We talk about operatic singing a lot in the piano world: we are supposed to take bel canto singing as our inspiration for beautiful melodic tone and phrasing. Sometimes I think people take that too far, especially applying it to Mozart's piano music, but I find opera incredibly beautiful and I usually leave an opera jealous that I just can’t do what those singers are doing!
Most people will agree that Mozart reached his peak art when he wrote operas. As I understand it, that's where he felt his greatest strengths were too, or at least that's where he would have liked to use his compositional talent most. What I love about Mozart's operas in particular is the variety is in his writing, he's really the earliest composer to connect subtleties of style to the character at hand, or the moment in the plot. This is the element of operatic style that I think is most applicable to Mozart's piano music. I care less about long fluid lines and more about variety, drama and character. Mozart's Piano Sonatas ought to be mini operas and contain the same variety of style and characters as his stage works.
Given the number and importance of his operas, I thought I'd best dig into Mozart's operas as I dig into his Sonatas. I've seen a few, live or recorded, and played many individual arias. But there are several lesser known operas I know nothing about, operas by Mozart and the larger operatic world.
Thus, every other month I'm going to watch and report on a new Mozart opera, how it inspires me and what I'm most impressed by. On alternate months, I'm going to dig into either an older, rarely performed work, or an opera premiered quite recently, in my lifetime. I'm very excited to hear 24 operas, from a master like Mozart or those who follow him, and track how my feelings on the genre, and how opera can impact my piano playing, evolves.
First up: Mozart's Don Giovanni. My wife and I sat down to watch a production from the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival, available on Amazon Prime Video. Who knew so many operas are available to there?
I love the world set by the overture; I don't believe I've ever heard this before. It's dark, and...sharp. The conductor doesn't shy away from the edges with sharp accents, so you get a sense of the “black comedy” aspect of this story right in the first minutes, before anyone has sung a note.
Mozart doesn't shy away from chaos; that was my sense of the very first appearance of the title character. There is so much polyphony between the three voices--Don Giovanni, Leporello, and Donna Anna--that you might expect a composer to avoid when introducing important characters. But of course I think that's the point. Chaos follows Don Giovanni and Mozart is simply making that apparent by stepping us right into one example.
Yet there is such simplicity elsewhere. When Don Giovanni is singing serenades, the melody is simple, smooth and easily memorable. Some melodies are fast and melismatic, not the kind that get stuck in your head but still passionate, such as Donna Elvira's long aria in Act II. Or take the Commendatore: upon his return in Act II, he sings largely in syllabic, repeated tones, befitting, since he’s now a zombie. Mozart is always adapting to the situation, and I'm sure there are many lessons from this when playing his piano music.
I'm struck in the famous Catalogue Aria (and many other places) by how busy the orchestra is. Of course, I've encountered this at the piano, but it's hard to appreciate how useful this is to the overall effect when you're on a single instrument (and trying to keep up). But I think this is key to the style. The orchestra plays a vital role in characterization, though Mozart lets the orchestra sit back in the accompaniment role often.
Similar is tempo. In Zerlina's Batti, Batti aria, her sweet, pleading, melody fits a gentle 2/4 meter for the first few verses before being transformed into a lilting 6/8 when she wins her husband back. Then Act 1 ends with such an accelerating ball of rhythmic energy, the frenzy of the situation is implicit in the music, not just the text. In this case, the meter doesn't change, and Mozart doesn't even change the tempo, only says to go faster.
This makes me question how much tempo variety is allowed in his Sonatas. If his operas are his most public genre, it makes sense that he might notate his musical ideas most fully. Since his Sonatas were much more privately minded, you might intuit that he wasn’t as careful to notate his musical ideas as well. Maybe there are situations where a drastic change of tempo is merited by a clear shift in rhythmic energy or melodic style.
Overall--I loved watching this entire opera for the first time. Mozart’s music is so full of life and energy, and I can’t wait to continue finding this peak artistic expression in his Piano Sonatas.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act