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K111 Ascanio in Alba

Jan-Willem Besuijen

Ascanio in Alba
is, in my opinion, not one of Mozart’s greatest operas. Although I have always marvelled at his ‘youth operas’, Ascanio never really appealed to me as much as, for instance, Lucio Silla or Bastien und Bastienne. To me Ascanio was too plain, too dull, too much recitative. Only recently did I realize that the story behind the production of this opera is actually quite unique and thrilling.

Aged fifteen, Mozart was commissioned to write an opera for the celebrations surrounding the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg in Milan. Ascanio in Alba turned out to be an enormous success and everyone in Milan loved the young composer. Never again in his life was Mozart closer, musically and socially, to such noble persons as Empress Maria Theresa and her son Joseph II, who did not forget about Mozart when the latter arrived in Vienna ten years later. Mozart wrote all of the music for Ascanio in Alba within the space of three-and-a-half weeks, an amazing achievement, even for a musical genius of fifteen who had already composed several major stage works. Yet, the music is quite enjoyable, well-considered and suited to the pastoral subject of the libretto.

In the first years of the seventh decade of the eighteenth century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began to make a name for himself as a composer of dramatic works. Between 1770 and 1774 he wrote no less than six works for the theatre, either for his employer, Archbishop Colloredo, or for foreign commissioners. After his return from Milan in early 1771, having witnessed there the success of his opera Mitridate (KV 84), Mozart composed two other works: the ‘azione teatrale’ Il sogno di Scipione (KV 126), which honoured the Archbishop of Salzburg, and the Italian oratorio La Betulia liberata (KV 118), which was commissioned by a nobleman from Padua. Back in Milan he wrote Ascanio in Alba (KV 111). For the the Milan 1772 carnival season he wrote Lucio Silla (KV 135). In that same year Mozart was forced to decline an opera commission from Venice by Giacomo Durazzo, due to his contract with Milan (Lucio Silla). Durazzo, who worked at the Vienna Burgtheater in the early 1760s and collaborated with Gluck, served as an intendant at the San Benedetto theater.

Commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa, Ascanio in Alba is one of those operas which were written for a particular aristocratic festivity. When we discuss eighteenth century opera, we tend to speak of either opera buffa or opera seria, but within those genres there were various subgenres and those were often exchangeable. However, Ascanio in Alba is not an opera seria, despite of the fact that it was written for an aristocratic wedding and that is bears lots of seria elements both in text and music.

The wedding in question is that between the Empress’ third son, Archduke Ferdinand, and Princess Maria Beatrice d’Este of Modena. It took place in Milan on October 15 1771. A year prior to the wedding, the princess attended a concert of Wolfgang at Count Karl Josef von Firmian’s residence, and was impressed by young Wolferl. It’s quite possible that she recounted this and asked the Empress to honour the young Salzburg lad with the commission.

The Mozarts set off to Milan on August 13 and arrived on the 21st of the same month. Contrary to expectations, the libretto hadn’t arrived yet, it did only eight days later, so Leopold and Wolfgang had some time to visit people they met a year earlier when they were in Milan for the production of Mitridate. The libretto to Ascanio in Alba was written by the Italian poet Giuseppe Parini (1729-1799), considered by his contemporaries as one of the finest in Italy. He is particularly remembered for a series of written odes and the satiric poem Il giorno (The day), on the selfish and superficial behaviour of the Milanese aristocracy. He was also a teacher, priest and editor and wrote only a few librettos, Ascanio in Alba being one of them. His libretto covers a superficial story, in a pastoral setting, with little drama and lots of recitative (I will go into the pastoral element later).

The singers assigned were:
  • Venus - Geltrude Falchini (soprano)
  • Ascanio – Giovanni Manzuoli (castrato)
  • Silivia – Antonia Maria Girelli-Aguilar (soprano)
  • Aceste – Giuseppe Tibaldi (tenor)
  • Fauno - Adamo Solzi (castrato)
The story of Ascanio in Alba is a typical allegory, even more so than Lucio Silla or La clemenza di Tito. The characters of Tito and Silla symbolize kings and rulers in general, whereas in Ascanio some of the characters symbolize the Habsburg rulers themselves. The story is as follows: the goddess Venus – who symbolizes Maria Theresa – tells her son Ascanio – who symbolizes her son, Archduke Ferdinand – that he is to become King of Alba. However, his bride to be, Silvia – who symbolizes Princess Maria Beatrice – must pass a test first. In a dream, set up by Cupido, she falls in love with Ascanio, whom she has never met. Ascanio makes a pass at her, but Silvia, who doesn’t know that that young man is actually Ascanio, rejects his advances. After a lot of torment and despair, Silvia and Ascanio, assisted by the nymph Fauno, are finally united. She has shown her virtue and has passed the test with flying colours. The priest Aceste leads the youngsters to the altar.

Ever since antiquity, the notion of the pastoral has been a significant subject in art, music included. It’s about rural settings, with shepherds and nymphs, and it displays a philosophical opposition between art and nature, or between city life and the rural. The earliest examples are to be found in Homer’s Iliad. In the eighteenth century, the pastoral element in art served as an opposite to the formal shape of society, with its powerful clergy and aristocracy (which were more than often overlapping one another). This eighteenth century notion is not to be understood as a form of escapism, as it would become in the romantic era. It is more similar, rather, to a classicist balance between two views on society, wherein the pastoral was not at all opposing the life of the aristocracy. A quote from the New Grove Encyclopedia is perhaps instructive: ‘In pastoral music [the opposition between art and nature] is usually reinforced by the use of distinctive styles, with the ‘natural’ style failing appreciably short of the complexity of the conventional style of the day. Even when the pastoral concept appears to deal purely with rural life, its implied audience is almost invariably a knowing one, for whom the confrontation with ‘natural’ values traditionally represents a moral challenge. Accordingly, pastoral is often associated with political and religious allegories.’ Apart from this moral challenge, I think that a pastoral opera is well-suited for a wedding celebration such as the one between Maria Theresa’s son and the Modena princess. The characters in Ascanio in Alba symbolize ideas, virtues, and moral values, more so than in the operas Lucio Silla or Mitridate. And why? Because in Ascanio, there is very little drama to speak of. Consequently, that which is stressed are merely the persons which the characters depict, together with their moral values, as the protagonists have no background, and no history. They are pure and ‘virginal’.

The music of Ascanio in Alba shows less emotional diversity than the music of Mitridate or Lucio Silla, where there are arias of revenge, love, despair, hope. The mood in the arias is quite the same, regardless of the text. It’s hard to define the music which is representative of each character in terms of personal characteristics. That may account for the more allegorical character of the work, an ‘azione teatrale’ (Lucio Silla and Mitridate being opere serie). Mozart didn’t need to depict through his music the persons the protagonists symbolized, as it was perfectly clear that Venus depicted the Empress, Ascanio the groom etc.

There are, however, many interesting musical and structural elements that compensate for this lack of emotional diversity. Ascanio in Alba is a festive opera. Various sources speak of a ‘festa teatrale’. Mozart incorporated elements of ballet and dance into the score; in fact there is quite a bit of dancing going on in the opera. The overture has a special form with regard to this. It’s not a traditional Italian sinfonia, such as Lucio Silla or Mitridate has. The first movement is a long, festive, cheerful allegro, no surprise there. The second movement, however is nothing less than an andante ballet movement, which was danced during the performances in 1771. The third movement – and this is something unusual – consists of a short chorus (presto), which was also being danced. This special type of overture, which more or less tells us what kind of work we are going to see and/or listen to - a cheerful work with danced scenes and happy choruses - may not be as revolutionary as Beethoven’s choral ninth symphony. Yet, it already shows some signs of Mozart the dramatist. Leopold was aware of the special character of the overture, describing it as ‘a rather long Allegro, followed by an Andante, which has to be danced, but only by a few people. Instead of the final Allegro [Wolfgang] has composed a kind of contredanse and chorus to be sung and danced at the same time’.

The first page of the autograph score

The short period of time given to him to compose was used by Wolfgang to great effect. There are no less than sixteen chorus numbers, but since several are repeated throughout the opera, there are only seven different choruses. That means Mozart could add already finished numbers to the score and thus save some much needed time. These repeated choruses provide us – the listener - with some much needed points of reference in an otherwise confusing story. Once you have heard a chorus, it gets a certain meaning, and when you hear it again, further on in the opera, it has gained in expression and adds to the public’s understanding of what is going on the stage. The same counts for the trio, part of which is repeated.

The depiction of the pastoral in eighteenth century music always called for winds. Think of Beethoven’s sixth (‘Pastorale’) and the sinfonia in Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium – that scene where the angel addresses the shepherds. Ascanio in Alba contains numerous subtle and short wind passages, starting in the first chorus, ‘Di te più amabile’, in the middle part where the two soloists (two shepherds) sing. Although most of the arias are set in the tradition of opera seria, they too show signs of the pastoral theme. Listen to the orchestral introduction to Ascanio’s first aria, ‘Cara, lontano ancora’. The oboes and horns depict the pastoral, rural area where the story takes place. Another nice example of the use of winds is the middle section of Silvia’s aria ‘Spiega il desio, le piume’.

I have two recordings of Ascanio in Alba. Jacques Grimbert conducting the Concerto Armonico on Naxos and the Brilliant Classics recording, which is quite bad.


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