Book Review: MOZART AND HIS OPERAS by DAVID CAIRNS (University of California Press)

By Bradley Bambarger <2006>

For all the virtues of Handel, Wagner, Verdi and Britten, the operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have a mix of sensual appeal and emotional subtlety that is, for those lucky to know them, unparalleled.

“Mozart is like Shakespeare,” writes David Cairns. “The better we know his music — the more we explore its heights and depths — the more marvelous it becomes.”

With Mozart and His Operas — likely to be the most elegant, erudite book published to mark this year’s 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth — Cairns traces the composer’s life through his work in the theater, as well as the changing reception for that work through the years.

Cairns, a veteran British scholar whose biography of Berlioz was widely hailed as a masterpiece, draws on a historian’s full range of sources — Mozart’s letters, contemporary reviews, the scores themselves — to bring the composer, his art and his milieu to vivid life.

Capturing the revolutionary quality of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Cairns writes, “For the first time, music has found the means of embodying the interplay of living people, the feelings and thoughts of rounded human beings, servants and masters, each speaking in their own characteristic idiom, all inhabiting an actual world, enchanted yet recognizable.”

Of course, many of Mozart’s contemporaries thought the richness of his creations bewildering (although connoisseurs, such as Haydn, loved it). Don Giovanni would touch a Romantic chord in the 19th-century, but Victorian morality would sideline the sex comedy Cosi Fan Tutte. Now, its ambiguities speak so strongly to us that it is one of Mozart’s most-performed operas.

The chapters on Mozart’s seven mature operas are so enthralling — with Cairns’ almost schoolboy enthusiasm for Idomeneo especially infectious — that the book’s lone disappointment is that it rounds up the adolescent composer’s several operas into one, scene-setting chapter. Vitally, though, Cairns takes care to discuss the non-theatrical pieces that informed Mozart’s operatic writing, such as his wind serenades concurrent with The Abduction from the Seraglio.

The sheer surface beauty in Mozart means that, even now, he can be taken for granted. Perhaps the key is — as Cairns conjectures, having spent a lifetime with The Magic Flute and the rest — that a person needs to have “lived enough to perceive the truth of him.”

(Originally published in 2006 in The Star-Ledger of New Jersey.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to , etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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