Mozart wrote a total of 22 operas in his lifetime, including examples of opera seria and opera buffa. Mozart’s sophisticated use of the orchestra and variety of colour, express his characters emotional state, even during fast moving dramatic action and comedic moments.
The music of Idomeneo (premiered January 1781) is undeniably innovative in terms structure. Ensembles were not featured a lot in classical or mythological operas, known as opera seria. But in Idomeneo, Mozart uses a duet, a trio and a quartet for dramatic impact. The dramatic music mirrors the gripping plot.
Based on an Ancient Greek story, war hero Idomeneo makes a vow to sacrifice the first person he encounters after he is saved from drowning. Idomeneo is devastated when the first person he meets is his son Idamante. His inability to sacrifice his son causes the Gods to inflict harm on thousands of his people. Eventually Idomeneo tells the truth, and Idamante’s bravery is rewarded by being made king. Idomeneo was Mozart’s thirteenth theatrical work and, is a fine example of his refined compositional style.
The Marriage of Figaro
The Marriage of Figaro was the first collaboration between Mozart and theatre poet, Lorenzo da Ponte. The story is based on a play by Beaumarchais, first performed in 1784. While the play was a hit in Paris, it was banned in Vienna, due to the troublemaking storyline. The plot sparked controversy due to its suggestions of inciting rebellion against a monarch.
Despite this, Mozart agreed to writing opera, after it was suggested to him by Da Ponte. Premiered in May 1786, the opera is a rollercoaster of emotions. The entire opera is based on a single day, the wedding day of Figaro and Susanna. Figaro’s master, the Count is found to be seducing Susanna, so Figaro seeks revenge. Following some comical revenge plots, the opera ultimately results in forgiveness, and a happy ending.
Premiered in October 1787, Don Giovanni was commissioned as a result of Figaro’s popularity in Prague. The plot follows the protagonist as he creates a trail of heartbreak and murder. His wicked ways of seduction and violence culminate in his refusal to repent, despite the efforts of the people around him. They are left to decide his fate, and he is eventually sent to hell.
The drama of the plot is thickened by Mozart’s rich and animated score. Interpretations of Don Giovanni still vary amongst audiences today. Some view the opera as highly emotional and tragic, while others perceive it as harmless mischief.
Così fan tutte
Following Figaro and Don Giovanni, this was Mozart and Da Ponte’s last opera together. While Figaro is known for its vibrant energy, and Don Giovanni for its fiery intensity, Così fan tutte is memorable for its incredibly witty plot. The original story was based on real-life Vienna. Although difficult to translate, the title means ‘they’re all like that’, particularly referring to women.
Despite sounding rather anti-women, the opera actually displays the men in an equally poor light. The opera begins with Guglielmo and Ferrando bragging about the loyalty of their lovers. However when they claim to go to war, they instead disguise themselves as Albanians, attempting to seduce their lovers and test their loyalty. Inevitably this does not go to plan.
La Clemenza di Tito
Commissioned for the 1791 coronation of Leopold II in Prague, Mozart composed this two-act opera seria. It was the first of Mozart’s operas to reach London. Set in Imperial Rome, in the year 79AD, La Clemenza di Tito tells the story of Emperor Titus.
Many composers had set this story to music before however, Mozart set the opera in a new way. Emperor Titus is portrayed in a new light, as a humanist. The story depicts unfaithfulness and betrayal, in the form of seduction and murder plots, by both Titus and those around him. Yet Emperor Titus is in the end forgiving, and has mercy on those who plotted against him. Mozart intended Leopold II to see Emperor Titus as an example for his new leadership.
The Magic Flute
In a mythical land between the sun and the moon, Prince Tamino, is lost. After being rescued from a monster by three mysterious ladies, he is shown a picture of Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night. He instantly falls in love with Pamina, and vows to rescue her from the evil Sarastro.
The common misconception is that The Magic Flute was a job Mozart was forced to unwillingly do, due to little work being offered to him at court. However, Mozart had long been a friend of theatre owner Emanuel Schikaneder. Writing an opera to be performed in Schikaneder’s theatre, as The Magic Flute was, would have been natural. Theatre was a huge aspect of Viennese culture, so contributing to this would not have been degrading, it was expected from Mozart.