WATCH OUT FOR THOSE TWO! The theatrical revolution in the trilogy by Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1.02.2020)

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  • WATCH OUT FOR THOSE TWO! The theatrical revolution in the trilogy by Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1.02.2020)

Dear friends,
Today I would like to reflect together on the miraculous “coupling” of two restless, revolutionary geniuses who have changed forever, in the space of four years, the entire idea of musical theatre.
You will have understood (or read in the title) that Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart will keep us company for a few minutes. Perhaps, by showing us a few aspects, of their work and their respective characters, which until now had remained in the shadows…

Thanking them for their availability, I take the license to call them by name, as befits old friends.
Let’s say straight away that Lorenzo is generally considered a simple appendage of Mozart’s art.
Nothing more false, first of all historically: Wolfgang himself, in his letters, repeatedly manifests the desire to collaborate with the esteemed writer. In those years (from 1783 to 1791), Lorenzo was the principal poet and director of the Italian Court Theatre in Vienna: a prestigious and coveted position he held until the death of that extraordinary sovereign who was Joseph II of Habsburg.
So we can realistically imagine the young emerging musician (Wolfgang) aspiring to collaboration, to the support of the authoritative man of letters and librettist (Lorenzo). And not vice versa

Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Engraving from a painting by Nathaniel Rogers (c. 1800)

The Marriage of Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790): the Holy Trinity of modern theatre!
Comparing the scores and librettos, one is bewitched by the literary invention that Da Ponte produces, thus generating, in a perfect osmosis, the exceptional compositional novelties that characterize these masterpieces. Here, as never before, “la musica è serva dell’orazione” (Claudio Monteverdi).

On the other hand, in melodrama, literary inspiration has always been the root and engine of musical composition.
Until a few years before, Metastasio’s poetry was the source from which all the musicians of Europe drew inexhaustibly. The structure of the work, stainless and Olympic, provided for a more or less varied succession of recitatives and arias.

Dorothea Stock, Portrait of Mozart, 1789. Dresden, State Library of Saxony

With respect to this scheme, after numerous hints in the works of authors such as Paisiello and Piccinni, with the trilogy of Lorenzo and Wolfgang a revolutionary coexistence of forms and expressions is fully affirmed, for a healthy overcoming of the comic and serious “genres”, in favour of a much more emotionally realistic theatre.
It is a new, enormous variety of “intonations”, both linguistic and musical.
Those of Mozart are very celebrated. Less so, those of Da Ponte. But, in his writing, there are, like fireworks, continuous passages between irony, passion, pietas, tragedy, comedy, desire, death, violence, love, eroticism, transcendence, everyday life and epic. All this intertwined and in continuous transformation.

And precisely on the level of the inexhaustible “scenic transformation” the two authors converge, guiding us in the inexhaustible richness of their lyrical counterpoints.

Title page of the original booklet of Così fan tutte, Vienna 1790.

If I can summarize this operatic “earthquake” in a single formula, I would say that we are dealing with a theatre of people, very different from the previous theatre o psychologies.
And Wolfgang likes this new game so much that he trusts three times in Da Ponte’s literary inspiration: an implicit appreciation that no other librettist gets from the Salzburg genius.
They are the first to invent modern lyrical dramaturgy: the one in which we see seemingly irreconcilable situations and feelings, yet miraculously natural and balanced.

A. Mozart, Duettino “Là ci darem la mano” (Don Giovanni). Manuscript of the National Library of France, Paris.

From the documents of the time in our possession (letters, memoirs, articles), we know very little about the relationship between Lorenzo and Wolfgang.
But a few glimmers open up by examining the behavior and achievements of the two creators.
For example, their first collaboration (Le Nozze di Figaro) was a truly reckless gamble, both in terms of the choice of subject and the style of his composition.
The text of Beaumarchais’s play (from which Lorenzo draws the libretto) had ended up under the clutches of Austrian censorship. Why did Lorenzo worked so hard (as he says in his Memorie) with the emperor himself to have this ban lifted? Why did he do so with the prospect of collaborating with the young (and still little affirmed) Wolfgang himself?
The result of these “diplomatic” efforts is that masterpiece that never ceases to fascinate for its originality, theatrical rhythm, narrative plots and sublime music. Only the awareness of this common, very high purpose could push the poet to dare so much at the Hapsburg court and to start an unforgettable union for Lorenzo himself. Let us listen to his Memorie: “I can never remember without exultation and complacency that my only perseverance and firmness was that to which Europe and the whole world owes the exquisite vocal compositions of this admirable genius.”

A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, piano reduction, Hamburg, s.d.

It is precisely in the Nozze that the seeds are laid for the revolution we were talking about at the beginning: their first complete project manifests such courage that it could only be born from an enthusiastic consonance of intent.
And the two subsequent works, miraculously, relaunch this mutual artistic seduction between Lorenzo and Wolfgang, in such a coherent and new form that they remain exemplary beyond any outrage of time (or psychopathic directors…).

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