not German, and seria, not buffa (his ideal situation).  That Mozart put his heart and soul into this commission is evident from the score.  On every page there is evidence that the dramatist in Mozart has finally emerged in full maturity, and the miraculous balance between the eternal enemies, Action and Music, is struck for the first time.

Mozart's enthusiasm translated into lavish, richly colored chamber music textures.  He invests many of the numbers with novel devices which serve to move the opera seria away from its conventionalized stock-in-trade, toward the realms of real human feeling and urgent drama.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

German Musical Play / Comic opera

Words by:  Stephanie

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  July, 1782 - Vienna

Mozart lavished the utmost care on the two operas of 1781-82:  on "Idomeneo" because he hoped it would lead to employment in Munich; and on "Die Entfuhrung" because he hoped it would bring him favor with the Emperor and employment in Vienna.  As a comic opera "Die Entfuhrung" uses patter throughout for comic effect.  The emphasis on the ritornello is lessened and many of the numbers open with only a preliminary chord before the vocal entry; in two cases, the verses of strophic songs are separated by the insertion of spoken dialogue; the melodic material, even of arias, is strongly influenced by the German popular style.

Another quality that helps to make it great is Mozart's psychological identification with the characters.  He was quite aware of the similarity between the situation of the hero, Belmonte, and the heroine, Constanze, and his own.  Like Belmonte, he too was bound by love to rescue his Constanze, and like Belmonte he had to battle many adverse forces.  Even the villain, Osmin, becomes a means of revenging himself upon his old enemy Colloredo, the Archbishop of Salzburg.

Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario)

Comic opera in one act

Words by:  Stephanie

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  February 1786 - Vienna

This was a small occasional piece based on an idea of the Emperor.  It consists of an overture, two arias, a trio and a quartet with a large amount of spoken dialogue and the plot concerns the rivalry of singers.  It is a slight piece that did not cost the composer much effort but brought him both the Emperor's notice, and some money.  The score contains, nevertheless, moments of surpassing beauty.  The commission for "The Impresario" interrupted work on "The Marriage of Figaro," which Mozart had begun late in 1785.

Le nozze di Figaro

"Commedia in musica"

Words by:  da Ponte

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  May, 1786 - Vienna

Perhaps Mozart's most important contribution was his ability to communicate, through musical gestures, subtleties of characterization beyond that which words could achieve alone, never resorting to the stock, cardboard figures with which operas had always been populated.

The Countess's dejection is established before she says a word, by the short melodic phrases that all resolved downward, and yet her dignity and strength of character are also clearly shown by the richness of the orchestration and the quiet emphasis upon the strong beat of the measure.  Bartolo's fatuous self-importance is demonstrated by pompous orchestration, by his use of patter, and by the juxtaposition of musical incongruities.  Cherubino's romantic fixation is established in two ways:  his breathlessness by tempo and rhythm, and his obsessiveness by the ostinato quality of the rhythm.  These are only a few examples.

Mozart's clear perception of character and of each character's relationship to the drama is greatly abetted by the incomparable ease with which he differentiates personalities within an ensemble.

(Hear excerpt from  "Le nozze di Figaro")

Don Giovanni

"Dramma giocoso"

Words by:  da Ponte

Composed at:  Vienna and Prague

First performance:  October 1787 - Prague

Many have regarded this as the greatest of all operas.  The score of Don Giovanni is even richer in orchestral color than that of "Figaro," and the effects that Mozart obtains through harmony, instrumentation, and dynamics in the statue scene remain hair-raising to this day.  One of Mozart's dramatic constants is verisimilitude.  The stop-and-go style of the the 18th-century opera, in which recitative carries action forward and aria conveys reflection or emotional response, is, in itself, far removed from life, yet in the first scenes of "Don Giovanni" the action is carried forward at a speed usually associated with spoken drama, despite its musical repetitions and symmetries.  No other opera plunges the audience into the middle of the actions so quickly.

The opera was greeted coolly, in Vienna, and judged "too difficult" and "hard for the voices."  Hence, no more commissions came until after the successful revival of "Figaro" in 1789.

Cosi fan tutte

Opera buffa

Words by:  da Ponte

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  January, 1790 - Vienna

This is Mozart's last comic opera.  It is an opera buffa in the Italian manner, with two pairs of lovers, a plot centering about mistaken identities, and a general air of lighthearted confusion and much ado about nothing, with a satisfactorily happy ending.

Nowhere does the music suggest that Mozart felt constrained by the somewhat commonplace, old-fashioned libretto; rather it is as though he were playing with the traditional types and combinations of the opera buffa, making out of them a masterpiece of musical humor lightly touched with irony, avoiding vapid superficiality but never introducing a tone of inappropriate seriousness.  The last finale is an especially fine example of his art, an apotheosis of the whole spirit of 18th-century comic opera.

"Cosi fan tutte" has been called an opera of ensembles, and Mozart must have experienced considerable pleasure in putting together a first act in which everything works perfectly, with not a moment wasted, and where 12 out of 17 numbers are ensembles.

Die Zauberflöte

German opera (Singspiel)

Words by:  Schikaneder

Composed at:  Vienna

First performance:  September, 1791 - Vienna

It was an immediate and lasting success in Vienna, thus realizing one of Mozart's deepest desires; unfortunately he did not live to enjoy the triumph for long.

Mozart and Schikaneder resolved to depict the realm of moral duties and virtues by means of Masonic symbols.  Both of them were members of the Masonic order, and there is evidence in Mozart's correspondence and his music of the deep impression its teachings had made upon him.  He saw in "The Magic Flute" an expression, partly in the guise of a fairy story and partly by means of Masonic or pseudo-Masonic symbols, of the same great ethical ideal of human ennoblement through enlightened striving in brotherhood which exercised such power over men's minds.  The idea itself operated so powerfully on Mozart that it not only enabled him to fuse all sorts of contradictory elements into unity -- a trait which had always been fundamental to his genius -- but furthermore compelled him to seek a new musical language for the stage.  With the creation of that language, modern German opera was born.

When we look over the score of "The Magic Flute" we are struck by the variety of musical types:  simple, folklike, strophic songs, elaborate coloratura arias, ensembles, choruses, a chorale, and long accompanied recitatives -- a diversity corresponding to the diversity of characters and scenes in the story.  Yet in hearing the opera we are conscious that it is a unit.

La clemenza di Tito

Opera seria

Words by:  Metastasio / Mazzola

Composed at:  Vienna and Prague

First performance:  September 1791 - Vienna (coronation of Leopold II as King of Bohemia)

"La clemenza di Tito" was only a shadow of the old opera seria, a form and style which Mozart had long outgrown.

The first performance was a failure, though the opera later attained some degree of popularity.  The whole score had been put together within eighteen days, at a time when Mozart was preoccupied with work on "The Magic Flute" and "Requiem," when he was suffering under financial distress, worried about the health of his wife, and himself already ill.

Of the ensembles, the finale of Act I is the most dramatic and is incidentally interesting on account of the use of the chorus as background for the soloists -- a device which Mozart had not hitherto employed.