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Reviewed by:
  • Mozart on the Stage
  • Margaret R. Butler (bio)
John A. Rice : Mozart on the Stage Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009 294 pages, $76, £44 (hardcover); $28.99, £16.99 (paperback)

Why do we need another book on Mozart's operas? John A. Rice anticipates this question and answers it up front in the preface of his new book, Mozart on the Stage. In contrast to the traditional organizational schemes of books on Mozart's operas (chronologically, by individual work, by the late operas as a group, or by other themes), Rice adopts an organization "by topics as relevant to the early operas as to the late ones," in order to emphasize "what Mozart's operas have in common" (xiii). Far more than another book on Mozart's operas, this is a study of the theatrical world the composer inhabited. And Rice shows us not just what happened in that world but why it happened, providing new contexts for the appreciation of the works and how they came to be. We need this book not only for what the dust jacket justifiably claims is its "fresh approach to Mozart's achievements as a composer for the stage" but also for the light it sheds on operatic production practice and the eighteenth-century theatrical experience.

Rice's approach in fact represents a synthesis and expansion of emphases of some earlier studies: its organization broadly reflects the stages in the creative process (its ten chapters are based on a "series of interactions" with individuals and influences), the operatic works are considered as they elucidate his topics, and production as a theme is increasingly attracting well-deserved attention by opera scholars. The book brings together a wealth of information, some of it well known (such as numerous quotations from the Mozart correspondence, the endnotes for which provide the locations in both Mozart: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen and the Anderson edition) and some of it newly presented, especially in the chapter on theaters and stage design. Carefully chosen references from familiar sources elucidate larger points, such as the passage from Lorenzo Da Ponte's memoirs used to illustrate the "emotional tension that must have prevailed as Figaro neared performance" (chap. 7), or Leopold Mozart's letter to his friend Lorenz Hagenauer (chap. 3), which, despite being one of the book's lengthier excerpts, is welcome for its detailed view of "the passion that eighteenth-century operatic production could arouse" (58).

The rehearsal process, an aspect of production for which frustratingly little evidence survives, is brought to life over two chapters. The chapter on singers (chap. 6) treats the collaborative process with which preparation of solo music began and explores the early, individual rehearsals that took place in private residences, with [End Page 326] revealing anecdotes of challenges particular singers faced. Issues such as staging, interactions between singers and orchestras, and revisions of musical material are treated in chapter 7's survey of rehearsal, revision, and promotion. Reports of specific rehearsals for some of the operas, such as The Marriage of Figaro, provide evidence of the complex interactions that might occur among singers, composers, theater directors, and librettists. Rice reveals the practical purposes rehearsals served beyond the obvious one of preparation: rehearsals enabled a composer to get on the performers' good side and win their approval through a demonstration of the music's quality, and they functioned as a "public relations campaign," similar to modern-day previews of shows on Broadway, introducing an opera to a select public so that positive word of it could spread and its success could be ensured. In elucidating the commercial side of Mozart's operas, Rice broadens the view of the works as cultural products shaped by the societies that produced them.

The discussion of theaters and stage design (chap. 8) is one of the book's strongest and most creative components. Rice compares the physical characteristics of the five theaters for which Mozart wrote operas, providing numerous diagrams of stages and seating layouts and images of theater interiors, some including scene designs. In certain cases he superimposes images of portions of scene designs on others, based on descriptions from librettos and other evidence, combining them in imaginative ways...


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pp. 326-330
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