Friday, July 23, 2021

Mozart and Salieri: The School of Jealousy

François Boucher, Lovers in a Park, 1758 (detail). Image source: Timken Museum of Art

In my previous post Mozart and Salieri: The Magician's Cave I mentioned that during Mozart's lifetime Antonio Salieri was by far the more popular composer. That began to change shortly after Mozart's death in 1791. Throughout the rest of the decade Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) continued to be performed regularly at Emmanuel Schikaneder's Theater auf der Wieden, leading to the revival of Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Rescue from the Harem) and then the Mozart-Da Ponte operas in German translation. Salieri stopped composing operas after 1804, and even his most popular operas gradually fell from the repertory. In the meantime Mozart was increasingly recognized and embraced by writers such as E.T.A. Hoffmann ("Don Juan") and Alexander Pushkin ("The Stone Guest" and "Mozart and Salieri"). By the end of the 19th century Mozart was considered (rightfully) as one of the greatest composers ever to have lived, and Salieri was all but forgotten, except (unjustly) as his rival and nemesis.

Today a highly unscientific search of the global library catalog WorldCat turns up more than 30,000 books on Mozart and his works in all languages, including more than 3,000 that are categorized as biographies (the first, by Franz Xaver Niemetschek, was 78 pages long and published in 1798, seven years after Mozart's death). By contrast, there are only about 600 books on Salieri and his works in all languages, including four dozen biographies (the first, by Albert von Hermann, was 24 pages long and published in 1897, seven decades after Salieri's death). For every book published about Salieri, 50 have been published about Mozart.

Antonio Salieri, by Joseph Willibrord Mähler, 1815 (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Four of Mozart's operas, including the three with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte, are among the ten most performed operas in the world, according to; Salieri's operas have been all but absent from the stage for more than two hundred years. But without Salieri there would have been no Mozart-Da Ponte partnership. When Da Ponte came to Vienna in early 1782, he carried a letter of introduction to Salieri from Caterino Mazzolà, poet of the court theater in Dresden and librettist of Salieri's Venetian opera La scuola de' gelosi (The School of Jealousy). A year later the letter bore fruit. Da Ponte wrote in his Memoirs,

. . .I chanced to hear a rumor that Joseph II was considering reopening an Italian Opera in his capital; and remembering Mazzola's suggestion, the thought flashed upon me that I might become a poet [librettist] of Caesar. . .I called on Salieri, to whom I had delivered Mazzola's letter on my arrival; and he not only encouraged me to apply for the post, but volunteered to speak himself to the Director of Spectacles [Count Rosenberg] and to the Sovereign personally, of whom he was particularly beloved.
Salieri managed the matter so deftly that I went to Caesar for my first audience, not to ask a grace, but to give thanks for one. [1]

Despite never having written a play, much less an opera libretto, Da Ponte was appointed to the position of poet to the court theater and held this position for eight years. During that time he wrote libretti for both Mozart and Salieri, as well as several other composers. One of his first tasks after receiving his appointment was the revision of Salieri and Mazzolà's La scuola de' gelosi when it was chosen as the inaugural production of Joseph's new opera buffa troupe.

Lorenzo Da Ponte, engraved by Michele Pekenino after a portrait by Nathaniel Rogers, ca. 1822 (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

While it's incontestably true that Mozart is a greater composer than Salieri, it's also true that Mozart and Da Ponte borrowed (and generally improved) musical and textual ideas from Salieri's operas. This borrowing has become even clearer from the new productions and recordings that have begun to appear over the past decade or so, and La scuola de' gelosi is a case in point. 

In La scuola a Count, whose affections are estranged from his loving wife, plans to seduce a woman from a lower class: Ernestina, the wife of the merchant Blasio. There are disguises, false assignations, and a denouement in a garden where all the couples surprise one another and the jealous Blasio and the straying (and also fiercely jealous) Count are chastened by their faithful spouses.

If this sounds reminiscent of the plot of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), it's actually the other way around: La scuola was written in 1778, six years before Beaumarchais' play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro was first produced and eight years before Mozart and Da Ponte's Figaro had its première.

La scuola prefigures Figaro not only in its plot and text, but also in its music. In Act II La scuola's Countess sings an aria in which she yearns for the return of her husband's love:

The singer is Francesca Mazzuli Lombardi with L'Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt. The words of the aria:

Ah, sia già de' miei sospiri
sazio il fato e sazio il Ciel!
Abbastanza a' suoi martiri
mi serbò destin crudel.

Fra gli orrori d'avversa sorte
dovrei sempre i di passar?
Il tormento della morte
men terrible mi par.

Torna, torna, amato sposo
al desio del primo amor,
e bei giorni di riposo
sien compenso al mio dolor.
Ah, may both fate and Heaven
be sated with my sighs!
I have been tortured enough
by my cruel destiny.

Am I doomed to dwell always
among the horrors of suffering?
The torments of death
seem less terrible to me.

Come back, come back, beloved husband
to the desire of our first love,
and beautiful days of peace
will reward me for my sorrow.

"Ah, sia già de' miei sospiri" may remind you of the arias sung by the Countess in Figaro. In "Porgi amor" she sings, "O love, offer me some relief / For my sorrow, for my sighs! / Give me back my beloved / Or let me die" with the same descending melody on the word "morir" with which La scuola's Countess sings "crudel." And the structure of "Dove sono" from Figaro is audibly similar, at least to my ear:

The singer is Nadine Sierra in live performance with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Patrick Summers. (For my post about Nadine Sierra and this production, see The Marriage of Figaro.) The words of the aria:

Dove sono i bei momenti
Di dolcezza e di piacer?
Dove andaro i giuramenti
Di quel labbro menzogner?

Perchè mai, se in pianti e in pene
Per me tutto si cangiò,
La memoria di quel bene
Dal mio sen non trapassò?

Ah! se almen la mia costanza,
Nel languire amando ognor,
Mi portasse una speranza
Di cangiar l'ingrato cor!
Where are those lovely moments
Of sweetness and pleasure?
Where have the promises gone
That came from those lying lips?

Why, if all is changed for me
Into tears and pain,
Has the memory of that sweetness
Not vanished from my breast?

Ah! if only, at least, my faithfulness,
Which still loves amidst its suffering,
Could bring me the hope
Of changing that ungrateful heart!

The musical and textual echoes among these arias suggest that the Countess in Figaro was modelled at least in part on the Countess in La scuola.

Wolfgang Mozart ca. 1782, unfinished portrait by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange (detail). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

La scuola also seems to have inspired Mozart and Da Ponte's Così fan tutte (All women are the same). When Blasio and the Countess learn of the Count's scheme to seduce Blasio's wife, a mutual acquaintance (who himself yearns after the Countess) advises them to turn the tables on the Count by pretending to be lovers and making him jealous. Shades of Don Alfonso advising (and manipulating) the couples in Così. And in La scuola's finale Blasio and the Count offer as a reason for men to remain faithful that "tutte son la stessa cosa" (all women are the same). Da Ponte's original title for Così fan tutte was La scuola degli amanti (The School for Lovers), and he originally offered it to Salieri as a sequel to La scuola de' gelosi. But after composing the opening numbers Salieri did not continue, and Da Ponte took the libretto to Mozart. (For ways in which both Così and Don Giovanni echo the Salieri-Giovanni Casti opera La grotta di Trofonio, please see Mozart and Salieri: The Magician's Cave.)

The 2015 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi recording of La scuola de' gelosi by L'Arte del Mondo conducted by Werner Ehrhardt is charming. All of the vocalists acquit themselves more than honorably, and the women (Francesca Lombardi as the Countess, Roberta Mameli as Ernestina, and Milena Storti as Carlotta, the Countess's maidservant) are especially good. While Massimiliano Toni's continuo fortepiano occasionally may be a bit overactive for some tastes, Ehrhardt's tempos are well-judged and the playing of the ensemble L'Arte Del Mondo sparkles. The full recording is available on YouTube and elsewhere, and is recommended; it received an honorable mention in my Favorites of 2019: Recordings. Salieri may not have been Mozart, but being Salieri was more than sufficient.

Image source: Presto Classical

  1. Memoirs of Lorenzo Da Ponte, translated by Elisabeth Abbott. J.W. Lippincott, 1929, p. 129. Da Ponte's gratitude to Salieri had waned by the end of his tenure as court theater poet. In 1791, after Joseph's death and the accession of his brother Leopold II, Da Ponte was dismissed. He wrote out a list of enemies, among whom he listed his "Principal enemy: Sig. Salieri." One of Salieri's crimes, in Da Ponte's view, was that "he assigns prima-donna roles to [Caterina] Cavalieri," Salieri's mistress, instead of to Adriana Ferrarese, Da Ponte's mistress. Da Ponte's intriguing came to nothing, and his accusations were mis-aimed: Salieri is unlikely to have prevailed on Leopold to dismiss Da Ponte, if for no other reason than that his influence was sharply diminished under the new ruler. Under the new regime Salieri himself lost his position as musical director of the court theater, although he remained as Hofkappellmeister.

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Steel-True: Barbara Stanwyck

Victoria Wilson, A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940. Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Barbara Stanwyck, born as Ruby Stevens, was orphaned by the time she was four: her mother died as the result of an accident and her widower father abandoned the family. Growing up in foster homes and with relatives, by age fourteen she was working as a chorus girl in New York nightclubs, and before she was 20 had begun appearing in movies. Her first films were not successful, but her husband Frank Fay paid for a screen test that convinced director Frank Capra to cast her in Ladies of Leisure (1930). After it did well at the box office, Stanwyck went on to appear in a series of Pre-Code films now considered classics. 

The late 1930s and early 1940s witnessed the fading of the careers of many actresses who had come to prominence in the early years of the sound era, such as Ruth Chatterton, Mae Clarke, Bebe Daniels, Miriam Hopkins and Ruby Keeler. But Stanwyck's appeal only grew: during this period she worked with directors such as King Vidor, Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks, becoming one of Hollywood's highest-paid stars.

The story of her rise from poverty and neglect to movie stardom would seem to require no great effort from a biographer to maintain the reader's keen interest. But Victoria Wilson's A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is such a mess it's hard to know where to begin. It offers page after page (nearly 900 of them) of runaway research, poor writing and sloppy editing. (Ironically, Wilson is a senior editor at Alfred Knopf.)

Wilson seems to have no sense of the significant—or even relevant—detail, and no idea what to leave out. She includes the date of Lee's surrender to Grant and information about the mourning flags and rosettes displayed following Lincoln's assassination (p. 5), because Ruby's paternal grandfather and two half-uncles served in the Union Army 45 years before she was born. She offers a four-page discussion of the development of the movie serial, including an extensive description of the plot of The Perils of Pauline and four paragraphs on its star Pearl White, because it was Ruby's favorite serial as a child (pp. 19-22).

Ruby Stevens around age 17. Photograph by Alfred Cheney Johnston, ca. 1924. Image source: Wikipedia

And we find ourselves reading salacious stories about another chorus girl named Lucille LeSueur, ("known in Kansas City, Missouri, as Billie Cassin"), including allegations that she bragged to a producer about her skill at fellatio and "was walked in on by a Ziegfeld dancer late one night in the bedroom at a party making love to a well-known actress. Nothing surprised people about Billie" (p. 48).

The only thing that might surprise the reader about Billie is that when she became a movie actress she changed her name to Joan Crawford, information that Wilson passes on so obliquely that it's easy to miss. After a mention of the movie Sally, Irene, and Mary, which co-starred Constance Bennett, Sally O'Neil, and Crawford, we learn that "Sally O'Neil called Billie 'Freckles,' though Joan had long wanted to be called 'Butch'" (p. 55). The mid-sentence name-switch from Billie to Joan is the only indication in the book that they are the same person. Incidentally, Lucille LeSueur, Billie Cassin and Joan Crawford are listed separately in the index with no cross-references, as though they are separate, unrelated individuals.

Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse (1931). Image source:

Wilson often adds the insult of sloppy writing to the injury of irrelevant detail. When Calvin Coolidge is mentioned Wilson can't resist quoting his most famous utterance: "'The business of America is business,' Coolidge said" (p. 46). But as the Library of Congress makes clear, in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1925, Coolidge actually said "the chief business of the American people is business." If you're going to place Coolidge's cliché in quotes you should at least get it right (but why include it at all?).

The Noel Coward play The Vortex is described incoherently: "Its caricature of well-mannered, light-hearted moderns, 'flowers of evil' nourished on [does she mean "by"?] a civilization that made rottenness so easy, amused audiences until the third act, when playgoers were stunned by mother and son—Lilian Braithwaite and Noel Coward—and revelations of sexual excess and drug addiction" (p. 54). Stunned by mother and son. . .doing what, exactly? (In the play, in the third act the son confronts his mother about her lack of maternal feeling and confesses his drug use: each agrees to try to change.) And in what way is this relevant to Ruby, who at the time was in the chorus of a variety show called Gay Paree?

Barbara Stanwyck and Theresa Harris in Baby Face (1933). Image source: Midnight Only

Theater history is clearly not Wilson's forte: she also garbles the technical details of playwright and producer David Belasco's innovative lighting system (p. 69), and misquotes the opening lyric of "Tea for Two" from the 1925 Broadway show No, No, Nanette (p. 105; when sung by a man, as in the show or in Frank Fay's nightclub act, it would be "Picture you upon my knee" and not, as Wilson has it, "Picture me upon your knee." The latter version may derive from the words that Doris Day sings in the movie Tea for Two, which wasn't made until 1950. In addition Wilson implies that Irving Caesar's lyrics were written by composer Vincent Youmans).

But she's not much better when it comes to the movies. In Remember the Night (written by Preston Sturges and directed by Mitchell Leisen), Stanwyck plays serial shoplifter Lee Leander; Wilson writes of her co-star, "Fred MacMurray was to be the hard-driving assistant district attorney prosecuting the case who, instead of sending her to jail, falls in love with her. Leisen thought MacMurray was a good-looking actor—with a beautifully built body and great legs, six feet four, tall and lanky—but MacMurray was quiet, genial, modest, and inexperienced" (p. 801). Later we read that by the time of Remember the Night "MacMurray had appeared in twenty-four pictures as a leading man. . .he'd starred opposite Hollywood's top actresses, including Ann Sheridan (Car 99), Katherine Hepburn (Alice Adams), Sylvia Sidney (The Trail of Lonesome Pine) and Irene Dunne (Invitation to Happiness)" (pp. 819-820). In what conceivable way, then, could he be described as "inexperienced"? It becomes evident later that Wilson seems to mean that when he was starting out in his film career he was inexperienced—as are most people when they are just starting out in a profession.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in Remember the Night (1940)

Finally, here is a caption from a picture of Stanwyck on page 857 of the hardback edition, quoted in its entirety:

With Frank Capra during production of Golden Boy, visiting the set of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; both Columbia Pictures, 1939. Capra's next picture, his first with Barbara in eight years, would be their fifth collaboration. She was making Golden Boy and was also visiting Capra on the set of his movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, being made at the same studio.

Not Columbia Pictures, by any chance?

Amid all the dross Wilson does manage to record a few insights about Stanwyck's film work, but they are buried in such a mass of undifferentiated detail that they lose impact. Steel-True reads like a first draft that went straight to the printer; the book would be twice as good if it were half as long. Is there no such thing as a copy editor any more? 

One also quails at the thought of what is to come. When the book ends in 1940 Wilson has made it less than halfway through Stanwyck's film career. Stanwyck would go on to star in 48 more movies, including The Lady Eve, Meet John Doe, Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, Christmas in Connecticut, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Sorry, Wrong Number, No Man of Her Own, Clash By Night, and There's Always Tomorrow. She would then have a second career on television, with featured roles on the shows Big Valley, Dynasty, and The Colbys, and many guest appearances. Wilson takes about 800 pages to cover the years 1927-1940; at that rate she has about 3000 pages to go before her biography will be complete. The time required to read Wilson's recounting of Stanwyck's life would be far more profitably spent watching Stanwyck's movies instead.

Posts about Barbara Stanwyck's films: