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Excerpt: From the Score to the Stage


An excerpt via From the Score to the Stage:
An Illustrated History of Continental Opera Production and Staging
by Evan Baker

Composers frequently involved themselves in the frenetic activities at the theater leading up to the first performances of their new operas, constantly fine-tuning the score and the libretto during the rehearsals. As happens in today’s productions, composers in the eighteenth century would modify the music to accommodate a singer’s strength and weaknesses. These changes often affected the staging and the production itself. The circumstances surrounding Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s preparations for the premiere of his newly commissioned Idomeneo, re di Creta (Idomeneus, King of Crete) at the Munich Residenztheater in January 1781 were no exception.

The last months of 1780 found the composer in Munich completing his work. Thanks to the extant correspondence between Mozart and his father, Leopold, we are able to read about three of the many problems he encountered: the lack of stage presence on the part of several singers despite their musical talents; the questionable theatrical and dramatic effectiveness of Idomeneo’s first entrance; and difficulties with the final scene, Neptune’s proclamation and judgment of Idomeneo. The letters are extraordinary for their glimpse into both the creative process during the final months of composition and the practical aspects of staging opera. Leopold acted as a middleman between his son and Abbate Giambattista Varesco, the librettist residing in Salzburg. He also acted as a sounding board for Wolfgang’s ideas and frequently offered valuable, commonsensical advice.

Several singers exasperated Mozart, chiefly by their lack of interest (or capability) in acting. The tenor Anton Raaaff (1714–91), an old and seasoned performer, was to portray Idomeneo—his final new role of a long career. Although Mozart had composed much great music for the role, he remained concerned that Raaff’s poor acting skills would detract from the performance. During the rehearsals, Raaff grumbled that some of the music required the extra effort of acting. With tact and diplomacy, Mozart won Raaff over, particularly after rehearsing him on Idomeneo’s great second-act aria, “Fuor del mare” (Though I escaped the sea).

Mozart also wrestled over Idomeneo’s first appearance after the storm. Initially, the character was to enter alone, but the stage designer Lorenz Quaglio raised an important objection. As Mozart wrote to his father,

It is not fitting that the king should be quite alone on the ship. If [the librettist Varesco] thinks that [Idomeneo] can be reasonably represented in the terrible storm, forsaken by everyone, without a ship, quite alone and exposed to the greatest peril, then let it stand; but please cut out the ship for he cannot be alone in one; but if the other situation is adopted, a few generals, who are in his confidence, must land with him. Then he must address a few words to his people and desire them to leave him alone, which in his present melancholy is quite natural.

Leopold answered that Idomeneo should land with his retinue, but “thunderstorms and seas pay no attention to the laws of etiquette. This I admit, would be true, if a shipwreck were to take place. But the vow [of Idomeneo sacrificing to Neptune the first person he sees] has released them. This landing will produce a very fine effect. He later reminded his son that shipwrecks must be visible to the audience: “In short, it all depends upon the manner of the production. This, I suppose, will be left to Herr Quaglio, who is intelligent and experienced. But there must be disabled ships about,” for they are mentioned by Idamante. In the end, the ship, the retinue, and visible shipwrecks on the shore remained.

One other scene caused Mozart some anxiety, although ironically it takes place out of view of the audience. In it, a subterranean voice proclaims the judgment of Neptune and the fate of Idomeneo and his people. At first, Mozart worried that the text had bogged down. Once again, he sought his father’s advice: “Tell me, don’t you think that the speech of the subterranean voice is too long? Consider it carefully. Picture to yourself the theater, and remember that the voice must be terrifying—must penetrate—that the audience must believe that it really exists. Well, how can this effect be produced if the speech is too long, for in this case the listeners will become more and more convinced that it means nothing.”

Leopold replied with calming words: “You know that I too thought the subterranean speech too long. . . . I have no doubt whatever nor am I the slightest bit anxious about your work, provided the production is good, I mean, provided there are good people to perform it—and that is the case in Munich.” In a later letter, he offered an analysis of how the scene would be theatrically effective.

I assume you will choose very deep wind-instruments to accompany the subterranean voice. How would it be if after the slight subterranean rumble the instruments sustained, or rather began to sustain, their notes piano and then made a crescendo such as might almost inspire terror, while after this and during the decrescendo the voice would begin to sing? And there might be a terrifying crescendo at every phrase uttered by the voice. Owing to the rumble, which must be short, and rather like the shock of a thunderbolt, which sends up the figure of Neptune, the attention of the audience is aroused; and this attention is intensified by the introduction of a quiet, prolonged and then swelling and very alarming wind-instrument passage, and finally becomes strained to the utmost when, behold! A voice is heard. Why, I seem to see and hear it.

Mozart struggled with these suggestions, responding that his “head and . . . hands are so full of Act III that it would be no wonder if I were to turn into a third act myself.” In the end, he composed at least four different versions of the oracular scene: “The accompaniment to the subterranean voice consists of five instruments only, that is, three trombones and two French horns, which are placed in the same space as that from which the voice proceeds. At this point the whole orchestra is silent.”

During the entire process, Leopold gave Mozart crucial guidance: “When composing consider not only the musical, but also the unmusical public. You must remember that to every ten real connoisseurs there are a hundred ignoramuses. So do not neglect the so-called popular style, which tickles long ears.”

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