This essay discusses four of Mozart’s operas: Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Cosi fan tutte (1790) and The Magic Flute (1791). It describes each of the operas in detail with some historical context, before outlining their significance. The introduction provides some material on Mozart’s background and comments on his operatic style as a whole.
In this short essay, we are dealing with an operatic genius who had composed three operas by the time he was twelve. Two years later he was commissioned to compose the opera seria Mitridate for the royal ducal theater in Milan in 1770 (Holden 1995). In this study, we will focus on three of Mozart’s many operas. These will be Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Cosi fan tutte (1790), and the Magic Flute (1791). Each of the operas will be discussed in detail of plot, as well as significance. Whenever possible, some historical background on the opera will be given. We begin with Le nozze di Figaro, or Figaro’s Wedding, an opera buffe in four acts.
The Marriage of Figaro is a play that is teeming with plots. That is what makes it so true to life and exciting (Wierzbicki 1993). Each of the characters are involved with various plots of their own which all come together at the end in a bout of grand rejoicing. The main plot of the opera is about fidelity and love, as well as truth. It tells the story of Count Almaviva, and his valet, Figaro who is about to marry the Countess’s maid, Susanna. Their relationship is complicated by the fact that the Count has made advances towards Susanna, which makes Figaro jealous. In the meantime, Figaro is being pressured to marry Marcellina, a woman old enough to be his mother, in acquittal of a 2 loan he cannot pay back. The plot is further complicated by the plots of the Countess, who is desperately trying to win back the love of her husband, the Count. A series of plots follow which are too numerous to mention here. Most of them are characterized by individuals concealed in a given scene, or cases of mistaken identities as a result of disguises. As key issues of fidelity and truth are handled and Susanna and Figaro as well as the Count and Countess make up in the final act. The play ends with great rejoicing.
The significance of the opera is largely in the power and nature of the music. Remember that Mozart had already written 12 operas by the time he composed The Marriage of Figaro (Holden 1995). His experience was well demonstrated in the fluidity and freedom of his metres and line lengths, which easily blurred the distinction between recitative and aria. In various scenes of the play, Mozart’s music follows the words and their meanings, and not only the metre of the verse (Holden 1995). Perhaps one of the main reasons the play received such reception with audiences, was its reflection of themes that were gay and lighthearted during the chaotic time of the French Revolution, going on when the play was released (Wierzbicki 1993).
This is another play in which the psychological truths that support the play are revealed by the power of Mozart’s music. It is the story of lovers testing the fidelity of their sweethearts. Very briefly, the plot is as follows: two young officers make a bet with a friend that their girlfriends will be faithful if tested – and tempted. Their friend Alfonso orchestrates a series of situations in which the women meet two ‘strangers’, these of course being the disguised original lovers, who had apparently been sent off to war. The women resist and resist their advances, but ultimately give into these ‘strangers’. 3 Disappointed, the two officers admit to Alfonso that he has won the bet, and that all women are the same. However, in the end all the original lovers are reunited.
Again, the significance of the play is largely in its music. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, and even for some of the twentieth, Cosi fan tutte was seen as an immoral and frivolous opera (Holden 1995). Still, Mozart’s music is so powerful in the play, that it is now regarded alongside his other masterpieces. As with his other plays, the psychological truths of the play, namely the issue of women’s ‘dubitable’ fidelity, are addressed time and again in the music (Holden 1995). The heaviness of the theme is lightened with Mozart’s famous comic-serious duality (Kennicott 1997). For example, the farcical element of the plotting in Act I is underlined by the music. This means that the music is focused on short motifs rather than on melody (Kennicott 1997).
In comparison to the somewhat lack luster reception towards Cosi fan Tutte, Mozart’s next opera, The Magic Flute (or Die Zauberflöte), had the most successful run of any of his operas. It is worth noting that this was his first opera for a popular rather than a court audience (Holden 1995). As such, the bulk of the 18 th century irony about the ongoing war of the sexes seen in Cosi fan tutte was discarded (Kaye 1998). The Magic Flute was just that: magic. It is an exotic fairy tale with mystic elements, that features the new German Romanticism. This is one of the themes that makes it so significant. Another theme it touches on is Freemasonry – of which Mozart was a member. Considering that the order had been banned in 1786, Mozart was courageous for bringing it into the opera, if only to defend the order through allegory (Holden 1995).
The opera is about the forces of good and evil. It appears that the moral of the play is as follows: do not believe what those who speak evil of the order of Freemasons say. It is these ill-speaking individuals who turn out to be evil when one looks for one’s self (Kaye 1998) The plot focuses on the masculine world of that time in general, and on the order of Freemasons in particular. Broadly speaking, the plot focuses on Prince Tamino who is lost in the forest. He is attacked by a fearsome dragon and is saved by three mysterious ladies. They enlist his services for the queen, who asks Tamino to save her daughter, Pamina, from the ‘wicked’ high priest, Sarastro who has kidnapped her.
Mozart almost certainly took pleasure in the mixing of aristocracy and intelligentsia on equal terms (Holden 1995). One of the main characters, Prince Tamino, discovers that the mysterious Sarastro is not the evil ogre that he is expecting, but rather is wise and virtuous. Meanwhile, the queen who has appeared to the audience as good, is clearly evil. It is an opera that challenges the way that audiences viewed the mysterious and the supposedly evil. It asked viewers to rethink the forces of good and evil: things are not always as they appear, just because they are misunderstood.
In addition to the significance mentioned in the opening paragraph of this section, The Magic Flute was also important for its music. It is full of Freemasonic symbolism in things like the use of clarinets and basset horns, bound pairs of notes and so on that are part of the instrumental music (Holden 1995).
Due to space constraints, this short essay has only been able to touch on some of the basic themes of three of Mozart’s operas. However briefly, it has tried to demonstrate the ways in which Mozart used music to reveal the underlying themes of the plot. These few operas have elements of the comic and the serious – a duo that Mozart used quite often as a device to keep the plots from getting too heavy. From his very beginnings as a childcomposer, Mozart showed signs of contributing to, and reflecting important themes of his day in his work. Considering his genius at matching mood and words to music, these operas deserve a careful ear from audiences, however inexperienced.
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