Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on the Italian Stage. Weber's "Freischütz" on the Russian Opera Stage

Tchaikovsky Research
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Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on the Italian Stage. Weber's "Freischütz" on the Russian Opera Stage («Дон-Жуан» Моцарта на Итальянской сцене. «Фрейшюц» Вебера на сцене Русской оперы)) (TH 262 ; ČW 526) [1] was Tchaikovsky's sixth and last music-review article for the Moscow journal Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись), in which it was published on 15 December 1871 [O.S.].

This article contains one of Tchaikovsky's most extensive written tributes to Mozart, whom he calls the greatest of operatic composers because of his mastery in musical and dramatic characterization, above all in Don Giovanni, which always remained Tchaikovsky's favourite opera ever since he first heard it at the age of sixteen; very critical remarks about the artistic standards of this production of Mozart's opera by the Italian Opera Company; a reminiscence of Désirée Artôt in the role of Donna Anna when she appeared in Moscow in the 1868–69 season; praise for the Russian singers' greater professional commitment (in comparison to the Italians) in the performance of Der Freischütz.


Completed by 15/27 December 1871 (date of publication). Considering the Italian Opera Company's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 4/16 December 1871, starring Ida Benza as Donna Anna; and a benefit performance of Weber's Der Freischütz in the same theatre on 7/19 December 1871, with Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova as Agathe and Aleksandr Dodonov as Max.

English translation

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Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on the Italian Stage

Every work of art, however much it may have surpassed the artistic level of the age and society in which its creator lived, must inevitably bear the stamp of its time. No matter how profound and strong an artist's creative gift is, in the compositional devices of his oeuvre he will not be able to free himself from those characteristic, purely external peculiarities of form which subsequently, through their misuse by artists of lesser talent, turn into routine and finally acquire a merely archaeological value. Thus, it is not surprising that the greatest creations of human genius in the realm of the arts age with time. In the works of Raphael, Shakespeare, and Mozart, in spite of all the profundity with which they were conceived, we find such traits and external characteristics which, since they are a product of their time, do not meet the requirements of modern tastes. But from this it does not by any means follow that the hand of time can wither the very essence of a work of art, and that is why, despite having been created more than eighty years ago, the opera Don Giovanni, thanks to the unfading and inexhaustible strength of Mozart's inspiration, has aged only in a merely technical respect. For we hear this opera today with the same enthusiasm, with the same plenitude of impressions that it once awoke in the hearts of our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Mozart's orchestration, in comparison to that of Berlioz, is of course on the thin side; his arias are somewhat drawn out and are marred at times by pandering to the virtuosic whims of his singers; and it is also true that his style reflects the primness of the courtly milieu of his time. And yet, all the same, his operas, in particular Don Giovanni, are filled with beauty of the highest sort and moments full of dramatic truth. His melodies are uncommonly graceful, his harmonic combinations are remarkably rich, lush, and interesting.

But, most importantly, Mozart was a master in musical and dramatic characterization, and no other composer apart from him has succeeded in creating such utterly consistent, profoundly and truthfully [pravdivo] conceived musical types as Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Leporello, and Zerlina. As I have already remarked, the weak side of Mozart are his long concert arias which give singers the opportunity to dazzle with their artistry, but which do not contain any moments of truly outstanding musical beauty. In his ensemble scenes, on the other hand, which serve to advance the dramatic movement of the work, he has left us a long series of inimitable masterpieces. In particular, all the scenes featuring Donna Anna, this proud, passionate, and revenge-thirsting Spanish lady [2], are profoundly tragic. Her heart-rending cries and groans over the corpse of her murdered father, her horror and thirst for revenge in the scene where she encounters the man who is responsible for her misfortune—all this is rendered by Mozart with such gripping intensity that, as far as the strength of the impression they cause is concerned, these moments of the opera are matched only by the best scenes in Shakespeare.

Among the best parts of the opera I would also like to mention the finale of Act I, the scene by the Commendatore's tomb, the sextet in Act II (which is remarkable for the comic contrast between Leporello dressed in Don Giovanni's clothes and the other characters who take him for his master), and, finally, the famous last scene between Don Giovanni and the Commendatore's statue. What simple and weak devices, it would seem, did Mozart use for the composition of this scene in order to convey the horror felt by the unrepentant profligate before this dreadful apparition, and yet how irresistible is the effect of this scene on the listener! A modern composer would have flung whole thunderclaps of trombones, trumpets, cymbals, and timpani at the audience, whereas Mozart manages to attain an infinitely more powerful effect solely through the immediate force of his genius.

It was with this immortally beautiful work of Mozart's, which I have tried to characterize briefly above, that Signor Merelli decided to regale us last Saturday [3]. I must confess that this performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni on the stage of our Bolshoi Theatre awakened in me—as it did in every other admirer of this work of genius—inexpressible suffering, for surely people living in a civilized country have never had to be present at a more outrageous desecration of a work of art which is admired by all mankind. What horror and deep sorrow would a lover of painting feel if he saw the work of a great master, mutilated and touched up by the brush of a coarse decorator, exposed to the mockery of the crowd?!

And yet it is precisely this role of a bungling decorator which the artists of the Italian Opera Company are playing with regard to Mozart's great creation, by allowing themselves, in view of the wider public's complete failure to understand the work, to disfigure in the most scandalous manner such an opera as Don Giovanni. And what are the considerations which led Signor Merelli, the man in charge of drawing up the Italian Opera Company's repertoire, to entrust his singers with the task of performing Don Giovanni?

As I have already mentioned once, the public, which rewards Signor Merelli so generously for his efforts to furnish it with aesthetic delights, rushes to the Italian Opera by no means for the sake of the work being staged, but rather for the performers. For the 'C' sung by Signor Masini with chest-voice, for the trills of Mesdames Patti and Volpini, and above all for the refined aroma of fashionable society with which the luxurious auditorium of the Bolshoi Theatre is saturated on the days of performances by the Italian Opera. If, however, by putting on Don Giovanni, he wished to flatter the musically cultivated minority in the audience, we can wholeheartedly assure him that this minority would prefer not to hear Don Giovanni at all than to witness the shameful disfigurement which he has done to it.

The title role (Don Giovanni) was sung by Signor Moriani [4]. Apart from the fact that the outward appearance of this singer in no way corresponds to the image of a dissolute, yet highly elegant Spanish nobleman, he was not confident in his part—he acted and sang without any enthusiasm or passion whatsoever. When listening to Signor Moriani and looking at him, it was difficult to believe that for the sake of his supposedly captivating appearance and passion so many representatives of the fair sex, from all social classes and all countries, could have forfeited their honour and happiness.

Even worse, though, was Signor Masini [5], who didn't know his part at all and seemed constantly to be singing deliberately out of time with the orchestra. Not only did he himself keep getting out of time, but he also confused the other singers in the ensemble scenes. True, Signor Masini has quite a fine voice, and thanks to the high notes he can reach with his chest tones he gets boisterous applause from the audience, but all the same he is utterly un-musical and his performance is devoid of all artistic value.

This time even the otherwise so agreeable Signora Volpini deserves to be rebuked in the sharpest possible terms—firstly because like the two abovementioned singers, she too had studied her role inadequately, and, secondly, because Signora Volpini's interpretation did not in any way resemble the naïve, fainthearted girl which the librettist of Don Giovanni had imagined in the figure of Zerlina.

The passionate role of the vengeful and fair Donna Anna was played by Signora Benza [6] without the requisite force. The fine qualities of this prima donna's talent certainly manifested themselves in the course of the evening, but after her performance as Valentina in Les Huguenots I had every reason to expect from Signora Benza an interpretation which corresponded more to the ideal realm of this Mozartian heroine. She was particularly unsuccessful in the scene where Donna Anna recognizes the unknown cavalier who gallantly offers her his services to be the villain Don Giovanni, the murderer of her beloved father who thereby also gives mortal offence to her unassailable virtue. In this scene Mozart put into the lips of Donna Anna such a staggering mixture of proud rage, vengefulness, and despair that even a singer of first-rate talent must summon up all her energies. In earlier years Madame Artôt caused a tremendous impression in this scene thanks to the sincerity [pravdivost] of her performance, and our present interpreter of the role cannot be compared with her in any respect.

The altogether thankless role of Donna Elvira, which is almost a comic one because of the importunity with which this deserted wife chases after the indifferent idol of her heart, was at least conscientiously performed by Madame Siniko. The only member of the cast whom I am able to praise unreservedly was Signor Bossi, who always draws on all the resources of his talent and experience to render the parts assigned to him as best as he can. Both in terms of his singing and his acting, he was a perfectly satisfactory Leporello.

But no matter how insufficient the abilities of individual performers are, even the most difficult opera can nevertheless, through the singers' care and striving to be worthy mediators between the spirit of a great work of art and their audience, be put on the stage in such a way that even a strict critic will go away satisfied. For in the case of music a strict critic is utterly indifferent to such anti-artistic attributes of the art of singing as the roulades of Signora Patti or the entrancing 'C's of Signor Masini. He is quite ready to content himself (as often happens in Germany, which cannot at all boast of having very many outstanding singers) even with mediocre singers, as long as they attend to their duties with the necessary respect and do not offend a sensible and demanding audience with a brazen distortion of a universally revered work of art.

However, the singers of the Italian Opera Company transgress even the boundaries of plain decency by the unashamed carelessness with which they studied their roles. I am simply unable to list all the blunders, all the gross mistakes made by the singers in this production of Don Giovanni, and, besides, the format of a feuilleton article is too restrictive to be able to do justice to readers who are in any way demanding where aesthetic values are concerned. I will just briefly say that there was not a single number in the whole opera in which, as a result of the complete failure of Signori Moriani and Masini and Signora Volpini to learn their parts properly, there was not some sort of cacophony between the soloists, the chorus, and the orchestra.

If at least Signor Bevignani [7] had been able to support in some way his undisciplined cast; if he had at least once (as the most skilful Italian maestri are able to do) stepped up the orchestra's tempo in order to come to the rescue of a flustering singer! But nothing of the sort! Signor Bevignani, with the rigidness and accuracy of an automaton, continued the murderously uniform waving of his baton throughout even the grossest mistakes on the stage, as if he were saying to everyone: "A conductor is there to wave his stick, and that's exactly what I'm doing. So what more do you want from me?".

The reader of these lines will perhaps expect me at this point to tell him about the deserved punishment meted out on Signor Merelli's singers for having perpetrated all these unforgivable insults to the memory of Mozart. Isn't that so? Well, the mortified audience expressed its just indignation by fervent applause and by repeatedly calling for Signori Masini and Moriani as well as Signora Volpini at the end of the evening. How sad, ridiculous, and lamentable this all is!

Weber's "Freischütz" on the Russian Opera Stage

Three days later I had the opportunity to attend, in the very same theatre, a performance of another great work of German art. Weber's Freischütz was staged as a benefit performance for Mrs Aleksandrova [8]. What a tremendous difference! I listened to this opera without any particular enthusiasm, but also without any sense of displeasure. Of course, Mrs Aleksandrova lacks the nightingale qualities of Signora Patti, of course, and neither does Mr Dodonov [9] have the priceless 'C' of Signor Masini, which explains why the front rows were quite empty, why the ladies appeared without those dazzling jewels and the gentlemen without those elegantly cut tail-coats that for some reason are considered obligatory whenever Signor Merelli's company is singing.

But, on the other hand, in the course of the whole performance not a single error was made—not even the tiniest slip—and each one of our home-bred singers made every possible effort to render Weber's opera faithfully and properly. I cannot claim that their gifts for the stage are tremendous, but it is with sincere praise that I would like to mention Madames Aleksandrova and Ivanova, as well as Messrs Dodonov and Demidov [10], who honestly fulfilled their artistic obligations and did everything possible to deserve the approval of all true connoisseurs of art.

The benefit performance for Mrs Aleksandrova would have left a thoroughly agreeable impression upon me, had it not been for our theatre's incomprehensibly appalling chorus. May I venture to point out to the enlightened Directorate of Theatres that this chorus, made up of worthy, hard-working singers who have unfortunately been worn out under Signor Merelli, is no longer actually singing. Instead it just lets out various incredibly hoarse sounds which have nothing human about them. In Act III, when the female chorus, which here represents Agathe's bridesmaids, comes on stage to congratulate her on her imminent wedding and sings:

"We wind round thee the bridal wreath", suddenly occurred to me that a spectator who was unfamiliar with the plot of the opera might be puzzled that Agathe should smile and thank these girls, when she really ought to be running away from the horrors foretold to her by the chorus.

P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Mozart's "Don Giovanni" on the Italian Stages—Weber's "Der Freischütz"' in ČW.
  2. The phrase "this proud, passionate, and revenge-thirsting Spanish lady" was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings—П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953, edited by Vasily Yakovlev)—but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000, edited by Ernst Kuhn).
  3. This production of Don Giovanni on the stage of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre by the Italian Opera Company took place on 4/16 December 1871.
  4. Napoleone Moriani (1806–1878), an Italian tenor who sung in many of Donizetti's operas.
  5. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, a virtuoso singer with a fine voice, but notorious for his poor acting. See Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  6. Ida Benza (1846–1880), a Hungarian soprano who was engaged at La Scala from 1869 onwards.
  7. Enrico Bevignani (1841–1903), Italian composer and conductor.
  8. Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova (1833–1903), Russian soprano.
  9. Aleksandr Dodonov (1837–1914), Russian dramatic tenor.
  10. Stepan Demidov (1822–1876), Russian bass.