Komische Operette in 1 act – KV 486
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger
First performed: Schönnbrunn Palace, Vienna, 7 February 1786; Kärntnertor Theater, Vienna, 11 February 1786
An imperial command is hard to refuse. Mozart, halfway through a little number called The Marriage of Figaro, was ordered to compose after-dinner entertainment for Joseph II and visiting dignitaries.
Mozart whipped up his comic confection, a satirical look at backstage politics and egos, in two weeks, and served it to a glittering crowd at the Schönbrunn’s Orangery.
Among those present were the Governor-General of the Austrian Netherlands, Duke Albert of Sachsen-Techsen; his wife the Archduchess Marie Christine, Joseph II’s sister; and the King of Poland’s nephew Prince Stanislas Poniatowski.
The second half of the evening’s entertainment was also meta-theatrical: Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole, an ancestor of Strauss‘s Capriccio.
From the Wiener Zeitung (8 February 1786):
On Tuesday, His Majesty the Emperor gave a festival at Schönbrunn for Their Excellencies the Governors-General of the Imperial and Royal Netherlands, and a gathering of the local nobility. Forty courtiers as well as Prince Poniatowski being invited, these escorted their own ladies, and at three o’clock set out from the Hofburg in pairs, travelling by both open and closed carriages. His Imperial Majesty accompanied Her Serene Highness the Archduchess Christine. The party alighted at the Orangery, which had been prepared most lavishly and attractively for luncheon for the guests. The table, beneath the orange trees, was most prettily decorated with both local and exotic flowers, blossoms and fruits. While His Majesty, the distinguished visitors and the guests partook of their meal, the Imperial and Royal Chamber Musicians performed on wind instruments. After the banquet, a new play with arias, called Der Schauspieldirektor was performed by actors of the Imperial and Royal National Theatre on a stage especially erected at one end of the Orangery. At its conclusion, an opera buffa, likewise newly composed for this occasion, and entitled Prima la musica e poi le parole, was given by the company of the Court Opera, on the Italian stage erected at the other end of the Orangery. All this time, the Orangery was most gloriously illuminated with numerous lights from candelabra and wall-brackets. After nine o’clock, the entire company returned to town in the same order, each coach being accompanied by two grooms with links.
(quoted in Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Mozart, 1978)
Both operas were performed three times in public at the Kärntnertor Theater, with, according to the Ephemeriden der Litteratur und des Theaters, Berlin, 1786, “extraordinary success and attendance” (quoted in Osborne).
Der Schauspieldirektor has been revised for production several times, including by Goethe (1791). For his Mozart und Schikaneder (1845), Louis Schneider chose as subject the composition of The Magic Flute.
- BUFF, a buffo singer (bass): Joseph Weidmann
- MONSIEUR VOGELSANG, a singer (tenor): Valentin Adamberger
- MADAME HERZ, a singer (soprano): Aloysia Weber
- MADEMOISELLE SILBERKLANG, a singer (soprano): Caterina Cavalieri
- FRANK, an impresario: Johann Gottlieb Stephanie Jr.
- EILER, a banker: Johann Franz Hieronymus Brockmann
- HERZ, an actor: Joseph Lange
- MADAME PFEIL, an actress: Anna Maria Stephanie
- MADAME KRONE, an actress: Johanna Sacco
- MADAME VOGELSANG, an actress: Maria Anna Adamberger
The impresario Frank and his assistant Buff are assembling a theatrical troupe, funded by banker Herr Eiler, on condition that his fiancée Mme Pfeil can star. They audition various actors. (This is all spoken, and is often omitted in revised versions.)
Now the singers audition. Soprano Mme Herz sings an ariette, “Da schlägt die Abschiedsstunde”:
The other soprano, Mlle Silberklang, chooses a rondo, “Bester Jungling! mit Entzücken”:
Both want to be prima donna – but only one can be. The two ladies quarrel in a brilliant trio, while Vogelsang the tenor tries to intervene.
The actresses have the answer: joint star billing for the rival prime donne. The troupe can now work together.
Der Schauspieldirektor is Mozart’s masterpiece. On one level, it is a witty satire of back-stage trials and tribulations, an ancestor of Donizetti‘s Convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali (Viva la mamma!) and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
On another, higher, deeper, more profoundly profound level, it is a metaphor for a unified humanity rising above the snares of ego, living and loving in an Enlightened spirit of harmony.
Künstler müssen freilich streben,
stets des Vorzugs wert zu sein,
doch sich selbst den Vorzug geben,
über andre sich erheben,
macht den größten Künstler klein.
Einigkeit rühm’ ich vor allen
andern Tugenden uns an,
denn das Ganze muß gefallen,
und nicht groß ein einz’lner Mann.
I praise unity above all other virtues;
because the whole thing has to be liked,
and not a single man.
Of course, artists have to strive
always to be of value,
but to rise above others
while putting others down
makes the biggest artist small.
It is the lofty message of The Magic Flute: man must put aside his differences and petty egos, and work together in pure joyous brotherhood, like the Freemasons.
Or maybe it’s just a bit of fun for aristos.
In either case, Mozart’s score is inventive. The tempestuous C major overture is surprisingly dramatic, while the two soprano arias wouldn’t be out of place in one of the da Ponte comedies.
The undoubted highlight is the quarrel trio, with the women trying to outdo each other’s highest notes, and singing heartfelt passages on the words “Adagio” and “Allegro”.
Der Schauspieldirektor may be a musical dessert, but it’s far from a trifle.
Ruth Welting, Ileana Coltrubas, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, and Clifford Grant, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Philips.