Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Team of Mozart & da Ponte

First Figaro Playbill
Lorenzo da Ponte
Common myth says that Mozart completed the entire score for his comic opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), in a matter of only a few weeks, but in reality, it was a matter of a few months. He began work on the score at the same time that his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, started writing the libretto, in October of 1785. It was one of the first times in recorded history that the librettist and the composer worked together to construct the libretto and the score to compliment one another, rather than the traditional way of doing it, which was for the librettist to write the text first, and the composer then, to construct the music around it. In the manner in which Mozart and da Ponte did it, the text and the music were a unified piece in which neither were compromised. It could be said that Mozart and da Ponte became the first in a long line of musical stage teams which throughout history have brought us such geniuses as Gilbert & Sullivan, Lerner & Lowe, Hammerstein & Kern, and Rogers & Hammerstein.

Stephen Storace
Without the team of Mozart & da Ponte we may never have had what we now know as the Broadway Musical, for it was Mozart's English pupil, Stephen Storace (older brother of Nancy Storace), who brought the Italian comic opera along with the German Singspieler back to England and developed the form into what became the English operetta. It was from this that our modern Broadway Musical sprang.

The following excerpt is taken from So Faithful a Heart: The Love Story of Nancy Storace & Wolfgang Mozart, which is the first book in the So Faithful a Heart series.

Everything started out badly. As soon as he awakened, Mozart knew it wasn’t going to be a good day. He was glad that he had appointments that would take him away from the apartment. Constanze had spent the entire night up and down with Karl, who was teething and who spent the most of the night screaming in pain. She’d tried everything—rubbing his gums with brandy, giving him chicken bones to gnaw on, and rocking him, but nothing seemed to soothe or settle him. She finally brought him into bed and laid him on her breast, where at last they both fell into an exhausted slumber, moments before dawn. Only an hour later, as Mozart attempted to get out of bed without waking them, he caught his knee in his nightshirt and slipped, falling upon the mattress and startling both Constanze and the baby, who began to cry all over again.

“You clumsy man!” she barked. “Why can’t you be more careful? I just got him to sleep,” she moaned as she sat wearily up in the bed, holding the screaming child to her shoulder and rocking.
“I’m sorry. I tried to be careful, I really did,” he pleaded.
She turned to her husband and snapped, “Just get dressed and find a place for yourself out of my sight!”

Grumbling, he threw on his banyan to await the arrival of his valet, who always shaved and dressed him, and styled his hair. He made his way into the music salon where he prepared his morning coffee, and by the time he was ready to sit down with his first cup, Primus arrived to begin Mozart’s toilette.

It was mid October and he was in the throes of composing one of the most challenging, and exciting works he had ever attempted. He had finally settled on Figaro the month before and he and Da Ponte had an appointment to meet at the tavern to discuss the first act and to work out some of the complicated staging that needed to be written in the libretto to support the action. It was the first time ever that a composer worked so closely with his librettist in the process of the actual writing, so that the action and the music would fit together seamlessly and flawlessly with the text.

Mozart was full of impatient, kinetic energy, and Primus had to chase him all over the apartment to finish dressing him. As he flitted from room to room, he searched for notes—ideas that he’d written on little bits of parchment and left lying in the place where the particular inspiration came to him. At one point, he accidentally stepped on one of the baby’s wooden pull toys that lay on the floor. He cried out in agony as he grabbed his foot with one hand, hopping about on one leg.

“Scheisse!” he cursed as he turned his foot over to examine the bottom, where a little bruise was already beginning to form. “Why doesn’t she pick these Gott verdammt things up?” he yelled as he hopped over to the divan so that he could get a better look at the damage, Primus following closely behind, holding a curling iron and queue ribbon in his hands as he tried to finish dressing the maestro’s hair.

When at last he finished grooming and dressing, he tiptoed again through the bedroom, where Constanze and the baby were fast asleep. Silently he went into his music salon to retrieve the musical sketches and outlines that he had already completed for act one. As he tiptoed back through, he stopped and softly kissed the baby on the top of his curly head, and left, quietly closing the door behind him.

When Mozart arrived at the cafĂ©, he found Da Ponte waiting in the back room, which they’d reserved for the entire day so that they could work without any interruptions. Da Ponte noticed as Mozart approached the table, that he walked with a slight limp.

“So what’s up with you, Mozart? Did your horse step on your foot while you were squatting to take a shit or something?”
“Domestic life,” Mozart exclaimed. “Let me give you some advice about marriage, Lorenzo,” he said as he sat down at the table, “Don’t get married! You’ll only regret it.”
“The only marriage I’m concerning myself with at the moment is Figaro’s,” he replied as he reached to open his leather portfolio.

The hours passed quickly as the two men worked and discussed, argued and sweated over every detail, of every action, of every gesture, of every scene in the first act. By the end of the day they were completely exhausted and ready to go home, most certainly after Mozart received the tab that they ran up for the copious amounts of food, deserts, and beer that the two of them consumed in the process.

As they packed the manuscripts back into their portfolios, Da Ponte looked up. “Damn, this is good, Mozart. I’ve never seen or heard anything like it!”
“I think you’re right, Mozart replied confidently. “We’re going to take Vienna by storm with this one!”

Day after day, as the work continued, the two realized that they were creating something completely new and different. Mozart told him that he wanted the scenes to be so real that the spotlighted prop in most scenes was a large, rumpled bed, so Da Ponte set about to give him all that he asked.

From the very beginning it had been Mozart’s intention to write the role of Susanna around Nancy and to make the character to fit her like a glove. Susanna was Nancy, and during the process of characterization, he couldn’t help but fall in love with her all over again, for Susanna possessed all the intelligence, personality, wit, and fire that had attracted him to Nancy in the first place. He instructed Da Ponte to place Susanna in every act and every scene, expanding the role from the secondary place it held in the original play to the most prominent, pivotal, and important role in the story. It became obvious to Da Ponte that Mozart had developed an emotional attachment to Susanna and he wondered if it wasn’t rooted in something deeper.

“But you know, Wolfgango, it’s Rosenberg’s intention to cast Nancy in the role of the Contessa and Laschi as Susanna, don’t you?”
“No, no, no! Laschi is all wrong for the part. She can’t act! And there’s no comparison between the two regarding musical ability. Nancy’s skills and training are far superior. We must have Nancy as Susanna!”

Da Ponte paused for a moment and leafed through the pile of manuscript on Mozart’s fortepiano--the musical sketches and outlines which Mozart had already begun for the opera--and thought for a moment before he spoke.

“I’m not sure that the Viennese audience will accept Nancy in a secondary role,” he replied cautiously. “They’ve already seen her as the Contessa in The Barber of Seville. And as you know, in that piece, La Contessa is the primary female role.”
“What do you mean ‘secondary role’? We’ve already written Susanna as the primary role in the libretto! What the hell are you talking about, Lorenzo?”

“I mean we can’t bill Susanna as the prima in this opera. Susanna is a servant. This isn’t one of your Singspielers, Mozart. This is a piece for His Majesty’s National Theater. The Emperor and his noble audiences will not take kindly to the billing of a servant over a countess. You know that.”

“Then don’t bill Susanna at the top for God’s sake! What difference does it make?” Mozart blustered.
“But Nancy is the prima buffa. She’s the highest-paid performer on that stage. She always gets top billing. If she is cast as Susanna, she cannot be billed at the top. I don’t know if I can convince Rosenberg… ”

Mozart chuckled sarcastically. “Da Ponte, my friend, you were the one who presented yourself to the Emperor without any references, having never written a libretto, and convinced him to hire you as his court librettist. Indeed, sir, I do believe you have the ability to convince Rosenberg to cast Nancy as Susanna.” He glared at him and continued calmly. “Now do it.”

As Mozart insisted, Da Ponte went to Rosenberg and appealed to him as the theater’s director to allow them the artistic license of casting Nancy in the role of the maidservant, understanding full well that it would mean that she wouldn’t receive top billing, but explaining to him the reason why they felt it was necessary. Rosenberg, who wasn’t fond of Mozart to begin with, took some hard convincing before he finally conceded to the idea, most certainly because he liked Da Ponte as much as he disliked Mozart and would agree to most anything Da Ponte asked.

All the acts at last completed, Mozart and Da Ponte went over the last scenes of act four when he pointed to the text that was to be used for Susanna’s aria—the one in which she would switch clothing with the Countess and sing as if to the Count, but in reality, she would sing to Figaro.

“No, no, no,” he objected, “this is all wrong.”
“What do you mean, it’s all wrong?” Da Ponte asked, confused.
“I mean, it’s all wrong, Lorenzo,” he replied impatiently. “It’s not the right mood. It’s too sultry, too coquettish.”
“Good God, Wolfgango, she’s trying to seduce him,” he argued. “She’s supposed to be sultry!”

“No, she’s really singing to Figaro, who is by this point, her groom,” Mozart continued to argue. “I want it suggestive, but innocent, and very tender. She’s not seducing him so much as she’s inviting him to have his way with her. She’s giving herself to him,” he insisted. “Submission. This is love she’s singing about, not a mere romp in the garden. She’s a bride, after all.”

“I’ll be happy to write it over for you,” Da Ponte replied, suspecting that something deeper lay beneath the surface of Mozart’s objections. “I just need to know what it is you want.”
“I want something private, in a garden with night birds, a silver moon, and flowers and babbling brooks—something romantic, suggestive, but not overtly seductive.”

“You’re the composer. I give the composer what he wants, and if he wants birds and flowers then he gets birds and flowers!” He had never worked with such a demanding composer. Mozart challenged him, and Da Ponte enjoyed meeting up to it.

“Good. When can you have it ready for me?”
“I can have it for you tomorrow.”
“Excellent,” Mozart said, with a note of satisfaction. “We’ll go over it then.”

The next day, when Da Ponte returned with the revised text, Mozart took it from his hand and read silently.

At last comes the moment 
When without reserve, I can rejoice 
In my lover’s arms: timid scruples, 
Flee from my heart, 
And do not come to trouble my delight. 
Oh how the spirit of this place, 
The earth and the sky, seem 
To echo the fire of love! 
How the night furthers my stealth! 

“Perfetto! Lorenzo, you’re amazing! This is exactly what I wanted! I can already hear her singing this,” he said as he closed his eyes and pictured Nancy standing in the middle of a moonlit garden, the breeze blowing softly through her hair.
“It was nothing. I get a picture in my head and then I paint it with words. Our Susanna will sound rather lovely singing this, I think.”
“I agree.” He headed to the fortepiano to begin laying out a melody to the text. “She’ll be irresistible.”

“Indeed,” Da Ponte replied softly. “I think she already is.” He watched Mozart slip into another world where only he and his music existed. “I’ll let you get to your work now,” he said as he turned to leave. “I’ll show myself out.”