Thursday, 12 February 2015


"No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible." - W. H. Auden

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the most talented, prolific and divinely inspired composers that ever existed. Besides writing every sort of vocal and instrumental music for solo performers and ensembles, Mozart has left us with some magnificent operas. Who can forget “The Magic Flute”, or “Così Fan Tutte”, or “Don Giovanni”, or “The Marriage of Figaro” or “Idomeneo”?

Opera has been described as the ultimate art form as it incorporates literature and poetry, music and dance, painting and costume design, acting and presentation, singing and instrument playing. In order for an opera to be composed, a composer needs to have a “libretto” (Latin for “little book”, plural “libretti”). This is a specialised literary form where the librettist takes an idea (derived from a pre-existing work or an original one) and works it into the conventions followed by opera. The opera libretto from its inception (around 1600) was written in verse, and this continued well into the 19th century. Musical theatre forms with spoken dialogue have typically alternated verse in the musical numbers with spoken prose. Since the late 19th century some opera composers have written music to prose or free verse libretti.

The libretto of a musical, on the other hand, is almost always written in prose (except for the song lyrics). The libretto of a musical, if the musical is adapted from a play, may even borrow their source's original dialogue. Shakespeare’s works have provided librettists with much inspiration for writing for the operatic stage (eg: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”; “Othello”; “Macbeth”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” etc). Myths and legends are other rich sources for libretti (eg: “Orpheus and Euridice”; “Alceste”; “Iphigenia in Tauris”, etc). Novels, historical and biographical subjects and original librettos written by the composer himself (eg. Wagner) are also common.

Well-known poets originally wrote librettos in 17th and 18th centuries. Metastasio (1698-1782, real name Pietro Trapassi) was one of the best known librettists in Europe. Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838) wrote many librettos, including three that Mozart used for some of his best known operatic works: “Così fan Tutte”, “Don Giovanni” and “The Marriage of Figaro”. Eugène Scribe was a famous 19th century librettist, whose work was set to music for the opera by Meyerbeer, Bellini, Donizetti, Auber, Verdi and Rossini.  Arrigo Boito, a composer himself, wrote librettos not only for his own use, but also for Verdi and Ponchielli. The duo of Frenchmen, Meilhac and Halévy wrote many librettos for Offenbach, Massenet and Bizet.

For the English speaker one of the most successful duo of operetta was Gilbert and Sullivan (librettist and composer respectively). They collaborated on fourteen comic operas, including such delights as “The Mikado”, “HMS Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance”. They collaborated despite their personality clash and strained relationship.

Now, back to Mozart! “Don Giovanni”  (K527 with complete title of “Il Dissoluto Punito, ossia Don Giovanni” – The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni) is a two-act opera that was premiered in the Estates Theatre in Prague on October 29, 1787. It is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent pieces of music written and certainly the best opera that is based on the life of the notorious womaniser, Don Juan. The opera is described as a tragicomedy or “dramma giocoso”.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, has written a lengthy essay in his book “Either/Or” in which he claims that Mozart's “Don Giovanni” is the greatest work of art ever realised. The finale in which Don Giovanni refuses to repent has been a captivating philosophical and artistic topic for many writers including George Bernard Shaw, who in “Man and Superman”, parodied the opera.

A useful site for finding the librettos of many operas is to be found here.

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