Somewhat Mozart

It’s a first for me, actually attending a Mostly Mozart event. In the past, I had never been interested in it. It was inaugurated with the aesthetic of Mozart as palatable, easy-listening type music, meant to provide low energy charm for a midsummer evening’s snooze in the air-conditioned concert hall, and unfortunate cultural aspect of Lincoln Center generally (and one that the NY Phil, among other groups, still can’t seem to let go of).

But the festival has grown in artistic ambitions, although not to everyone’s delight, and there’s an interesting mix of the old and new. I was are Rose Hall yesterday for a newish version of something old, a concert performance of La Clemenza di Tito. Newish in that it was presented by the period instrument group The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing on old instruments, which is still a newish style.

It seems there is a minor revisionist trend to place this opera, Mozart’s last, in the group of his great dramatic masterworks, and there is a fine new recording of it. But experiencing this in performance, I can’t say that either works or is appropriate. The opera was written in under two months, and it shows. Much of it was written by Mozart’s assistant Süssmayr – the program notes indicate this was the simple recitatives, but my ears tell me it’s more than that. The opera is heavy on recitatives, and they are competent, as are many of the arias, but they are nothing like the music in Figaro, for example. The most inspired music is indeed wonderful, the overture is fine and the climaxes to each act, with ensemble pieces and wonderful clarinet obligati, are great, but the work itself is mainly rote, stiff, second-rate Mozart. The libretto by Caterino Mazzolá is shallow and stiff and the dramatic structure is more like Händel, with characters singing at rather than with each other, than the great Mozart dramas. Not a surprise from a rush job by committee, but it’s best to hear it for what it is, rather than what the audience would like it to be.

This audience loved it, actually, and there’s no fault in that. It may be second rate Mozart, but the performance was superb, great playing from the orchestra and some of the most consistently fine singing I have ever heard, beautiful and committed. The star was Alice Coote as Sesto, and Toby Spence was terrific as Tito. There’s more opera to come, and it will be truly new, and hopefully first rate.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.