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Mozart Arias Part 1: Introduction

The many different genres for which Mozart composed include a treasure trove of 54 arias for voice and orchestra. The time span of these works covers 26 years from the age of 9 (1765) to the end of his life (1791). They fall into one of two categories: those written as insertions into operas by contemporary composers, or those written specifically for singers of the day, either professional or amateur.

At a very early age Wolfgang would demonstrate his talent for conveying love, rage, and jealousy into vocal music from any text put before him! In many ways the drama of opera drove his other works. There is nary an instrumental passage of his where one cannot say: “This is from his opera. Sing!”

We know of Mozart’s prowess at the keyboard and the violin. Less known is his knowledge of vocal technique from having studied as a boy with the great castrato Giovanni Manzuoli in London. Out of this association came Mozart’s first known aria: Va, dal furor portata. The passionate text is from Ezio by Pietro Metastasio, popular poet and librettist whose work many composers had used in the 18th century. Haydn and Gluck had set Ezio to their own music, and now Mozart was cutting his teeth on a small section of this drama at the tender age of nine. The scene in a nutshell: the character Massimo is furious with his daughter for accusing him of an assassination attempt on the emperor.

In December 1769 Wolfgang and his father Leopold headed for Italy with the sole intention of securing an opera commission for the young composer. He had already written several opera buffa, dramas that were filled with accessible day to day common issues such as love and comedy. Now came the test to see if he was capable of writing an opera seria, the genre for the nobility and whose main themes focused on historical events or mythology. On March 12 1770 a highly publicized ‘audition’ concert occurred in Milan in front of 150 of the nobility.

Mozart wrote three arias for the event including Misero me…Misero pargoletto from Metastasio’s Demofoonte. It is like a mini opera in itself, starting with an electrically charged recitative section (free style ‘spoken’ delivery) followed by an aria in three sections (slow-fast-slow). The soprano sings the role of the male character Timante who has unwittingly committed incest and is agonizing over having married his sister. The audition was a success! A contract was secured for a new opera, Mitridate, first performed the day after Christmas 1770 in Milan.

As an example of the insertion aria, here are two similar numbers for tenor that were fitted into the productions of Piccinni’s L’astratto, ovvero Il giocatore fortunato a year apart from each other. This was common practice and gave singers a chance to highlight their talent. Mozart contributed to the comic operas of a dozen ‘lesser’ masters of his day, works by the likes of Paisiello, Soler, and Bianchi which we would never hear in full context today. In the first of these we get maximum entertainment from the concert stage by Rolando Villazon.

And this one written for the tenor Antonio Palmini (with commentary from a second character) a year later in 1776. Mssr. Villazon again!

Mozart met the Czech soprano Josepha Duschek in Salzburg in 1777. In the first of two arias he wrote for her there is no coloratura to speak of. Coloratura is vocal material which features virtuosic demands on the singer in the form of fast notes and huge leaps. Mozart referred to the style as “cut noodles.” But in Ah, lo previdi! from Paisiello’s Andromeda he gives Duschek nothing but heartfelt musical lines and an exquisite dialogue with the oboe two thirds of the way in. The scene portrays Andromeda moving through passion to resignation as she finds out her lover is suicidal and that she will join him in the end. The noted musicologist Alfred Einstein said “Mozart almost never wrote anything more ambitious, or containing more dramatic feeling, than this aria.”

It took awhile for Mozart to get around to writing concert arias for the bass voice. Ludwig Fischer became good friends with the composer who created the role of Osmin for him in the 1782 opera Abduction from the Seraglio. According to the critic Johann Reichardt, the basso profundo Fischer displayed “the depth of the cello and the natural height of a tenor” in his singing. Mozart made good use of these qualities in the insertion aria Cosi dunque tradisci from Metastasio’s Temistocle. Even though the character’s role is secondary, Mozart as usual took the assignment very seriously and gave us a marvelous compact work portraying evil and remorse. You can definitely hear shades of Don Giovanni which came four years later.

And speaking of foreshadowing moments, here is the aria Ma ce vi fece sung by the supreme master of coloratura, Edda Moser. Mozart was already thinking Queen of the Night eleven years ahead of her time! Once again for the fifth and final instance he took the text fromDemofoonte (see 2nd aria above, Misero me) by Metastasio. This time Timante is lamenting the difficulty of his secret marriage to Dirce as his father has promised his hand to another. It is presumed Mozart wrote the aria for Elisabeth Wendling, who took on the very demanding role of Elektra in Mozart’s Idomoneo in 1781. The maestro composed for his singers. If he wrote a sustained high ‘F’ then we know Ms. Wendling could pull it off back in the day, as Ms. Moser does the same so effortlessly in this performance!

Next: A look at the half dozen arias Mozart wrote for the first love of his life, Aloysia Weber.

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