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Aria for … Monday – Bella mia fiamma, addio … Resta, Oh cara (K. 528)

In Aria For ..., Classical Music, Mozart, Opera on October 21, 2013 at 2:58 pm

It’s been a while but what better way to return than with Gundula Janowitz? Possibly one of the greatest Mozartian singers of her generation, it’s a mantle she can still hold amongst today’s newer singers. Indeed, it’s hard to believe it’s just just over a decade since she stopped giving recitals.

Like her compatriot Edda Moser, the level of musicianship she achieved – the interpretive power of her singing – combined with her faultless technique and radiant soprano, make her one of the pre-eminent interpreters not only of Mozart but of Strauss.

And here, her performance of Bella mia fiamma, addio … Resta, Oh Cara – one of Mozart’s greatest concert arias – is second to none. Not only in its impassioned performance and technical brilliance, but the depth and luminosity of her singing.

The story of this aria’s composition – the composer locked in a room by famous soprano Josepha Duschek until he wrote said aria, and in revenge composing something that would challenge the abilities of the singer – is a historical anecdote that all too often creates a charming smokescreen for one of Mozart’s most beautifully and dramatically constructed concert arias.

The text – written by the obscure Michele Sarcone – is your typical emotionally-stylised Metastasian-type aria. But Mozart’s genius elevates those emotions contained therein to a new level.

Without getting too technical while the aria itself is in C major, the opening vacillates between e minor and a minor. Both these minor keys – if memory serves me correctly – featured in music written at the time of his mother’s death in Paris which affected him so deeply. As well as a piano sonata and a violin sonata in this key, Mozart also penned his Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat , with its sublime slow movement.

In fact, is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to think that when Mozart read this text he was reminded somehow of his mother? Or is that just my fanciful imagination?

The unison opening, the hesitant, sighing phrases, the syncopations all work together to immediately create that sense of loss, of desolation.

It’s been acknowledged that the Eighteen Century audience was more sensitive to music – the keys used, the modulations, the phrases and rhythms – than the modern audience. Stories of people fainting as a result of opera arias, laughing at the in-built musical humour in the symphonies of Haydn are commonplace because people were more emotionally attuned and composers – and especially Mozart – used this to great effect.

So after an accompagnato that had already heightened the emotions of the audience at the time, while the subsequent aria opens conventionally, almost immediately Mozart plunges the listener into more uncertain territory with a slip into the minor key at acerba morte (cruel death).

But nothing would have prepared them for the chromaticism Mozart writes at Quest’affano, questo passo è terrible per me (This distressing situation is hard for me to bear). The vocal line – jagged in its leaps to what for the audience would have been unexpected notes – communicates the distress so perfectly. And if once wasn’t enough, when the line is repeated, Mozart develops those chromatic phrases even further.

The audience – knowing full well that a faster section was to inevitably follow – must have been on the edge of their seats by this point.

And while the ensuing Allegro returns the listener to the home key, Mozart cannot resist some further chromaticism and orchestral sfzorzandi around Ah, questa vita così amara più soffribilé non è (Ah, a life as bitter as this can be borne no longer) continuing to wring the audience almost the final bars.

And what further lifts this aria even further are the sonorities – reminiscent of Gluck – that Mozart weaves out of the simplest of orchestra of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and strings.

In the Eighteenth Century arias, concert or otherwise – of which Mozart wrote many – were composed to showcase the brilliance of a specific singer. Here Mozart went further than anyone else. Not only did he write an aria that showcased Signora Duschek’s talents, but also an emotionally charged piece of music that would have left the audience drained.

That’s genius.

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