The lost Mozart

It would be hard to say which musical form satisfied Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart the most, or provided him with the most perfect frame in which to fully realise his achievement. Opera comes closest, since it was clearly closest to Mozart’s heart.

Published on 30 September 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly

In 1782, four years before the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, the composer declared that opera was the most important part of his life. One the most fruitful and equally successful periods of the composer’s career were the years 1781-1788, spent in Salzburg. The Abduction from the Seraglio, Cos” fan tutte, Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro(Le nozze di Figaro) were all composed that time, with the latter opera gaining remarkable popularity in Mozart’s lifetime; it continues to be favoured by audiences to this day.

The opera would not have had such success had the composer not met Lorenzo da Ponte, the librettist. The two gentlemen’s collaboration resulted in three big operas, first the lovely TheMarriage of Figaro, then the “uninterrupted perfection” of Don Giovanni, as Charles Gounod, the French composer, called it, and finally the comedy Cos” fan tutte. Da Ponte was a colourful character himself, and his free-spirited approach to life generated disapproval in society. This not only explains the friendship between the two men but also indicates their special interest in Pierre Beaumarchais’s stage comedy La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (1784), a satire of the aristocracy, which was initially banned in Vienna. Beaumarchais’s comedy served as a base for the libretto while da Ponte, through his relations, managed to resolve the incumbent censorial issues. Although the opera was a success, Vienna performances of The Marriage of Figaro were quickly taken off the posters. The opera was rehabilitated in Prague where the whole city, including Mozart himself, was literally ecstatic about it.

Da Ponte cleverly adapted Beaumarchais’s text, removing some politically controversial passages and hence creating four opera acts (out of five theatre acts) and basing it on 11 instead of 16 characters. The Marriage of Figaro is an opera buffa, a comedy revolving around servants in love: Susanna and her fiancé Figaro; in the household of the Countess and her lustful Count, Amalviva, who has a philandering eye on Susanna – to the point where the troubled servants approach the Countess for help. The story includes many detailed intrigues and ploys which bring out the nature of a unique and poignantly portrayed cast of characters. Susanna and Figaro’s marriage is not only repeatedly postponed, undermined by Count Amalviva; it also faces another obstacle: a middle-aged woman, Marcellina, to whom Figaro is in debt; she too hopes Figaro will marry her. The various meanders of the plot reveal that, in fact, Marcellina is Figaro’s mother and hence the path to Susanna and Figaro’s marriage is clear. Since opera buffa can only have a happy ending, the Count’s seductions are successfully halted; all intrigues are resolved and in the final scene both music and drama are imbued with an enormous sense of forgiveness.

The Marriage of Figaro offers beautiful music, captivating solo arias and brilliant duets, while the social satire adds unique spice to the work. (No wonder Antonio Salieri’s jealousy, documented in the annals of music history, was especially obvious during the premiere.)

The Cairo Opera House presented The Marriage of Figaro to its audiences on four evenings, with a double cast for most of the roles. With an Arabic translation of the libretto made by Dr Aly Sadek, the opera, at least in theory, could reach an Egyptian audience. Many of the singers on 24 September coped well enough with the language while Figaro (sung by Moustafa Mohamed) enunciated the words with sufficient clarity to facilitate understanding of the role. In his short aria from the first act, “Se vuol ballare signor Contino” (If you wish to dance Mr Little Count), Moustafa Mohamed captured Figaro’s plan to outwit the Count. Later on, in the aria “Non so piu cosa son,” (I no longer know what I am), the irony was emphasised not only by his baritone but also by his agreeable acting abilities, already known to Egyptian audiences.

Equally, the lovely soprano Mona Rafla – singing Susanna – managed to find an interesting formula to express the nature of that character. Rafla’s naturally admirable presence and fine voice embellished the act IV aria “Deh vieni non tardar” (Come now, do not delay) which was beautifully supported by the Cairo Opera Orchestra, whose members underlined all the emotional elements in every note of the pizzicato violins and the longer bows. Likewise, Reda El Wakil (bass) demonstrated deep understanding of the role and his recitative “Hai gia vinta la causa!” (Their case is won!) and the aria “Vedro, mentr’io sospiro,” (Shall I live to see) expressed the anger of the Count as he tries to force Figaro to marry Marcellina. El Wakil has a remarkable timbre and excellent control over his voice, and his stage awareness is built upon his experience on many renowned world stages.

Yet those three characters were probably the only ones not affected by the one main drawback of the opera as it was performed on the Cairo Opera stage: the absence of a director’s hand; Abdalla Saad could undoubtedly be said to have failed Mozart on this occasion. It is definitely very frustrating when the cleverly constructed characters of such a lovely opera are left alone to find their place on stage. Moustafa Mohamed, Rafla and El Wakil managed to choreograph basic movements, adding a few details to support the situational comedy, yet faced with the lack of a sufficient contribution from the director, a large part of their efforts went to waste. Most of the time, the audience was watching an excessively static performance with some good voices. When so many elements are not adequately developed, even existing theatrical assets have no effect. And no doubt there are in this opera a handful of situational assets: the Act I scene when Cherubino and Count Almaviva both hide behind the same armchair, one after the other. Yet situational moments of this nature, however well performed, are not sufficient in themselves. The Marriage of Figaro is not based on a few minutes’ worth of sketches. It is a three-hour comedy bubbling with energy in which a director should undoubtedly play the huge and necessary role of pulling all the strings together.

Still, the mezzo-soprano Jolie Faizy, in the role of Marcellina, gave some edge to her character, trying to incorporate her interesting vocal abilities into the process. Cherubino, sung by mezzo Gihan El Nasser, was at times in remarkable control of her movements, resulting in powerful moments, but at other times she moved too hastily around the stage, and her voice did not compensate sufficiently for such chaos. One of the main victims of the director was Countess Almaviva, sung by soprano Gihan Fayed. Fayed has a very powerful and deeply penetrating voice. Adding a little acting would have brought out the vocal colorisation.

In opera buffa, not only the music but the libretto is the material out of which drama is built. It fizzes, it sparks; it is witty; it pulsates with motion; it is full not only of satire and laughter but also of intelligence! The tension, the release, the twists – patchy melancholy followed by coquetry, for example – make up the rhythm underlying the whole: true human emotions, which give way to great dynamism and effective dramaturgy. The whole comedy takes a clear form only if the dramaturgy meets the vision and is translated into living motion. Most of the singers made a great effort, and it would not be fair to judge them knowing that the foundation carries a number of basic defects. What a pity this happened while the opera was performed in Arabic and could thus be understood word for word by the vast majority of the audience.

In Mozart’s own time, ballet inserts were among the elements worrying Joseph II who saw in them needless extensions to an already long opera. However, the marriage festivities ending Act III were too beautiful, musically and dramaturgically, for the emperor to object. As such the Cairo Opera Ballet Company contributed their own share. Luckily, simple choreography surfaced on stage in spite of the overwhelming chaos. If we only forget the visual aspect of collective scenes, those including the choir were well prepared and the voices blended beautifully with the orchestra to provide individual singers with an appropriate backdrop. We should not forget that the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nader Abbassi, added its own unique flavour to the evening on several different occasions. Every cloud has a silver lining indeed. So let us think of this disappointment as a lesson for the future.

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