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Recordings

Mozart:<em>Grabmusik</em> and <em>Bastien und Bastienne</em> K.50; Classical Opera
16 Sep 2018

Classical Opera: Bastien und Bastienne on Signum Classics

Pride and Prejudice, North and South, Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado About Nothing: literary fiction and drama are strewn with dissembling lovers who display differing degrees of Machiavellian sharpness in matters of amatory strategy. But, there is an artless ingenuousness about Bastien and Bastienne, the eponymous pastoral protagonists of Mozart’s 1768 opera, who pretend not to love in order to seal their shared romantic destiny, but who require a hefty dose of the ‘Magician’ Colas’s conjuring/charlatanry in order to avoid a future of lonely singledom.

Mozart:Grabmusik and Bastien und Bastienne; Classical Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Signum Classics SIGCD547

£12.99  Click to buy

Following their vivid staging of the twelve-year-old Mozart’s La finta semplice at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in June this year, Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 journey sees them arrive at another adolescent staging-post, Mozart’s first Singspiel: the one-act pastoral, Bastien und Bastienne, which the company will perform at Wigmore Hall on Tuesday 18th September , and which they have just released on the Signum Classics label .

The scholarly paths to an authoritative score and full appreciation of the derivation of the libretto have been complicated by ambiguities, convolutions and a lack of extant evidence; drawing on recent scholarship by Linda Tyler [1], the source issues are helpfully summarised by artistic director and conductor Ian Page in an informative liner booklet article. The surprise discovery in the 1980s of the ‘lost’ autograph manuscript of Bastien und Bastienne in the Library of Jagiellonian University in Krakow (where it resides as an open-access source) enables Classical Opera to perform Mozart’s original 1768 setting of the libretto by Friedrich Wilhelm Weiskern and Johann Heinrich Friedrich Müller.

The libretto of the artless pastoral parody, the prodigious Mozart’s fourth work for the stage, began life as a French comedie lyrique - Les amours de Bastien et Bastienne - which was presented on 26th September 1753 by the Comédiens Italiens Ordinaires du Roi, with a text by Monsieur and Madame Favarts (who also starred as the eponymous beloveds) and Harny de Guerville. Les amours was itself a parody of Rousseau’s Le devin du village of 1753, which had great success at the Paris Acadèmie Royale de Musique in the second half of the 18th century and early 19th century. The Favarts and de Guerville turned Rousseau’s Arcadian archetypes into real, dialect-speaking peasants, and Les amours was translated into German and set to music by Johann Baptist Savio. Performed in Vienna at the Karntnerthortheater on 5 th May 1764, and in Salzburg in 1766, it was this text which was modified by Weiskern and Müller, with some further tinkling by Johann Andreas Schachtner, a trumpeter at the Salzburg court, and which was set by Wolfgang the Wunderkind in 1768.

Bastien und Bastienne was allegedly commissioned by the Viennese physician and ‘magnetist’ Dr Franz Anton Mesmer (who would later make his own parodic appearance in Così fan tutte) although, as Rudolph Angermüller, the editor of the 1974 Bärenreiter-Verlag Neue Mozart-Ausgabe score, points out, there is no evidence to verity the claims of Georg Nikolaus Nissen (who was married to Mozart’s widow and was one of the composer’s first biographers) that ‘the German operetta Bastien und Bastienne composed by him for the salon theatre of Dr. Mesmer, the well-known friend of the Mozart family, was performed in Mesmer’s garden house in a Vienna suburb’. [2]

Angermüller notes that on 10th January 1768, Mesmer had married Maria Anna von Bosch, the wealthy widow of an Imperial Court Advisor, Ferdinand Konrad von Bosch, and that the garden theatre at the Mesmers’, ‘an open-air theatre cut out of Box hedge’, at the property in the suburb Landstraße that Maria had from her deceased husband, was in 1768 not yet finished.

But, Angermüller keeps an open mind, writing in the Foreword to the Ausgabe score: ‘It is also possible that Nissen … got to know the host of the performance, Dr. Anton Mesmer, or his younger cousin, Joseph, one of the famous educationalists of that time, who could have been at the performance, and learned about it from them. But why then did Maria Anna in 1792 tell the first Mozart biographer, Friedrich von Schlichtegroll, nothing about this performance, at which she must have been present? And then Leopold, who sent news of every success and every advantageous development back to Salzburg, does not inform his Salzburg friends of a performance and its preparation. It must be admitted that Leopold’s letters between 24 September and 12 November 1768 have not been kept. Could he have told of Bastien und Bastienne in these lost letters? If that were the case, a performance in the house of Dr. Anton Mesmer could also have taken place in October, 1768.’

Whatever, the first officially recorded performance of Bastien und Bastienne took place 122 years after its composition, in Berlin on 2nd October 1890 at the Architektenhaus - whether the premiere, or second performance, we cannot reliably determine at present. But, however interesting such details and detours of historical provenance are, I digress. What of the work itself, and of this recorded performance by Classical Opera?

Some have suggested that the theme of the overture, or ‘Intrada’, bears an uncanny resemblance to the principal theme of the first movement of the Eroica; but when you consider that Beethoven’s themes are so often ‘just’ arpeggios and scales, and that here, Page and The Mozartists, led by Matthew Truscott, show how Mozart’s extended arcs above pulsing static strings beautifully capture the dramatic spirit of pastoral romance, then such coincidences seem just that.

The drama is rather slim, as is the musical content: sixteen numbers are interspersed with spoken dialogue. But, Page ensures that things swing swiftly along. I’m not sure that Anna Lucia Richter’s Bastienne sounds convincingly tormented by the anguish of abandonment in her short opening aria - that may be her ‘fault’, or Mozart’s - but she certainly sings with beguiling directness and clarity of line. It’s also an advantage to have a German native in the role as the dialogue speaks true (though there are no weaknesses among the cast of three in terms of the delivery of the spoken text) and the horns’ punctuation of Bastienne’s ensuing declaration of self-solidarity underlines her feisty core, while the strings’ tender tone hints at future capitulations to her heart’s desires.

The same strings make a good job of imitating Colas’s raucous bagpipes, as the Magician descends the hill to alleviate Bastienne’s afflictions and bass-baritone Darren Jeffery’s darkly shining resonance evinces confidence and authority. Whether Colas’s subsequent actions justify such self-assurance is another matter - at times the Magician-cum-Meddler seems to wilfully wind up the woeful Bastienne! - but, his later ‘spell’ is a show-piece of sub-Audenesque lexicographical melodrama, underpinned by vicious nerve-tingling Sturm und Drang exhibitionism from The Mozartists. We are even provided with an Appendix, so that one can hear the aria with the revised text of 1769, should one prefer ‘Diggi, daggi,/Schurry, Murry,/Horum, Harum,/Lirum/Larum’, in place of ‘Tatzel, Brätzel,/ Schober, Kober,/Indig, Windig,/Kuffer, Puffer,’ etc.

As the ‘drama’ unfolds, Richter’s tone does not consistently convey naïve innocence, but the vocal phrases are always eloquent, and dynamic and harmonic nuances are brought to the fore (the role of Bastienne will be taken by Ellie Laugharne at Wigmore Hall). And, Richter’s vocal precision plays a big part in communicating Bastienne’s anger and indignation at her beloved’s predilection for the superficial flattery and material luxury offered by the noblewoman from the castle. Moreover, her lovely ‘siciliano of sincerity’ wonderfully captures her serene acceptance of the rejection dished out by her fickle lover: artful artlessness indeed.

Tenor Alessandro Fisher makes characteristically excellent use of the text in Bastien’s first aria, in which declares that he has seen sense and will return to his beloved Bastienne. How irritating to be told by Comas, as Page’s translation puts it, that he has ‘been given the push’ (Man hat dir den Abschied gegeben). Bastien’s lines lie quite low and sadly we don’t often get the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of Fisher’s dulcet head-voice. But, the tenor conveys a strong feeling of the virility of youthful masculinity, though not without a core of sensitivity. Bastien’s confidence in the neglected Bastienne’s devotion - suggested by the unadorned honesty of Fisher’s declaration, ‘Und wenn sie vor Liebe brennet,/Muß die Glut von mir entstehn.’ (And if she burns with love,/ Must the embers arise from me.) - is simultaneously represented and mocked by the strings’ vibrant scalic flourishes; and, not exactly supplanted but certainly diluted by the simply serenading and urgent declaration of Bastien’s yearning to behold his beloved’s rosy cheeks once more. However, before their reconciliation, we have a wonderfully disingenuous duet of mutual contempt in which Page captures the characters’ dichotomy of emotions in the contrasting pace and mood of the sections within the number.

This disc is ‘filled out’ by Mozart’s Grabmusik which Classical Opera presented at Wigmore Hall in January 2016 . At Wigmore Hall next week, the programme will begin with Haydn’s La Passione Symphony, and Bastien und Bastienne will be complemented by a selection of arias from an anonymous collection of Viennese Comedy Arias from the 1750s, which demonstrate the musical language and style that Mozart deliberately replicated in his 1768 Singspiel.

Classical Opera perform Bastien und Bastienne at Wigmore Hall on 18th September. Ian Page will give a pre-concert talk at 6pm.

Claire Seymour

Anna Lucia Richter (Der Engel (Grabmusik)/Bastienne), Alessandro Fisher (Bastien), Jacques Imbrailo (Die Seele (Grabmusik)), Darren Jeffery (Colas); Ian Page (conductor), The Mozartists.

Signum Classics SIGCD547 [66:24]



[1] Tyler discusses the textual origins and evolution of the opera in ‘ Bastien und Bastienne: The Libretto, Its Derivation, and Mozart’s Text-Setting’, Journal of Musicology, Vol.8, No.4 (Autumn, 1990): 520-552.

[2] Georg Nikolaus Nissen, Biographie W. A. Mozarts (Leipzig, 1828; reprint ed., Hildesheim, 1972), 127.

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