Mozart in Prague
I suppose there are people who don’t like Mozart, perhaps for the same reason Oscar Wilde found Haydn “heartless”: his music was too cheerful. At any rate, given the contemporary use of playing classical music over loudspeakers to clear off transients, I realize that not everyone likes Mozart. I like Mozart and adore Bach, so instead of clearing out when I hear classical music, I would approach.
Prague is a great city for music. Mozart premiered a couple of his operas at the Estates Theatre, and it was there that we tourists headed for a performance of The Marriage of Figaro. Ages ago, some wag tried to match Mozart operas with different types of people. If you put The Marriage of Figaro top on your list, you were (as I recall) “normal.” I would hate to think what you would be if you preferred Don Giovanni, which premiered at the Estates Theatre. Ours was a memorable evening, to hear Mozart opera in a venue he knew.
We were in the Gods, which sounds more edifying than it is. The highest circle in a theatre like the Estates gives a good, if foreshortened, view of the stage, but it is high up. There didn’t seem to be any nets to catch falling opera glasses or falling tourists, so I have had better seats, but The Marriage of Figaro ought to be worth such inconveniences.
It was. The story involves the marriage of a Count and Countess, and the wedding of their servants Figaro and Susanna. It is one of those operas in which nobody dies and it ends, at least for the time, happily.
For me the highpoint of the opera is not the wonderful conclusion where the Count, who has been lechering after Susanna, begs for the Countess’s forgiveness, even after thinking of the infamous and hopefully mythical droit du seigneur, where the lord has first night’s rights over his serf’s bride, Susanna. For me the high point is not the splendid happy ending. It is when the Countess sings her great aria, “Dove Sono.” The aria proper begins as simply as can be, with “Dove sono” sung on C – D – C – B natural – and C before it builds into an emotional intensity of longing for lost love. The Countess remembers a time when love was sweet, before the Count’s lies left her own love changed from love to sorrow.
It is hard to explain the dignified but pathos-filled effect this aria can have. It is simply that whenever a good singer sings it, I want to be there. This Countess managed to deliver this paean to lost love with sadness and passion, but not desperation or mawkishness. Her longing is answered in the end with restoration, which also will not last, but it does at least leave this opera with the sort of completion that we would all wish in our own lives.
Other moments in Figaro are delightful. Cherubino, a trouser part of a young man sung by a woman (I would love to hear a countertenor do it) has his splendid “Voi Che Sapate,” about figuring out love as an adolescent for the first time, and Figaro promises to teach the Count some dance steps if the Count doesn’t leave Susanna alone. One of the most famous duets in all opera, the Countess and Susanna sing the “Sull’ Aria,” which is perhaps the most exquisite letter-writing scene of all. It was this that was used in The Shawshank Redemption as the contrast of civilsation to the barbarities of the prison, and it, too, is a marvel.
So the opera at the Estates Theatre was a high point – almost too high physically from the Gods, but musically elevated. We also got to the Mozart Dinner in the Boccaccio Ballroom of the Grand Hotel Bohemia, which included of strings, singers, and courses inspired by 18th-century recipes. On one level, it was an evening of Mozart’s Greatest Hits in costume, including many of his greatest operatic arias and duets. The ballroom, complete with diners not only at tables but in second-story boxes, did give an air of an earlier time. The selections, from Don Giovanni, Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute were interspersed with the strings playing Mozart, and while I did not get to hear the “Dove Sono” again, the evening was a delightful potpourri of Prague Mozart.
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