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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

The relationship between Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte

A trio of Mozart's best-loved operatic masterpieces are to be performed at Dubai Opera, but less well known is his relationship with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte

The 1787 score for Mozart's Don Giovanni. It was Lorenzo Da Ponte who suggested the story of Don Juan as the source. Bettmann Archive
The 1787 score for Mozart's Don Giovanni. It was Lorenzo Da Ponte who suggested the story of Don Juan as the source. Bettmann Archive

At certain creative junctures, even the greatest of artistic minds depend on empathetic collaborators to unlock their true potential – that is perhaps the pivotal lesson to be learned from the run of three masterful operas Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart penned alongside librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, in just four short years.

Taken collectively, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte are often hailed as not just the composer’s, but the operatic genre’s, highest aesthetic achievements – and each is set to be presented for the first time at Dubai Opera over two coming weekends.

Starting on September 7, the Teatro Di San Carlo’s six-night run arguably represents the venue’s greatest commitment to the field of music so far. Following earlier touring visits from the Welsh National Opera and compatriots Fondazione Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi, the Napoli company will present specially commissioned new productions – an unprecedented investment in bringing opera to the Gulf.

Mozart, of course, composed numerous operas – a total of 22 musical dramas, to be precise – but more than 225 years after his death, it remains the realm of scholarly critical debate why he enjoyed such a prodigious, prolific run alongside Da Ponte. It cannot be a coincidence – lightning, as they, say, does not strike twice, let alone thrice.

Historically, listeners have tended to overlook Da Ponte’s contributions, characterising the Venetian wordsmith as smartly workmanlike, rather than inspired – the true genius, of course, was Mozart, his librettist a historical footnote.

Yet it remains amusing to remember that, when the pair first met in 1783, it was Mozart who was starstruck by his illustrious elder. Some seven years the composer’s senior, Da Ponte was at that time already shining among Vienna’s brightest lights. As the official poet to the Habsburg’s court theatre, he was ironically best known for composing librettos for Antonio Salieri – the long-term court opera composer misleadingly portrayed as Mozart’s nemesis in blockbuster biopic Amadeus.

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Mindful of Salieri’s success, and eager to establish himself further in the same city, Mozart surmised that the key to fame was penning an Italian “opera buffa” in the same light-hearted, comic mould.

"The best thing is when a good composer, who understands the stage enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix,” Mozart wrote around this time.

He rightly supposed Da Ponte to be his “true phoenix”, yet the librettist repeatedly rejected the advances of the impoverished composer, overworked as he was writing for better-known names. Eventually, Mozart landed on a project he would not resist. A recent audience favourite had been Paisiello’s The Barber of Seville – more famously adapted by Rossini, three decades later, whose classic version played at Dubai Opera’s opening weekend one year ago – based on the French play of the same name by Pierre Beaumarchais.

Despite the fact the source material was banned, Mozart convinced Da Ponte to write a libretto based on its sequel, The Marriage of Figaro. After the latter succeeded in convincing his employer, Emperor Joseph II, that the play’s “subversive” content had been cut, the pair had themselves a modest hit.

Continuing the plot from Paisiello’s work, the opera told the farcical story of how the lowly barber Figaro eventually succeeds in marrying his beloved Susanna, despite the efforts of their lewd employer Count Almaviva. Performed at Dubai Opera on September 7 and 14, the title role falls to bass Filippo Polinelli, a renowned Rossini and Verdi interpreter who has credits in numerous commercially released performance DVDs. He will star opposite the soprano Valentina Mastrangelo, with the count played by veteran Cătălin Toropoc.

Figaro was not quite the Viennese blockbuster Mozart was hankering after, running for only nine nights in total, but it did make history in its own way. Following the opera’s May 1786 premiere, conducted at the Burgtheater by Mozart himself, the stars returned to the stage for five encores, repeating favourite musical moments from the score – leading the impatient Joseph II to issue an official decree ordering that in future no vocal piece should be performed twice at the historic hall on a single evening.

However, Figaro did prove a smash in Prague, then the second city of the Habsburg Empire, early the next year, and Mozart was promptly commissioned to write another opera. This time it was Da Ponte who had the pertinent suggestion of revisiting the centuries-old tale of Don Juan.

The dramatic potential offered by this legendary libertine was to prove an intoxicating inspiration to Mozart, with the monumental Don Giovanni artistically eclipsing even its two chronological neighbours. Blurring the conventional boundaries between comedy and drama, there was a maturity and intensity to the score, and a metaphysical gravity to the theme, which paved the way for the romantic movement to come. The conflict between masked Juan’s roguish vice and Donna Anna’s earthly righteousness, between sensualist pleasure and religious invocation, willingly subverted Mozart’s perceived role as a mere entertainer.

Following its Prague premiere in October 1787, Don Giovanni was to have a rippling effect beyond the world of music – it is said Goethe began work on his masterpiece Faust after sitting down to the opera, while philosopher Kierkegaard was lyrically moved.

“The usefulness of Don Giovanni is that it puts a stake through the heart of the chocolate-box Mozart, the car-radio Mozart, the Mozart-makes-you-smarter Mozart,” once wrote the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross. “If the opera were played in bus stations or dentists’ waiting rooms, it would spread fear. It would probably cause perversion in infants.”

Despite placing second chronologically, Don Giovanni is the last of the three operas to be performed in Dubai, its closing Saturday night slot perhaps an implicit statement that this night is devoted to true opera fans.

Playing the legendary lothario in Dubai, on September 9 and 16, will be Mattia Olivieri. Audiences in the capital will also have a chance to catch the same opera, albeit in non-dramatic concertante form, at a reading by the renowned Vienna State Opera Gala on January 22 (an event originally planned for this February).

Presented earlier at Dubai Opera, on September 8 and 15, is the pair’s final collaboration Così Fan Tutte, another opera buffa which premiered 43 months after The Marriage of Figaro. Translated directly as 'Women are Like That', Mozart reluctantly wrote the lead role of Fiordiligi for Da Ponte’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese del Bene, a role to be played by soprano Karen Gardeazabal in Dubai.

Recent research has undermined the well-worn legend that Joseph II commissioned the work. Instead, newer research supports the ironic notion that Mozart took on the project after Salieri felt unable to score a libretto – a harbinger of the further changes in favour to come.

In either case, Così Fan Tutte marks something of anomaly in Da Ponte’s oeuvre, as one of the only two original librettos from a catalogue of more than 50 which were otherwise based on existing material.

It was to prove not just his final work with Mozart, but his last contribution to the city which made his celebrity. Shortly after its premiere, at Vienna’s Burgtheater in January 1790, Joseph II passed away and, haunted by malicious rumours, Da Ponte was exiled by the succeeding monarch, Leopold II. He fled to London, where he was persecuted by debt and arrest, and later New York, where he worked variously as a grocer, a milliner, , bookseller and an Italian teacher. Mozart, meanwhile, went on to write just three more operas before his death less than two years later – and to become the chocolate box cartoon character we all know so well.

The Marriage of Figaro is at Dubai Opera on September 7 and 14, Così Fan Tutte on September 8 and 15 and Don Giovanni on September 9 and 16, tickets from Dh350 at dubaiopera.com

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