1000 Years of Classical Music: Mozart Opera Arias

by Mark Isaacs

Artist/s: Various singers with Australian orchestras
Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 5570
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This is a very worthy volume from ABC Classics’ well-promoted CD set which in its entirety overviews 1000 years of “classical” music in 100 tracks.

Though the cover’s art and graphical style are rather tacky, the notes in the 28-page booklet are very informative. Each excerpted opera receives a plot summary within which each of the arias selected are given their particular dramatic contexts. There is a page of “Fast Facts” where some key terms (Opera seria, Opera buffa, Singspiel) are defined and a few snippets of information about Mozart and his operas are offered. In a somewhat tawdry mint-green box, key historical events of the year 1787 are presented – including that of Captain Arthur Philip setting off from Portsmouth with the First Fleet – this being the year Mozart completed his opera Don Giovanni four years before his death. All libretti excerpts are presented in their original Italian or German as well as with English translation, and the singers, orchestras, conductors and recording dates and locations are all meticulously credited. All in all, the listener is well provisioned for the sonic journey at hand.

Eight operas are excerpted: Don Giovanni, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Idomeneo, La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus), Zaide, Cosi fan tutte (All Women Are Like That) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute).

Three of the operas are “Singspiel”: The Magic Flute, The Abduction from Seraglio and Zaide (which Mozart did not complete). A Singspiel had a libretto in German rather than Italian, with spoken (rather than sung) dialogue and was generally comic or romantic in nature.

In many ways Singspiel could be seen as the 18th century German equivalent of 20th century musical theatre (a play with songs). Though The Magic Flute is the only popular Mozartean Singspiel (he wrote six), and Mozart’s Italian language operas by far dominate the repertoire, I must confess I love hearing Mozart sung in German. The opening of the famous “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute seems to foreshadow Wagner with its frighteningly declamatory “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” (“The rage of Hell is boiling in my heart”). How Mozart manages in this aria to seamlessly juxtapose that soundworld – including its also rather Wagnerian “Hört, hört, hört” (“Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye”) – with the aria’s very famous coquettish coloratura passages is a marvel to behold. Devotees of Cosi, Figaro, Don Giovanni et al may well disagree, but The Magic Flute has most of the best tunes too.

The singers featured are in several cases stars of Australian opera like Joan Carden, Teddy Tahu Rhodes and Emma Matthews and they don’t disappoint. The most beguiling voice on the disk is that of soprano Sara Macliver: limpid, always telling and boasting exquisite intonation and phrasing. In Porgi amor (Love, give me some comfort) from The Marriage of Figaro she seems to unshakably inhabit a level of vocal sublimity not often found elsewhere on the disk. The only quibble about her singing – and also that of mezzo-soprano Sally-Anne Russell – is a tendency to elide consonants and let them become subsumed too inaudibly into the stunning tone that carries them.

Most of the orchestral work is done by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and it, like the Opera Australia Orchestra, sounds superb accompanying opera. The Queensland Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra sound somewhat lumpier in this context. The conductors include some international heavyweights like Christopher Hogwood, György Fischer, Ola Rudner, Sebastian Lang-Lessing and Richard Bonynge as well as the more home-grown but highly-regarded Dobbs Franks, Nicholas Milton and Antony Walker.

This is mostly an exemplary disk. However the one excerpt featured from Idomeneo – also the only live recording on the disk – does jar a little with some intonation and other issues from tenor Mark Tucker, and some internal balance problems from the period instruments of the Orchestra of the Antipodes conducted by Antony Walker, which is otherwise pleasantly transparent and drivingly kinetic.

Every Mozart opera lover would probably shed a little tear for their favourites left out from the compilation, but it really is a shame that we don’t hear perhaps Mozart’s most beautiful aria of all time, Tamino’s Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön (This image is enchantingly beautiful) from The Magic Flute. Another sad oversight is the non-inclusion of any of the great sextets, some of which are surely amongst Mozart’s most ingenious creations.

One interesting fact is that this selection contains both the highest and lowest vocal notes of the standard opera repertoire: the Queen of the Night’s high F’s in her aforementioned famous aria Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen from The Magic Flute, and the two low D’s called for from the bass in O, wie will ich triumphieren from The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Returning in closing to the analogy made between Singpiel and our own more contemporaneous musical theatre, it is worth remarking that the disk’s opening track Madamina, il catalogo è questo (Little lady, this is the catalogue) from Don Giovanni – where Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello gives a successive rundown of his master’s sexual conquests – is a “Catalogue Aria”, and that this particular form foreshadowed the 20th century’s “List Song” from the musical theatre and hit parade genres, the most famous example of the latter being Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover (which perhaps itself may have entitled a great Mozart comic opera: Cinquanta Modi per Lasciare L’Amante, anyone?).

This article was first published here.