Context Is Everything

This post about the ways in which Mozart's Don Giovanni was received at its premieres was sketched out and ready to go when Tuesday's news of the kerfuffle between the Metropolitan Opera and the trade mag Opera News broke out.

Music criticism has been around a long time, and it's here to stay. It doesn't matter whether the reviewer pans the premiere of a Mozart opera or takes the Met to task for its latest controversial production. There are many head-scratching aspects to this week's tussle between the Met and Opera News, but the one that befuddles me the most is why the Met would care so much. If you're a casual opera-goer hoping to make a once-in-a-lifetime trip to The Metropolitan Opera on your New York City vacation, you're probably not going to skip going because an ON reviewer didn't like the show. And if you're an opera industry professional or a truly rabid opera fan, you're not going to believe anything the reviews say anyway. (After all, you know better yourself, right?)

Allow me to circle back to Mozart for a minute; for somehow my musings on the varied reviews accorded Don Giovanni in its premieres in Prague (1787) and Vienna (1788) have become hopelessly intertwined with this current day behind-the-scenes drama in New York.

The year before Giovanni, Mozart wrote The Marriage of Figaro for a theatre in Vienna, and the opera traveled to Prague soon afterward. Figaro was pretty well received in both places, but Prague really took to it. I'm not enough of a cultural historian to be truly trusted on this topic, but from my research, it seems that the Vienna audience was pretty pretentious and really into the see-and-be-seen aspect of the opera. The Prague audience was a little less inclined to take itself seriously, and the patrons there were allegedly more into the music itself.

This bifurcated Vienna vs. Prague reaction persisted for Don Giovanni, which followed Figaro by a little more than a year. Only this time, Prague was first, and Vienna was second. The theoretically musical-loving, free-thinking Prague audience and critics welcomed Giovanni warmly. About six months later, the well-heeled folks in Vienna (after all, if you were a Bohemian with enough money, you would've probably gotten out of Prague and moved to Vienna... ) thought Mozart's newest opera beneath them, with its childish supernatural ending and its ridiculously libidinous hero.

Two cities, two premieres, and two very different sets of public opinion. Is either one right? Wrong?

You don't have to search long to find stories of well-beloved top 10 operas that were disasters at their premieres, and legends of highly esteemed critics have panned pieces that ended up being iconic. (Bizet's Carmen was dubbed "dull and obscure," and Puccini's Tosca was called a "shabby little shocker.") The act of debate itself is far healthier than the alternatives -- either bored silence or self-congratulatory blanket approval (to wit, see this week's Standing Ovation Epidemic discussion). It keeps the discussion alive, and its various brands and breeds are part of our cultural richness.