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April 14, 2007

Mozart — The Complete Operas on DVD


All 22 of them, just out in a box set from Deutsche Grammophon and Decca.

Greg Sandow wrote about his delight watching and listening — "I got addicted to these DVDs" — in an April 7, 2007 Wall Street Journal article, which follows.

    It's Fun to Watch These Opera DVDs

    Works Mozart wrote when just a kid benefit from a fresh approach

    Last summer, over in Austria, the Salzburg Festival unleashed the stage equivalent of a gigantic boxed set, performances of all the operas — 22 of them — written by Salzburg's most famous native son, the immortal Mozart. And now these performances have come out on DVDs from Deutsche Grammophon and Decca, which does raise a question. Twenty-two operas? You can go to the opera all your life and hear only six or seven of these pieces, with only four guaranteed to show up regularly. So where have all the others been?

    The answer, very simply, is that Mozart wrote a lot of them when he was just a kid. He was a child prodigy, as we know, and wrote his first opera when he was just 11. By the time he was 20, he'd written nine more, and while I wouldn't call these pieces kid stuff -- even in his teens, Mozart could construct a piece of music as well as any adult — child prodigies do have their limits. When you're a kid, you're a kid, and you don't feel emotions like a grown-up. So these early Mozart works — accomplished as they are, and often pretty — can sometimes seem a little blank.

    And yet I got addicted to these DVDs. In part I had a specialist's reaction, which I wouldn't expect everyone to share. I loved hearing Mozart learn his craft. He'd write one blank (though pretty) aria, then another — and then he'd pounce like a teenage eagle on a key dramatic climax. Later, when he had more to say, he could make those moments jump right off the stage.

    But I also loved the way the operas were produced. That includes the most famous pieces, apart from "The Magic Flute," which is beautifully designed but somehow dead. "Don Giovanni" and "Così Fan Tutte," though, are wonderfully smart, and also gripping, and also (when appropriate) lots of fun. The production style is modern — we see contemporary people, people we might know, doing everything that Mozart specified, and it's easy to connect with them.

    But the early operas benefit the most from this, because they need some help. So there's a giant Venus flytrap in a piece I'd never heard before, "La Finta Giardiniera" ("The Phony Gardener"). When it ate the leading tenor, he deserved that, because — in a plot twist unusual in comic opera — he'd almost killed his girlfriend. Later, when he frees himself and limps around, blurting out some 18th-century platitude about unkind fate, the flytrap opens hungrily, both making fate real and giving it some attitude.

    And yes, the Venus flytrap isn't something Mozart specified. But if we think that we can resurrect all his vanished, teenage expectations... well, just remember that these would have included an audience that talked during the performance, along with singers and instrumentalists who improvised.

    We can't bring the 18th century back. But what we can do — especially in productions that visibly give the singers both energy and a lot of joy — is remember that we're watching 18th-century opera in 2007, and that any meaning it might have for us has to come from the lives we're living now.

    For this I'd also recommend a more serious teenage work, "Lucio Silla," about an evil Roman dictator who sees the error of his ways. This, in Mozart's time, was an 18th-century cliché. But the Salzburg production turned it into striking theater, above all at the end, where the cliché gets replaced by a chilling reinvention. The dictator is killed. In his place there rises someone who'll be just as bad. And the music of rejoicing, with which the opera ends — with which it had to end, because that's what the 18th century demanded — now sounds like empty, almost shocking propaganda.

    Which is to say that we've learned a lot since the 18th century. Among much else, we don't trust happy endings, or at least not routine ones. In these productions, Mozart's operas show us not just who he was, but who we are, too.


$485.99 at Amazon.

April 14, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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