MOZART’S FIRST MUNICH OPERA
Between 1780 and 1791 Mozart wrote six superlative operatic works: (Idomeneo, The Seraglio, Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così and The Magic Flute). That much is indisputable, but few would risk adding La Finta Giardiniera (1775) to the start and La Clemenza di Tito (1791) to the end of that list. But perhaps few have equally close acquaintance with these diverse masterpieces. To discover them is to discover that they contain some of Mozart’s finest dramatic music and that both richly deserve to stand alongside those other pinnacles of the repertoire.
Mozart’s letters prove beyond a shadow of doubt that he adored writing opera more than any other genre; perhaps it challenged him more than any other. The man who seldom expressed his own emotions and moods in words was unsurpassable when it came to defining character in music. But he didn’t spring fully armed from the tuition of his father. By 1774, when the eighteen-year-old composer received the commission for La Finta Giardiniera, he had already written seven operatic works – three for Salzburg, a Singspiel for Vienna and, most significantly, three full-scale, full-length works for three consecutive seasons (1770, -71 and -72) at the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan.
These three works, Mitridate, Ascanio in Alba and Lucio Silla, written when the composer was merely 14, 15 and 16, all contain convincing glimmers of what was to come. And it was on these works that Mozart really cut his operatic teeth, not only in writing in varied operatic forms and developing a dramatic sense, but also in the essential practical skills of working in the theatre and with (sometimes tricky) singers and managements. All these are part and parcel of a composer’s work. Undoubtedly Mozart learned a great deal from the Italian experiences, and he also grew up himself a bit (but not all that much) and found himself writing better music than his older contemporaries. They must have realized what had arrived among them; indeed Johann Adolf Hasse, a leading mid-18th century opera composer, wrote ‘this boy will cause the rest of us to be forgotten‘.
Mozart was disappointed not to be invited back to Milan for a fourth season. Things were pretty bleak at home, the new and now famously awful Archbishop Colleredo had ascended the ecclesastical throne in Salzburg in the Mozarts’ (père et fils) absence and the young genius returned home from his success in Italy only to be treated worse than a lackey at the Archbishop’s court. So Mozart eagerly accepted the commission to write La Finta Giardiniera for the Munich Carnival (or Fasching) in 1775, and was probably only too glad to pack his bags and get away from the dessicated musical atmosphere of Salzburg. He and his father arrived in Munich on December 8th – three weeks before the scheduled premiere of La Finta Giardiniera. Mozart had written much of the recitative but was setting off `early’ in order to write the arias on site; he produced arias tailor-made for the singers whenever possible – lucky them! – and indeed this was standard practice. I suspect that he knew the libretto well already and would have had several ideas queuing up in that extraordinary head, and the catalyst for each aria was probably the abilities and the presence of the singer – ready to try things out.
La Finta Giardiniera may have been a calculated choice on the part of the entrepreneurs. An opera to the same libretto by Anfossi had been immediately successful at the Rome carnival the previous year. And in those days libretti were often set over and over again (the several other settings of (e.g.) Idomeneo, Il Re pastore and La clemenza di Tito have more or less sunk without trace). Its good story probably contributed to its success; Mozart must have delighted in the delicious dramatic possibilities of writing a comedy (all the Milan operas are deeply serious) for three pairs of lovers – plus an extra tenor – who all hate one and love another. All the absurd and upsetting permutations have all the protagonists totally frustrated and miserable from the start, so much so that two of them go completely round the bend at the end of act II.
This was also the last time Mozart was accompanied by his father on a trip (they had been all over Europe together, and spent those three seasons in Italy) and, as before, the letters they both sent home to Mrs Mozart are crucial, and often tantalizingly incomplete, documentary evidence for us about those early days. From Leopold’s letter of ‘Holy Innocents Day in the evening, for the post leaves to-morrow at noon‘ we discover that the premiere of the opera was postponed ‘in order that the singers may learn their parts more thoroughly and, thus knowing the music perfectly, may act with greater confidence and not spoil the opera‘; by and by 30th December Leopold was writing: ‘the whole orchestra and all who have heard the rehearsal say that they have never listened to a finer composition, for it is one in which all the arias are beautiful. And wherever we go, the same thing is said.‘ This is much more than faint praise; the orchestra and singers were hard workers, who regularly performed a huge repertoire, and it’s nice to think that those musicians appreciated the music’s qualities.
When so many new interesting operas have, almost traditionally, been coolly received, it’s almost a surprise that the audience liked it too. La finta giardiniera was eventually premiered on Friday 13th January 1775 in the Salvator Theater after a further postponement of a week. The next day Mozart wrote a long letter to his mother: ‘Thank God! My opera was performed yesterday  for the first time and was such a success that it is impossible for me to describe the applause to Mamma. In the first place, the whole theatre was so packed that a great many people were turned away. Then after each aria there was a terrific noise, clapping of hands and cries of “Viva Maestro”.  I fear that we cannot return to Salzburg very soon and Mamma must not wish it, for she knows how much good it is doing me to be able to breathe freely. [this is an allusion to Mozart’s unhappy professional position in Salzburg] One very urgent and necessary reason for our absence is that next Friday my opera is being performed again and it is most essential that I should be present. Otherwise my work would be quite unrecognisable – for very strange things happen here.‘
Despite its great success the opera only received two more performances – the Munich opera, then as now, operated on a repertoire system. The Carnival didn’t help the cause of Mozart’s new opera, as Leopold had written to his wife: ‘once the Carnival is in full swing, only light and short operettas are performed on a small stage, which is rigged up in the Salle de Redoute. Here people gather in masks, here there are numbers of gambling tables and there is perpetual noise, conversations and gambling. Nothing sensible is ever performed there, because no one pays any attention.‘
The second performance, on 2nd February, was probably deeply unsatisfactory for the composer; it not only took place in the Redoutensaal but also because (as Leopold wrote home) ‘on account of the woman singer who was ill, it had to be cut short. I could write a good deal about this singer, who was absolutely wretched, but I shall tell you all about her when I see you.‘ But the third performance (on Thursday 2nd March) was back in the Salvator Theatre and probably more satisfactory and the family finally left Munich the following Monday. Mozart’s success in Munich with La finta giardiniera was confirmed by a commission to return with a serious opera. That, eventually, was the great Idomeneo, but that is another story.
While Mozart wrote La Finta Giardiniera he simultaneously produced an edition in a German translation – Die Verstellte Gärtnerin (Die Gärtnerin aus Liebe), perhaps in the hope that a small company might take it on tour. Indeed, it was certainly performed several times as a Singspiel with spoken dialogue instead of recitatives between 1779 and 1782, and it’s good to think that Mozart wanted to cater for a German speaking audience (as he did again with Die Entführung and more famously Die Zauberflöte) and a travelling company. Sometime later the music for the original act I was lost. The opera only survived complete in the German – Singspiel – version until 1978, when a copy of the missing act turned up in Moravia. So it was not until nearly 200 years after its premiere – at Salzburg in 1980 – that La Finta Giardiniera was at last heard again in its original Munich form, with the Italian recitatives complete. This is one very good reason why the opera has only recently entered the main repertoire.
Perhaps you have only heard of La Finta Giardiniera. But if you are now hearing it for the first time, you will surely find yourself agreeing with the lyrics of the Podestà’s first aria:
Here in my heart is resounding
the sweetest of all music;
how blissful, how astounding!
Can I withstand such beauty?
Amanda Holden [c] 1994
written for the WNO programme accompanying the 1994 re-staging of the production by Tim Albery originally for Opera North, 1989