Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Mozart, Master of the Ensemble

Of course they had ensembles in opera before Mozart. (Remember Semele’s amazing duet for Semele and Ino?) But more than perhaps any other composer before or since, Mozart reveled in the glory of the operatic ensemble, its potential to explore multiple human characters simultaneously and to bring to the foreground the beauty and conflicts of any relationship (or network of relationships).

No other art form has anything quite like the ensemble. By nature it’s a little bit surreal, which may explain why it arose in comic opera, where playing around with the laws of reality adds extra fun. Mozart’s operas taught later composers how to create both kinds of ensembles: those of mounting confusion and hilarity, which always form the climax of great comic scenes, and those exploring complicated characters in serious conflict, which became one of the delights of nineteenth century opera.

Given the extraordinary fertility of Mozart’s genius, it’s no surprise that he never repeated himself, neither in terms of music nor in dramatic situation. We raided our archives for the four great Mozart masterpieces we regularly present at Seattle Opera and found a remarkable range of different types of ensembles. Below are some samples from our favorite Mozart ensembles, demonstrating what he was able to do with each type of form.


Will She Or Won’t She?
One of Mozart’s best-known tunes, “La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, is also a tense, intimate drama between the world’s greatest lover and the young bride whose wedding he has just crashed. Don Giovanni, an aristocrat, is slumming; he propositions the lower-class Zerlina using a humble melody, almost a folk song, to demonstrate that he can speak her language. He’s fishing for some affection, and she bites on his line—she sings his tune back to him immediately, to show that she’s paying attention, even though her words indicate ambivalence: “Vorrei e non vorrei,” I want to and I don’t want to. After they bat that tune back and forth a bit, Mozart indicates musically how the question is resolved—in the conclusion to the duet, instead of taking turns singing, they’re singing simultaneously, harmonizing with each other, now that they’re in agreement: yes, she will. Listen, too, for the solo violin sliding down a little chromatic harmony during the concluding movement—a little musical snake, indicating the dangerously sexy potential of this exchange.

”La ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni, sung by Mark Walters and Cecelia Hall. Gary Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2014.

Idealizing Marriage
Much more innocent is the beautifully simple duet, “Bei Männern,” for new best friends Papageno and Pamina in The Magic Flute. Both these young people long for the blissful married state of husband and wife, although there’s no question of their pairing up together (she’s a princess and he’s this bizarre half-bird forest creature). Mozart’s music achieves symmetric balance, both between soprano and baritone voices and between the ideas of husband and wife—while offering distinct, individual contours to each phrase and harmony.

”Bei Männern” from The Magic Flute, sung by Nathan Gunn and Ana Maria Martinez. Daniel Beckwith conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 1999.


A Prayer for Smooth Sailing
Parents who already have two kids can add a third with only a marginal increase in household chaos. But in opera, adding a third voice makes a world of difference. With three voices, complete triadic harmonies become possible—a vast enrichment of musical potential, akin to discovering a new dimension. Mozart sometimes took advantage of this quality of the trio for his ‘frozen time’ ensembles, those scenes in which the music dilates a single moment of the drama into a passage of unearthly beauty. The gorgeous ‘Farewell’ trio from Così fan tutte is a typical example: sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella (assisted by the old cynic Don Alfonso) are praying for the safety of their boyfriends, who seem to have been drafted. Mozart’s music for their prayer takes us out of the reality of this situation and, in a good performance, straight to heaven.

“Soave sia il vento” from Così fan tutte, sung by Alwyn Mellor, Kate Lindsey, and Peter Rose at a Seattle Opera Gala in 2014. Carlo Montanaro conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera.

Voices of Darkness
Different voices in an ensemble must preserve their individuality; you’re never supposed to lose track of which character is singing. Of course, that’s easier if an ensemble showcases strongly contrasting voices: male and female, high and low. It’s more of a challenge when an ensemble features multiples of the same voice type. Mozart never shied away from that challenge; in Don Giovanni he gave us two remarkable trios for deep, dark male voices, when he blends the voices of Don Giovanni, Leporello, and the Commendatore (in the opening and closing scenes of the opera). In the second of these trios, haughty antagonists Don Giovanni and the Commendatore menace each other while the clownish Leporello, still singing his lower-class patter, cringes under a table in fear.

Trio from the Don Giovanni Act 2 Finale, sung by Nicolas Cavallier, Erik Anstine, and Jordan Bisch. Gary Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2014.


Who’s the Cleverest of Them All?
Add a fourth voice to your ensemble and chaos threatens. Tracking four separate characters and their conflicting agendas is a tall order. The best way to mitigate the challenge is to break the characters into sub-groups. For example, the brilliant ‘interrogation’ quartet in the middle of the extended Act Two finale of The Marriage of Figaro breaks in two; the first part of it is basically a duet: Count Almaviva (baritone) questions Figaro (bass), who plays dumb, with Susanna and the Countess (both sopranos) playing a joint role as advice-whispering spectators. But for its conclusion, the music morphs into a lovely prayer trio (sung by Figaro and the two sopranos) with the grumpy Count fuming in staccato underneath.

Also listen, in this quartet, for Mozart’s clever use of rhythm and melody as characterization. The tune here is a gavotte, a popular non-aristocratic dance. Once again, the aristocratic Count’s choice of a gavotte for this interrogation is slumming; he’s trying to address Figaro, his servant, casually, at Figaro’s own social level. At first, denying the Count’s accusations, Figaro just mirrors the Count’s music. But listen to the new version of the gavotte melody Figaro introduces at 0:50, with the brilliantly ingenuous line “Mente il ceffo, io già non mento” (My face might lie, but I don’t). Figaro corrects the Count’s tune, as if to say, “You think you can sing my music? This is how it goes.” Figaro’s version is easier, more natural, less forced, and of course it’s his improved version that becomes the heart of the prayer that concludes this quartet.

Quartet from the Marriage of Figaro Act 2 Finale, sung by John Moore, Aubrey Allicock, Laura Tatulescu, and Caitlin Lynch. Gary Thor Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2016.

Don’t Listen to Her
Mozart similarly writes a quartet, for a central scene in Don Giovanni, which is really a trio in disguise. Don Giovanni (baritone) and Donna Elvira (soprano) are quarreling, both trying to win Donna Anna and Don Ottavio to their side of a bitter argument. Anna and Ottavio (soprano and tenor) operate as one character in this scene, unsure of which to believe: Elvira is trying to convince them that the elegant aristocrat Don Giovanni is really a villainous monster, whereas he’s trying to convince them that this distressed but dignified noblewoman is crazy. Listen for the intensification of the argument, at 0:49, when both Giovanni and Elvira lose their decorum and lapse into undignified patter declamation.

Quartet from Don Giovanni, sung by Randall Bills, Alexandra LoBianco, Mark Walters, and Elizabeth Caballero. Gary Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2014.


Three & Two
As with the quartets, the trick to effective quintet writing is “Divide and conquer.” Here’s a breathtaking Mozart quintet, from the first act of The Magic Flute, organized as a girls-and-guys duet. The Three Ladies, singing as one character with three heads, explain to the guys (hero Tamino and sidekick Papageno) that the Three Spirits will guide them to Sarastro’s citadel. (Sometimes the Three Spirits are onstage, but Mozart doesn’t ask them to sing.) This charmingly simple music—harmonically the same progression as the ever-popular Pachelbel Canon—culminates in a lovely five-voiced farewell to the repeated words, “Auf Wiedersehen” (See you later).

Quintet from the first act of The Magic Flute, sung by Anya Matanovič, Marcy Stonikas, Lindsey Anderson, John Tessier, and Philip Cutlip. Gary Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2011.

Four & One
By way of contrast, here’s another quintet of leave-taking, this one from the first act of Così fan tutte—but one which is much less simple and naïve. Here, four of the characters are overdoing the romanticized heartbreak of farewell, while a fifth, muttering in an ironic counterpoint, giggles (beginning at 0:20) that the whole thing is a joke: “Io crepo se non rido,” Don Alfonso sings in an aside, “I’ll burst unless I laugh.” Alfonso knows the guys haven’t really been drafted, that they’re not really going anywhere, and (so he thinks) that none of them really love each other. Each voice type is represented: soprano (Fiordiligi), mezzo (Dorabella), tenor (Ferrando), baritone (Guglielmo), and bass (the cynical Don Alfonso).

Quintet from the first act of Così fan tutte, sung by Alexandra Deshorties, Christine Rice, Matthew Polenzani, Christopher Maltman, and Richard Stilwell. Andreas Mitisek conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2006.


The “Big Surprise” Ensemble
The classic nineteenth century operatic ensemble is an extended moment of surprise following a dramatic revelation: Edgardo bursts in and interrupts Lucia’s wedding, whereupon everybody freezes and sings the Lucia sextet in surprise; Alfredo throws a wad of cash in Violetta’s face, at Flora’s party in Act 2 of La traviata, and everyone registers their horror in the huge ensemble concertante that follows; Brünnhilde screams that she’s already had sex with Siegfried, provoking everybody onstage at the double-wedding scene in Götterdämmerung Act Two to cry out in dismay for a noisy ensemble. Mozart, of course, did it first. The great sextet in the second of Don Giovanni set the standard for this kind of scene: five characters (Anna, Elvira, Zerlina, Ottavio, and Masetto) all think they’ve caught Don Giovanni—but it turns out to be Leporello disguised as his master, so they all sing about how surprised and shocked they are for several minutes. As is typical of these bigger-scale ensembles, the audience isn’t expected to track exactly which character is singing which line at every moment. It’s too surreal for that. While the performers shouldn’t suspend their characterizations, they must inflect each note they sing properly depending on whether their part at that moment is primary or subordinate.

Sextet from Don Giovanni, sung by Erin Wall, Lawrence Brownlee, Elizabeth Caballero, Cecelia Hall, Evan Boyer, Erik Anstine. Gary Wedow conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2014.

“Have you all lost your minds?”
Those ‘big surprise’ ensembles can function in both serious and comic contexts. That Don Giovanni sextet, for instance, can go either way. But comic operas always build to scenes of complete mayhem, with everybody screaming at once, frothing in excitement, and here these bigger-scale ensembles are loads of fun. Here’s an example from the first act of Così fan tutte, the reappearance of Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, trying to woo each other’s fiancés. The ladies are aghast; the boys (aided by Despina), finding the scene amusing, try harder to turn up their mojo the more the ladies resist; and Don Alfonso, concealing himself upstage, is studying the scene as if he’s monitoring his scientific experiment. As you can hear from the audience reaction here, scenes like this can be really funny.

Sextet from Così fan tutte, sung by Alexandra Deshorties, Christine Rice, Kim Barber, Matthew Polenzani, Christopher Maltman, and Richard Stilwell. Andreas Mitisek conducted the orchestra of Seattle Opera in 2006.

Mozart uses the septet form for the climax at the center of both The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. (Così only has six characters, and at this point in The Magic Flute there’s a chorus onstage.) These pieces set up a standard pattern for both light and serious opera in the century that followed: close your acts with a huge cliffhanger, bringing everybody onstage to blend their voices in a huge ensemble and give the audience a big reason to applaud and hang around during intermission. The Figaro septet scans as 4 vs. 3 (the Count plus the three conspirators—Marcellina, Bartolo, Basilio—vs. Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess); the Giovanni one is organized as 5 vs. 2 (Giovanni, aided by Leporello, must escape all the other characters, who have ganged up on him). The cumulative power of these pieces really only works in person, so we won’t attempt to share a sample on SoundCloud. You’ll just have to come to the show and experience it live!

Image, top, of Tom Hulce as Mozart from Amadeus(1983 film); anonymous cartoon of Luciasextet


  1. Those sound so great! I love opera, I grew up on listening to classical music and Mozart's operas have always been my favorites since I was a little girl. Thank you for posting!