By Bob Bernard
Mozart’s characters often express compelling moral points of view in their songs and dialogue. These songs typically reflect the life experiences of the singer(s) as set in their specific role(s) in the opera being performed.
Sometimes these moral themes even carry over to us in our lives.
Le nozze di Figaro
In Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), the young Cherubino sings - not a love song – but a song about (young) love ["Non più andrai"], something so honest, direct and compelling that Susanna is charmed:
“I no longer know what I am, what I do, Now I’m on fire, now all ice, every woman changes my temperature, every woman makes my heart beat faster.….”
Frederica von Stade’s Cherubino charms Kathleen Battle’s Susanna in the Met’s 1985 Le nozze
Moving on to a more mature set of Mozartian characters…
Cosi fan tutte
In Cosi fan tutte, Despina, an experienced woman of the world, has been around the block a few times and so has much moral wisdom regarding men to share with Dorabella and Fiordiligi. Here are a few of her suggestions that have to do with situational ethics:
- So you’re out of men, so what! Do as the army: start recruiting!
- You can do without love, but not without lovers
- There are as good fish in the sea as ever came out of it.
- One’s worth as much as another, because none of them is worth a
- They’re all made of the same stuff: false glances; deceitful voices; treacherous caresses --- and these are their outstanding qualities!
Teresa Stratas (Despina) and Rosalind Elias (Dorabella) in Ponnelle’s 1969 Salzburg Cosi
Mozart’s most stubborn, morally bankrupt character is, of course, Don Giovanni, an individual consumed by the desire to seduce.
In both the Met 1990 and 2000 productions of Don Giovanni, the sets are identical: a Zeffirelli design (new in 1990); What is changed (besides some of the principals) is a bit of the costuming, and the acting is a lot sexier.
In the opera, Don Giovanni moves on to (attempted, at least) new conquests. The aria "la ci darem la mano" ("There you will give me your hand") goes with the Don’s coming on to the peasant girl Zerlina and is the opera’s most famous tune. Both Beethoven and Chopin wrote variations on this tune. Liszt wrote a Don Juan Fantasy. And in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom’s wife Molly and her lover Blazes Boylan sang this as they carried it to its physical conclusion.
These identical (Zeffirelli) productions of Don Giovanni – separated in time – demonstrate how opera productions often reflect the changing of contemporary societal moral standards.
Here below are images of Don Giovanni singing the above-referenced tune. On the left (1990) are Sam Ramey as Don Giovanni and Dawn Upshaw as Zerlina. Ramey merely touches Upshaw’s hand, but, then on the right - ten years (and two Clinton administrations) later - we see Bryn Terfel all over Hei-Kyung Hong like a cheap suit.
But as we're about to see, even experienced musicians can be influenced by the moral standards advocated by Mozartian characters...
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a very moral opera, and perhaps its most prominent, morally correct scene comes near the end of the first act: Pamina and Papageno are about to meet Sarastro. Papageno, worrying about what to say, is urged by Pamina: “Die Wahrheit! War’sie auch Verbrechen!” (“The truth! Even though it be a crime.”)
Back in 1984, we were able to enjoy this scene for the Royal Opera of Covent Garden’s (ROCC) production of The Magic Flute as a featured event in the Los Angeles Olympic Arts Festival. There we saw Thomas Allen’s Papageno being coached by Helen Donath’s Pamina. More recently, we saw Golda Schultz and Marcus Werba in the Met’s 2017 production.
Left: Helen Donath as Pamina and Thomas Allen as Papageno; right: Golda Schultz and Marcus Werba as the same characters
It was also in 1984 in Los Angeles that Maestro Esa-Pekka Salonen admitted to once being hurt by telling the truth. He was invited here by Executive Director Ernst Fleishmann to guest-conduct the LA Philharmonic. This occasion was planned in order to give Salonen and the orchestra members their first opportunity to get to know one another.
After a long afternoon of rehearsal, Salonen was ready for some relaxation, and so a staff member at the DCP suggested he might visit one of our singles clubs: “Who knows, maestro, you might get lucky!”
Salonen did go to one of these clubs, and, after shyly standing off in a corner for some time (after all, he is Finnish!), he noticed an attractive young woman sitting alone at the bar. Working up his courage, he approached her. After a few casual words of greeting, she asked him: “What are you doing in Los Angeles?”
Perhaps, having attended a performance of the ROCC's The Magic Flute (and being influenced by Pamina’s advice to Papageno), he spoke the truth [Wahrheit]: “I’m here to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.”
She hesitated not a second: “That’s the most pathetic pick-up line any man has ever laid on me." And she walked away.
So you can see that sometimes one must accommodate the “truth” to the knowledge base of the audience.
The section from chapter six, "The Anti-Maestro," of Alex Ross’s book, Listen to This, was adopted and adapted for use here in the The Magic Flute segment.