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French opera troupe explores the genius of Mozart

November 05, 2007

There has never been another western composer like Mozart. His musical outpourings have been truly prodigious. The extent and range of his genius are so vast and so bewildering that any concise summing up of his achievements must risk being trite. His sense of form and symmetry seems to have been innate and was allied to an infallible craftsmanship which was partly learned and partly instinctive. There are brilliance and gaiety on the surface of Mozart’s music, but underneath a dark vein of melancholy which gives his work an ambivalence which is continually fascinating and provocative.

Though he composed 41 symphonies and 21 operas, a vast number of piano concertos and violin concertos, sonatas, string quartets and quintets, and hundreds of miscellaneous orchestral and choral compositions, if the average classical music buff was asked to name the compositions for which he is chiefly remembered, he would probably come up with Symphony No 41, referred to as The Jupiter, and three of his hugely successful operas — The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute.

Though this reviewer is an inveterate Wagner fan who places The Ring and Tristan und Isolde above all other operas, he must admit, somewhat wistfully, that The Marriage of Figaro is an exceptional piece of music. It is, in fact, regarded as the finest comic opera ever written — a spring of bubbling melody set to a sharp, fast moving, witty plot. Based on a famous play by the Frenchman Beaumarchais, it is an opera about masters and servants and the complications in that relationship caused by sex.

Western classic music buffs in Karachi were recently given a treat when a selection from Mozart’s operas was performed at the Arts Council in Karachi on November 1, 2 and 3 by Le Chants de Garonne and the Karachi Vocal Ensemble. The programme had been organized in aid of Al-Mehrab Tibbi Imdad by the Consul General of France, Pierre Seillan, who had earlier in the year presented brief musical vignettes of Paris at the same venue.

The audience heard excerpts from the three Mozart operas mentioned above in a programme calculated in both content and performance to leave an indelible impression on the audience. A couple of nocturnes were also dropped into the proceedings as a kind of bonne bouche.

The performers were very good as they switched from Italian to German and back again to Italian. The sopranos Agnès Dutourne, Veronique Guin and Aurélie Fargues, and the mezzo-soprano Francine Sehabiague ably exploited their skills to luxuriate in the contrasting textures of sensual pleasure and poignancy. They were particularly impressive in that passage in the finale of the first act of Don Giovann, when they spat out their fury in cascades of colatura. The baritones David Ortega, Emmanuel Gardeil and Jean-François Gardeil were at their best in The Magic Flute, a solid slice of teutonic traditionalism. One was most impressed with the tenor Arnaud Penet who was crackling with energy as he negotiated his role with considerable dash.

However, a little more care could have been taken when drafting the programme which was a little disjointed. A four-line summary of the plot of each opera, followed by the roles the singers are supposed to play would have been most helpful. A short biographic detail about the singers could have also been included.

It is also not very clear why taped music was not used in the background, instead of a piano. Tapes were successfully employed in a concert in the Alliance Francaise a few years ago with great success. This reviewer remembers listening to a young mezzo-soprano sing aria from Norma and La Traviata which created the illusion that he was sitting in a concert hall abroad.

A piano, even a Steinway, is no substitute for an orchestra. And though the pianist Fabien Prou displayed a clear commitment to the work without any conscious imposition, as he opened the textures with lyrical clarity, the fact remains that taped music could have done a far better job. Perhaps M. Seillan could consider this possibility when he arranges the next programme, as he appears to be the only diplomat in the city who is bringing to the locals city excerpts of western music.