Most aspirational parents of a 12-year-old boy would push him to be a doctor, lawyer or, these days, an IT professional. But Leopold Mozart wanted his son Wolfgang to be a composer and musician. So Leopold had Wolfgang compose an opera, for Emperor Joseph II, no less.
It was 1768 and father and son were spending the year in Vienna. The younger Mozart was already renowned throughout Europe as a musical prodigy; he had written his first symphony four years earlier at age eight. Mozart had a few opera-like works already under his belt, but all were slightly out of the operatic mainstream: the best known of these is Bastien und Bastienne, a short one-act singspiel in unfashionable German, more a musical than an opera, while Apollo et Hyacinthus had a Latin libretto which, even in the 18th century, was less than common.
When the Emperor suggested that young Wolfgang might write an opera, his first opera, for performance in Vienna, Leopold decided on opera buffa, Italian-style comic opera. He wrote in a letter:
“there is no more serious opera here now, and no-one enjoys it… There are no singers here for serious operas, even Gluck’s serious opera Alceste was performed by a whole lot of opera buffa singers — now he is making an opera buffa as well.”
The libretto chosen was La finta semplice (which means “The Pretend Simpleton”, but which carries the sense of “The Fake Ingénue”), a comedy by the famous Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni which had been set to music and performed in Venice only four years before. Florentine poet Marco Coltellini, well-known as a librettist in Vienna, introduced some adaptations to make it more opera-like. And write an opera young Mozart did: three full acts worth, with 26 numbers, and a manuscript 558 pages long.
After much work, many rehearsals and much delay, the opera…was not performed. It’s not entirely clear what happened. It seems that certain members of Vienna’s musical establishment were unhappy about being possibly upstaged by a mere boy. Rumours were put about that the real composer was Leopold (who was certainly supervising and whose hand can be seen in the manuscript). The impresario, Giuseppe Afflisio (who had something of a less-than-upright reputation), got cold feet and found reasons to delay the performance. The artists began to worry about their reputations. Leopold, alleging a conspiracy, pulled the plug and the pair returned to Salzburg, where the opera was finally performed the next year.
La finta semplice itself dropped from the repertoire; it was not staged again until modern times and remains a rarity. This Musica Viva production is surely the work’s Hong Kong premiere, more than 250 years past due.
La Finta Semplice is not, it must be acknowledged, a great opera, but it is an astonishingly good one for a 12-year-old and one which compares favorably with the adult contemporary competition. His older rivals had reason to be concerned. It is a musical achievement no one has come close to matching, until perhaps Alma Deutscher’s 2015 Cinderella, composed at about the same age, coincidentally also premiered in Vienna and Salzburg.
Mozart could not have seen or heard many Italian operas in his short life, but still somehow manages to set the Italian text to music naturally, and has the buffo style down pat. The characters, stock commedia dell’arte characters that they are, are clearly delineated: the cunning maid, the strutting soldier, the beauty, the puffed-up man of the house. Above all, in La Finta Semplice one can hear Mozart finding his voice, one that will be heard again later on, more developed and mature, especially in the romantic comedy Così fan tutte.
The story is a bagatelle, the sort of rom-com produced by the dozens in 18th-century Europe—a story of multiple love affairs, deception, intricate plots, clueless yet overbearing men, put-upon and clever women—and yet it all still clicks, perhaps because beneath the light silliness, Goldoni includes, and Mozart highlights, references to several social issues which still resonate, sexual equality and class snobbery among them.
And in the music, there’s tenderness, desire, brazenness, buffoonery, drunkenness, duplicity—and what would a 12-year-old know of those? Mozart can be a mystery.