Getting an Early Start: Mozart's 'La Finta Semplice'

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WOO-1525-250-same            It's easy to envy naturally gifted people, but the life of a prodigy isn't always an easy one.

            By the time Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 12 years old, in 1768, he was famous throughout Europe -- and famously busy. His father Leopold, himself an accomplished musician, realized early on that he had a prodigy on his hands, and took Wolfgang on the road when was only six.  By that time the youngster was performing keyboard music he had written himself!  By age eight, Wolfgang had performed before aristocrats and royalty in Brussels, Paris and London, and had written his first symphony.

            When the young Mozart was 12, he and Leopold made an extended visit to Vienna. On the map, Vienna isn't far from Salzburg, the Mozarts' hometown. Artistically, the cities were worlds apart. Many considered Vienna to be the musical capital of the world. By comparison, Salzburg was an artistic backwater.

            Not surprisingly, Vienna's movers and shakers welcomed Mozart more readily than its resident musicians did. For members of the royal court, the young genius was simply entertainment. For Vienna's composers, who depended on the rich and powerful for their living, Mozart was unwelcome competition.

            Leopold set about securing an opera commission for Wolfgang from the Emperor. The result was La Finta Semplice. Up front, the opera's story is a bit silly. Look deeper, and it reveals itself as an uncannily adept examination of the intrigues and machinations of adult love.

            The title La Finta Semplice is usually translated as "The Pretend Simpleton." But that doesn't quite capture it. "Simpleton" has a far more negative connotation in English than "Semplice" does in Italian. The point of the story is that Rosina, the story's lead character, pretends to be na├»ve -- to be plain and simple and innocent -- but she really knows exactly what's going on the whole time.

            The story has roots in the Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell'arte. It's all about overcoming obstacles on the way to true love. And the only way to defeat those impediments is through deception. Several of the main characters are in love. But for various reasons, they're not allowed to marry. The scheming that get them around that predicament forms the basis of the comedy.

            The new drama also set a few real life intrigues in motion. As it turned out, composing the opera was far easier than getting it performed. The sophisticated musicians of Vienna weren't eager to be upstaged by a kid composer from the sticks.  There were rumors that the opera was a sham -- that Leopold, not Wolfgang, had actually written the piece. The premiere was delayed repeatedly. Finally, Leopold packed it in.   He took his son and the opera back to Salzburg, where the score was first performed the following year.

            Looking back, Vienna's composers may have been right to worry. Hearing it now, we know that La Finta Semplice never reaches the level of Mozart's later operas.  Then again, there are precious few operas that do!  Still, it stacks up pretty well to much of its contemporary competition.  And the opera is more than a simple curiosity; it would be well worth a listen even if it weren't by music's most precocious 12-year-old.

            On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents La Finta Semplice in a production from the Prinzregenten Theater in Munich.  Soprano Chen Reiss stars as Rosina, in a production led by conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini.  

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