Musical controversies on how Mozart’s operas should be staged began to die down after 1830. No longer simply “fashionable”, he rose to the rank of “classical” composer. His works were performed in ever greater compliance with their original scores. The situation, in fact, was turned on its head: whereas at the beginning of the century Mozart had still been regarded as just another composer among many, good at providing fodder for opera singers’ talents, it was now the singers’ job to reveal the composer’s greatness. Theatre directors played a key role in this regard, calling upon the skills of the finest performers and most prestigious stage designers. Giving his works top billing in their programming, they entered into fierce competition with one another, showing no hesitation in staging the same opera simultaneously – in 1866,for example, Don Juan was performed at a trio of rival Paris theatres. In the 20th century, Mozart became one of the most popular composers in France. Evident from, for example, the success of the “Festival d’art lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence”, an international music festival which, from its first edition in 1948, became the prime mover in rediscovery of Mozart’s operas in their original language. A few years later, the Paris Opera, under its new director Rolf Liebermann, followed in its footsteps and staged The Marriage of Figaro. Over the years, the institution has added other lesser-known works to its repertoire, including Così fan tutte in 1974 and The Clemency of Titus and Idomeneo in 1987. So much so, indeed, that for the last forty years Mozart has been the Paris Opera’s most performed composer.
After the controversial 1805 production of Don Juan, Mozart’s masterpiece was finally staged once again at the Opera in 1834, this time in a version supposedly rather more faithful to the original. This Don Juan, based on a new libretto by Castil-Blaze and Deschamps, was nonetheless turned into a “heroic drama”. With its happy ending removed, in which the delivered victims are reunited, the curtain falls on the cries of a chorus of the damned and a fragment of the Requiem. The opera enjoyed a cult status among artists and writers of the Romantic period. It spread yet further in 1855, when the singer Pauline Viardot acquired its manuscript, in the composer’s own hand, and put it on display in her salon, where it was admired by numerous overawed musicians.
In 1866, while the Opera put Don Juan back on the programme in the same version, the Théâtre-Lyrique staged a version with a new libretto which included the original last scene. In 1934, the Opera’s director Jacques Rouché celebrated the centenary of the 1834 version with a production marked by ingenious use of stage lighting. But it was not until 1960 that Don Juan was first performed at the Opera in Italian.
In 2006, the film director Michael Haneke set the opera in a tower block in the La Défense district and delivered a sombre, cruel, pitiless and determinedly radical vision of the work.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail - Abduction from the Seraglio
Although The Abduction from the Seraglio was the most popular of Mozart’s operas in Germanic countries during the composer’s lifetime, it was received very differently in France. The alternation of spoken word and song, its mixture of comic and serious styles and references to the Orient caught French audiences off-balance. After a brief run at the Théâtre-Lyrique in 1862, The Abduction from the Seraglio only made its way into the Paris Opera’s repertoire in 1903 and was not performed at the Opéra-Comique until 1937, in a French version. Although orientalism initially allowed stage designers to give free rein to their imaginations, the subject was often regarded as no more than simplistic “Turkery”. The work was restored to favour at the Aix-en-Provence festival, thanks to its director Gabriel Dussurget, who was a staunch defender of Mozart’s operas in their original versions. Looking on opera productions as a fusion of all the arts, he brought in André Derain in 1951 to design its scenery and costumes, which continued to adorn the stage up until 1967. But it was not until 1975 that Mozart’s Singspiel was first performed in German at the Paris Opera. In this particular work, Mozart, who always tried to weave moral or social lessons into his operas, incorporates Enlightenment ideals borrowed from France. With the character of Pasha Selim, the drama highlights the values of freedom, mercy, love and humanity, which also lie at the heart of the grand operas he was yet to compose, including The Magic Flute and The Clemency of Titus.
Le Nozze di Figaro - The Marriage of Figaro
After performances of The Marriage of Figaro at the Théâtre-Italien in 1807, Mozart and Da Ponte’s first opera came back into fashion under the Second Empire, in a French version staged at the Théâtre-Lyrique, a rival of the Opera and the Opéra-Comique. The 1858 premiere was a triumph hailed by all the critics. The soprano Caroline Carvalho, the new queen of song, stood out in the role of Chérubin, alongside the baritone Auguste Meillet as a highly accomplished Figaro. The work came into the Opéra-Comique’s repertoire in 1872, and was produced on numerous occasions well into the 20th century, each time in a revised version. The Marriage of Figaro returned to the Paris Opera’s programme in 1973, after almost two centuries’ absence. Dreaming of holding a “real Mozartian festival”, the new director Rolf Liebermann chose the work to inaugurate his appointment. Giorgio Strehler’s production, with scenery and costumes by Ezio Frigerio, delighted audiences, who continued to flock to it with every passing season. In a little over 40 years, this now legendary production has become a model of musical and dramatic matchmaking. With 204 performances between 1973 and 2017, The Marriage of Figaro has been performed at the Paris Opera more times than any other work over the same period.
Così fan tutte
Of the three Mozart operas with librettos by Da Ponte, Così fan tutte was long the least popular in France. Its libretto was deemed ridiculous and highly improbable, nothing much more than a patchwork farce: how could the two noble heroines, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, possibly fail to recognise their lovers disguised as Albanians or let themselves be manipulated by their maid? It was to get round these plot holes that the Théâtre-Lyrique’s director Léon Carvalho called in Michel Carré and Jules Barbier (the Faust librettists) to write a new libretto based on Shakespeare’s comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, whose French title, Peines d’amour perdues, was assigned to the work as performed in 1863. It made its way into the Opéra-Comique’s repertoire in 1920 and was first performed at the Paris Opera rather later, in 1974. A work imbued with disillusion and disenchantment, Così is now one of the most commonly performed operas on French stages. Stage directors are drawn to it, as was Patrice Chéreau, who set the story on the bare stage of an Italian theatre with disintegrating walls (Aix-en-Provence, 2005), while the choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker set it in an empty white laboratory, highlighting the couples’ interactions as they break apart and come together again (Paris Opera, 2017).