Mozart, a French passion

An interview with the exhibition’s curators

By Juliette Puaux 26 June 2017


This summer, France’s National Library (the BNF) and the Paris Opera are presenting an exhibition dedicated to Mozart, from his earliest visits to France to his posthumous glory in the country’s many opera houses. Through a selection of 140 pieces from the BNF’s collection, some of which have never been publically exhibited before, the exhibition retraces the major stages in the French public’s recognition of the composer. An interview with the exhibition’s three curators, Laurence Decobert, Simon Hatab and Jean-Michel Vinciguerra.

How have you structured the exhibition? What kind of journey are you proposing?

Jean-Michel Vinciguerra: The exhibition offers a chronological journey from Mozart’s earliest visits to France up to the present day, but it also offers a thematic one because we opted to illustrate the five of Mozart's operas that have been most performed in France – the three Da Ponte works and two of his German operas, The Magic Flute and The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Simon Hatab: The visitor enters the exhibition through the life of the composer: a life comes finally becomes synonymous with his body of work. It ends with the Paris Opera’s most recent performances: productions by Robert Wilson, Patrice Chéreau, Michael Haneke, Christoph Marthaler and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker… all of whom have endeavoured to offer a personal and often unexpected interpretation of Mozart’s operas. One of the aims of the exhibition is to set these performances within the historical context of how Mozart was received in France, in conditions that reflect the genealogy of how his operas were performed.

Laurence Decobert: We sourced the BNF’s collections for the relevant material: Mozart’s own manuscripts, the emblematic editions from the 18th and early 19th centuries, and also pieces from the Paris Opera’s Library-Museum for Mozart productions in France since Les Petits Riens in 1778: set sketches, costume designs, librettos, musical sources and, from the modern era, photographs and audiovisual excerpts from performances…

How would you define the relationship that Mozart had with France in his lifetime? Is it fair to talk of “a missed opportunity”?

L.D: The Mozart family’s first trip through Europe was a phenomenal success! The child prodigies were presented to the aristocracy and the king at the Court of Versailles. They dazzled everyone. People talked of a “genius”, a “miracle”… It was in Paris that the young Wolfgang would see his first works published… Then came a period of disillusionment. During his final stay in 1778, Mozart, who by then was 22 years old, returned to the capital in the hope of finding employment. But the aristocratic audiences that had admired the young prodigy did not recognise him as a composer. Other than the concerts for the Concert Spirituel, for which he composed the Paris Symphony, his other engagements proved rather disappointing. Added to this, his mother, who had accompanied him to Paris, died... In the end, he never managed to find his place or establish himself in Parisian circles.

J-M.V: The only full-time position he was offered was the job of organist at the Chapelle Royale. He knew all too well that this was not his vocation and that he would be bored at Versailles... This showed his clear-mindedness since the centre of musical life was in Paris not Versailles, and it’s clear that Mozart’s talents would have been wasted as the king’s organist.

After his death, in 1791, his works were distributed progressively, albeit in versions arranged and adapted to suit French tastes…

J-M.V: In 1793, the Paris Opera decided to widen its repertoire with Le Mariage de Figaro, a French adaptation of Le Nozze di Figaro. Everything in it was reworked: the libretto, the music, but the main difference was alternation between the sung and spoken sections: Da Ponte’s recitatives were replaced by the text of Beaumarchais’s comedy. The result proved to be highly disconcerting for an audience generally accustomed to hearing words that were sung... It was a flop. And it wasn’t until 1801 that Mozart’s name would finally be celebrated thanks to the French adaptation of The Magic Flute which was produced under the title of Les Mystères d’Isis. Its sumptuous sets and first-rate performers, and the ballet pieces by Gardel—who also happened to be nicknamed the Mozart of dance—won the acclaim of Parisian audiences.

S.H: When Mozart’s Operas were introduced in France, they were adapted or re-written. It was if at the time people thought that music could not cross cultural borders, that it could not be imported into France without being made “audible” and in tune with French tastes. Such notions are rather shocking to us today, because, irrespective of the repertoire—be it classical, rock, or electro—we see music as the ultimate art capable of transcending borders… But the various interpretations to which Mozart’s operas have been subjected also make us question the status of the artistic work. At the time, the score was still not looked upon as a “text” which needed to be respected in its entirety.

So the exhibition is also a journey into the musical life of Paris in the 19th century…

J-M.V: Each theatre had its own particular requirements. At the Paris Opera, for example, the idea of performing an opera in Italian was unthinkable and it was also necessary to add danced pieces. Also, works were adapted to please a specific audience. Meanwhile, at the Théâtre Italien, Mozart’s works were performed with a greater respect for the original scores. That venue also had a strong power of attraction on the “happy few”, who had the good fortune to discover these works for the first time before their “French” adaptation.
However, as time passed, theatres wanted to be more faithful to Mozart’s works. In 1834, the Paris Opera decided to present a new version of Don Juan that set itself apart from the 1805 production. However, certain edits remained. The final sextet was cut… And an excerpt from the Requiem was even added at the end, to make it all the more dramatic and solemn! So it took a long time for an opera performed in French until 1960 to be truly faithful to the original work.

Mozart remains one of the most performed composers at the Paris Opera… How do you explain his enduring appeal, and what sustains his theatrical force?

S.H.: Mozart became a legend, which ultimately overshadowed his work. When you take a long look at the recent productions of Mozart, you realise that many have tried to move beyond the myth, to jettison the usual performance clichés to question the more unexpected, more sombre, more tragic aspects of the work, by focusing on the doubt, the uncertainties… Mozart himself wrote to his father that we must make death our best friend. I also think that one of the reasons why Mozart’s music inspires so many directors and dramatists, is that it retains a certain degree of independence, particularly vis-à-vis the libretto. It’s blatantly obvious in Così fan tutte: there are sequences where the text says one thing and the music something else. The directors who have seized on that detachment—Patrice Chéreau and more recently Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker—have produced extremely profound versions of “Così”.

In a nutshell, what would you say to visitors to make them want to come and see the exhibition?

J-M.V: Visitors will be able to see the hand-written manuscript of Don Giovanni, which is rarely exhibited in public. The last time it was shown at the Palais Garnier was in 1887, at an exhibition to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the work. It’s like a comet that passes by once a century, and you don’t get many opportunities to see it! The exhibition also features the fabulous scale models of the sets which the architect Charles Percier created for Les Mystères d’Isis in 1801 and it enables you to plunge in a world where they adapted and took great liberties with Mozart’s work.

L.D.: There are sixteen interactive listening points, some of which feature Mozart’s music as played by orchestras on period instruments. Mozart enthusiasts will be able to hear a broad spectrum of operas, with a brief overview of what his music offered in French. Finally, it’s fascinating to discover the atmosphere of the 18th-century Mozart, and then that of 19th-century theatres.

S.H.: Today, our relationship with opera is somewhat ritualised. Discovering that other eras perceived Mozart’s music differently is very interesting for the public today: this leads us to re-examine, enrich and change our viewpoint as spectators.

Interviewed by Juliette Puaux

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