Did you know that the Salzburg wunderkind wrote 22 operas? Gavin Dixon investigates whether we might be missing a trick or two.

Mozart’s operas, where to begin? The story usually starts with Idomeneo, Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece, completed in 1781 when he was 25. The operas that he would go on to write have dominated the repertoire ever since. But by the time of Idomeneo, Mozart already had 12 stage works to his name. So what are those early operas like? Conductor Ian Page (pictured) is on a mission to find out. 

With Classical Opera, the company he founded in 1997 to explore the works of Mozart and his contemporaries, he is recording all of Mozart’s operas. “It seemed crazy to me that there were half a dozen Mozart operas played in opera houses year in year out and the rest are just never presented,” says Page. “But these early works deserve to be seen and heard. Every piece has these moments, little details, things that nobody else could do. And even from the age of 11, Mozart had this amazing ability to immediately capture an emotion or the atmosphere of a dramatic situation.”

History has been unkind to Mozart’s early operas; whatever their merits, they have been completely overshadowed by his mature masterpieces. “When people approach these early operas, they want to compare them with Figaro,” says Page. “Of course 14-year-old Mozart isn’t as good as Figaro. We have to put them into the context of their own time and look at what Gluck and Haydn were doing. And when we take them on their own terms, they’re wonderful.”

Glyndebourne’s La Finta Giardiniera, 2014

Mozart completed his first opera in 1767 at the age of 11, but there is some disagreement as to which it was. That’s because the very first, Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots (The Obligation of the First Commandment), is a “sacred musical play”, and only the first of its three parts is actually by Mozart. It was an interesting starting point, though, for Page’s recording project, especially for the insights offered by the autograph score. “The manuscript, bizarrely, is in the Royal Library in Windsor Castle [the royal residence just West of London]. It was purchased by Prince Albert in 1841. When we were recording it, I went there the week before to examine the manuscript. You can see that Mozart’s father, Leopold, was making small corrections. Mozart occasionally seems to be struggling to write the music that is already in his head. He has the sounds, but has not perfected the notation.”

Apollo et Hyacinthus, Mozart’s first full opera, was completed the same year. It’s an unusual piece, with a Latin text based on a torrid tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Page hears Mozart’s talents developing fast. “The work is in nine numbers. The first five are quite average, and then in the last four it just takes off. You can almost hear him growing up overnight. The music taps into something so fundamental. He can suddenly do something that not even Gluck or Haydn were able to do, to capture an extraordinary level of connection with the human condition.”

The operas that Mozart wrote in the following years vary in scale and ambition. Bastien und Bastienne was written to be performed in a private house in Vienna, so it’s a modest affair. Ascanio in Alba, composed in 1771, is one of the weaker of the earlier operas, but again, that may be down to the commission and the libretto. Page sees Mozart going through the motions here, but not always really engaging with the uninspiring material.

“In Mitridate, the machinations in the scene where the father sets about trapping his son are so well-conceived. It’s like watching House of Cards”

In the same period, however, Mozart also produced two of the real gems of his early career, a comedy, La Finta Semplice, and a tragedy, Mitridate, Re di Ponto. La Finta Semplice was written in Vienna at the suggestion of Emperor Joseph II, and benefits from a strong libretto by the court poet, Marco Coltellini, based on a Goldoni play. It is a tale of thwarted love, with two couples prevented from marrying, but ultimately succeeding through the intrigues of the heroine, Rosina, the “pretend simpleton” of the title. “I’ve got a real soft spot for this one,” says Page, “this opera is genuinely funny, and it has some wonderful moments. Even without the music, it would hold its own as comic theatre.” Mitridate also benefits from a strong libretto, this time based on a play by Racine. “The dramatic dialogues are really fantastic,” says Page. “There is one scene where Mitridate is trying to trick his younger son into confessing the relationship he is having. The machinations of how the father sets about trapping him are so well-conceived. It’s like watching House of Cards or something.”

Mitridate was written in Milan, and its success there led to another commission, in 1772, for Lucio Silla. This one is a classic love triangle, set in ancient Rome. By the time of Lucio Silla we begin to get an idea of the composer Mozart would become. “Lucio anticipated the later works more than any other,”  says Page. “It has an amazing graveyard scene, with a ghostly chorus, that really looks forward to Don Giovanni.”

The Salzburg Festival’s 2006 production of Lucio Silla

When we reach the mid-1770s, we begin to meet with operas that are occasionally staged today. La Finta Giardiniera (The Pretend Gardener), composed in 1774, has had a few productions in recent years, including a high-profile staging at Glyndebourne last summer. It is another tale of conflicting love interests, this time set in modern-day Italy. “ This is another of my favourites,” says Page. “One of the things I love about it is the opening number, after the overture. You have all five characters and they all sing together about what a fantastic day it is. Then, one by one, they each have a little solo saying how depressed they are… and then it’s back into the ‘jolly jolly’! Even at this early stage he has excellent comic understanding, and you realise that there are lots of different layers going on.”

These occasional full-scale productions have raised the profile of Mozart’s late-teen operas, but they are not always necessary for putting across the drama, nor even the way they were initially intended. Il Re Pastore (The Shepherd King), written in 1775, is a historical drama about Alexander the Great and his efforts to consolidate his power over Phoenicia. It is clearly dramatic, but is described as a “serenata”, and it is unclear what sort of staging that implies. “There is no record of whether this was fully staged or if the singers had costumes,” Page explains. “For me, that implies that the difference wasn’t that huge to them. Today, either something is fully staged in an opera house, or it is a ‘mere’ concert performance. I think in the 18th century they just told the story, and sometimes they had costumes and a set and sometimes they didn’t. It wasn’t such a big difference from the audience’s point of view.”

That certainly chimes with Page’s own approach to performing these early operas, which he frequently presents in concert performances as well as making studio recordings. But even without staging, he always prioritises the storytelling and the characterisation, especially in the narrative recitatives that tell the story between the main musical numbers. “I’ve found that when we do recordings at least half of the rehearsal time is taken up with the recitatives. It is the barometer of how successful the performance is. In our recording of Il Re Pastore, Alexander the Great is sung by John Mark Ainsley. He and I spent most of our early rehearsals just on a few pages of recitative. I found it really fascinating to have invested that level of detail at the very beginning. And I realised that, for the rest of the project, I could just point him in a particular direction and rely on his experience and imagination to bring the scene to life.”

Apollo et Hyacinthus, in Salzburg’s 2006 staging

Il Re Pastore was one of the few operas that Mozart wrote for his home city of Salzburg. His other early operas were written for, and usually in, the major operatic centres of Milan and Vienna. Mozart and his father Leopold had a convenient relationship with their employer, the Salzburg Archbishop Sigismund von Schrattenbach, who allowed them to travel extensively, realising that Mozart’s musical successes reflected well on the city. But Sigismund died in 1771, and his successor, Cardinal Collorado, saw Mozart as little more than a problematic employee, and curtailed his travelling. To make matters worse, Salzburg had no theatre in which operas could be staged. So Mozart wrote more and more instrumental music, and fewer operas. Yet opera was his first love, and by the end of the decade, we even find him writing Zaide without a commission – virtually unheard of in the 18th century.

The solution: a break from Salzburg, and a period abroad, in Paris and Munich, as an independent musician. In 1780, Mozart was approached to write Idomeneo, with an ambitious libretto that offered the possibility to match the dramatic innovations of Gluck. Zaide was left unfinished and this new project taken up with enthusiasm. The success of Idomeneo in Munich marked the start of Mozart’s mature career, though he was not yet quite on track for operatic immortality. Two more unsuccessful projects, L’Oca del Cairo (The Goose of Cairo) and Lo Sposo Deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom), were also left incomplete. But then he met librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Together they were a dream team, collaborating in 1786 on The Marriage of Figaro, followed in the years ahead by Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte. The rest, as they say, is history.

The goose that never got cooked…

The 27-year-old Mozart never completed L’Oca del Cairo (The Cairo Goose), a three-act piece of operatic madness that should have gone thus: Don Pippo had a wife, Pantea, who he mistreated and believes dead, when really she’s living in disguise on the other side of town. He’s locked his daughter Celidora up in a tower with another girl, Lavinia and Pippo plans to marry Lavinia while intending Celidora to marry Count Lionetto in exchange for the golden “Cairo Goose” (which belonged to Cleopatra!).

For no obvious reason, Pippo bets Celidora’s lover Biondello that he can’t get her out of her tower within a year. Biondello’s friend Calandrino constructs a gigantic goose inside which Biondello hides. A disguised Pantea then presents it to Pippo, who lets her take it into the garden to entertain the imprisoned girls. 

The Don’s wedding is disrupted when Lionetto declares he won’t marry. Pippo (inexplicably) offers Celidora’s hand to the first taker and the goose steps forward. Ordering his daughter to take the goose’s ‘hand’. Pippo takes Lavinia’s. But Pantea swaps herself in at the last moment. The opera was meant to finish with a triple wedding, though why Pantea would want Don Pippo back is anyone’s guess!

Ian Page’s Five Best of the Rest…

Apollo et Hyacinthus
Classical Opera Company/Ian Page
Linn CKD398

Il Re Pastore
Concentus Musicus Wien/Nikolaus Harnoncourt
Warner Classics 2564692599 (2CD)

Mitridate, Re di Ponto
Classical Opera Company/Ian Page
Signum SIGCD400 (4CD)

Lucio Silla
Danish Radio Sinfonietta/Fischer
Dacapo 822606971 (3CD)

Academy of Ancient Music/Paul Goodwin
Harmonia Mundi HMX2907205

 The Classical Opera Company’s recodings are on Linn and Signum.