W. A. Mozart: A Know-It-All at 13

Two Operas of Youth and Age Reveal the Composer as a Irreverent Sexual Tease: Theater an der Wien Summer Staged La Finta Semplice and Le Nozze di Figaro

On The Town | Peter Quince | September 2007

Isabel Rey as Rosina and Bruno Pratico as Don Cassandro in Mozart’s La Finta Simplice (Photo: Armin Bardel)

Does a thirty-year old compose with more technique than a thirteen-year-old? Or a thirteen-year-old more intuitively? We had opportunity to entertain such questions at the Theater an der Wien when it followed its July production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La Finta Semplice (1769) with an August one of his Le Nozze di Figaro (1786). In this summer of intuitively charged weather, there was just enough time in between to forget  the two works are by the same composer — but was the thirteen-year-old the same artistic "self" as the thirty-year-old?

Entertaining questions can also confound. La Finta Semplice, a rarely-performed setting of a meticulously balanced Goldoni comedy Mozart finished in just four months, confounds our eagerness to praise the child prodigy. It is impossible to tell whether the driving force behind this früh-klassische music is enthusiasm or discipline.

In fact, the music, encompassing buffo arias, sentimental appeals to love, and meaty ensembles, demonstrates a surprising fusion of discipline and enthusiasm, a profound, pragmatic marriage most of us could only aspire to.

The opera lasts a good two hours, and even if Mozart’s father helped him, as is probable, the music has a motivic and rhythmic consistency transcending its technical accomplishment, a consistency one would normally attribute to the mature artist’s perception of how time flows. Fabio Luisi, conducting the Vienna Symphony, supported this consistency with firm dynamics, a somewhat generic accentuation, and rhythmic verve; the singers comprised an exotic array of six countries and as least as many vocal techniques, all of them agreeable to the ear.

This was an era when the formulaic character of accompaniment figures often carried over into melody. Since this aesthetic is now sometimes disparaged as "wallpaper," Barbara de Limburg´s mise-en-scene had a dreamy resonance. The curtain went up on an open space covered with green-and-white flower patterns reminiscent of Dagobert Peche—the world as a beach towel. Pianist Glenn Gould, who preferred Mozart’s boy-music to his man-music, might have approved.

The plot concerns the machinations of a worldly Countess, sung by Isabel Rey in smashing red "new look" dresses that appear spun by silkworms on a diet of lipstick, to marry one or another of two misogynistic, wealthy brothers, ably portrayed by Oliver Ringelhahn and Bruno Praticò — who this reviewer swears is the first singer ever witnessed to measure his blood pressure in mid aria (Laurent Pelly was the musically astute stage director).

The brothers´ competitive juices, unleashed by Rey’s seductive powers, flow into the tributary of love, which in turn meanders into a thin stream of compassion, enough so that High Blood Pressure finally grants permission for his niece (Silvia Tro Santafé) to marry her beau (Topi Lehtipuu). This happy end is entirely the handiwork of a free-thinking aristocratic heroine, who more than once blithely explains she would prefer to be married to both brothers at the same time. In the end, she decides for the fat bass over the bald tenor.

My companion that evening was shocked, not that little Mozart could come up with two hours of inventive, ebullient music, but that he had the wherewithal to treat such racy themes. Still, whether or not music is a sublimation of sexual passion, opera can be a decent forecast of adult sexuality, and this opera´s stylistic consistency – perhaps even tighter than in Mozart´s later works – suggests the precocious child’s balanced, unsentimental view of adult shenanigans. In other words, the piece is an exquisite dry orgasm, just the kind of thing Glenn Gould may have been searching for.

Le Nozze, a known quantity, must still move and shake us, but a stage director’s magic wand tends to flutter when waved over old chestnuts.

In Kasper Bech Holten´s production, soccer and Handys play a large and amusing role: Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus) makes his first entrance gently dribbling a Fußball down to the footlights, his vocal delivery unusually plaintive; Marcellina (Graciela Araya) badmouths Susanna into her Handy, Cherubino drops his in a frantic moment while locked up in a closet.

Characters hide and scramble around in cardboard boxes, like gypsy children in a Kusturica film. Holten´s best contribution comes in Act IV, where he shows us two half-hearted drunken parties onstage, men left, women right, sharing the sharp aftertaste of the double wedding: Don Curzio (Anthony Mee) even runs offstage to puke during Figaro´s (Johan Reuter) virtuoso diatribe against womanhood.

The Countess (Andrea Rost) sings her first aria while going through the motions of a photo shoot with her husband (Christopher Maltman), who is evidently the star or coach of the soccer team. We read her singing mind as she ruminates on her lost connubial bliss, even as the  Count beats a swift retreat from the paparazzi. Like Isabel Rey, Andrea Rost should be happy about her dress (costumes by Marie i Dali), clinging to her in black simplicity and later draped with a floor-length chinchilla coat, since

Holten has it snowing in Act III. She’s a mondaine sylph with a mean head of henna, but the final scene, when identities are switched between her and Susanna, came off amazingly well — one disliked oneself for not telling their voices apart, sharing in the male characters´ chagrin.

It helped that the forthright, mercurial Elizabeth Futral as Susanna was charmingly serious in her final aria, conducted in a luxurious slow 6/8 by Graeme Jenkins.  (Otherwise, the tempi were commonplace, and orchestral playing—this time the RSO Vienna— somewhat scrappy.) In general, singers opted for flitting in and out of parlando and a more instrumental, though not always sufficiently controlled, use of the voice.

Could this be partly due to the plethora of stage business, photographers and all? Even more serious details, like the gentle snow during the two sopranos´ letter duet, tended to transcend the characters and even the music itself. And despite his invention, Holten missed something vital: the passion for intrigue, for manipulation, that already fuels the roller-coaster overture. If we don’t believe the characters are utterly fascinated by physical obstacles and plot devices, the piece has failed dramaturgically. Cherubino´s letter of conscription, the doors with those improbable grandmother locks, the needle Barbarina cries after ("I´ve lost it," she sings in f minor, and we are certainly meant to think of her virginity), these things must be as erotic as Cherubino´s sex life. The Countess may say "tu" to Susanna and she say "voi" back, but their sweat mixes on the door handles.

Physical intrigue — getting locked in a closet — provides them with the chance to jump over each other’s shadows. For these members of a class society, confusion is addictive.

One lilting passage in Finta obviously prefigures a similar one in Figaro: Both are moments of reconciliation in the final ten minutes, both are in G major. But in Finta, the celli trace a downward scale as the singers float above, whereas in Figaro the sonorities are more subtly massed.

The happy end of Finta receives an orchestral comment, while Figaro looks more inward, denying boundaries. Still, it seems simplistic to call this artistic progress. In Finta, we can follow the music seeming to analyze itself, a mindset that seems peculiarly modern, not so "dry" after all. Perhaps this explains why the performance of Finta had more spirit than Figaro.In our day and age, confusion has become something to overcome, not to dwell on.

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