"Ascanio in Alba" K. 111 came about through the good offices of Count Firmian, who had shared the Milan audience's enthusiasm for "Mitridate" and exerted his influence on the Empress in Vienna. He suggested entrusting the young Mozart with the composition of a festa teatrale for the wedding of the Empress's son, Archduke Ferdinand, and Maria Beatrice d'Este of Modena. Mozart began working on the score in late August 1771…
Ascanio in Alba, KV 111, is an Italian pastoral opera in two acts written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1771...
Chronological treatments of the early part of Mozart's career have mostly focused on his tours as a child prodigy, his eventful trip to Paris and back, and his rebel years in Salzburg. The two years he spent in Italy in his early teens, traveling and studying with counterpoint teacher Padre Martini, get overlooked. Yet this was the period in which Mozart became Mozart, in which, to use computer parlance, the "defaults" for much of his structural thinking were set in place.
The glamorous young French coloratura stunned everyone at the EMI Gala at Glyndebourne in 1997 with a dazzling rendition of Cunegonde’s ‘Glitter and be gay’ from Bernstein’s Candide: it was an unexpected choice but Dessay delivered it with such wit, needle-point precision and sheer insouciance that she won all hearts. Why she has yet to appear in either a Glyndebourne or Covent Garden production – though debuts are planned in both theatres for 2002 – is one of the great mysteries of British operatic life, for Dessay, as her EMI album of French operatic arias (5/97) amply demonstrated, is an acclaimed star in Vienna, Salzburg, the New York Met and, of course, the French capital, where she is something close to a cult figure.
In the famous Preface to Alceste (1767), Christoph Willibald Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de' Calzabigi posited a new direction for opera. They spoke of moving beyond Baroque forms, of striving for a new naturalism in opera. They wanted, in Calzabigi's lovely phrase, to liberate the language of the heart. Taken from the height of this Reform period, the arias on this disc reveal composers exploring and experimenting, at struggle and at play, as they create the new forms that bring to opera the noble simplicity of the Classical era.
This album of Mozart opera overtures will certainly delight the Mozart fan, as performed by La Cetra Barockorchester Basel under the baton of Andrea Marcon. This is indeed an orchestra that understands Mozart; the musicians utilize excellent technique and solid musicianship that respects Mozart's phrasing and dynamics. Apollo et Hyacinthus is sweet, light, and almost Baroque in character, as is La finta semplice, therefore these pieces are fitting for a Baroque orchestra. La finta semplice feels, one might argue, rather like a chamber piece or a concerto grosso; thus, it is interesting to examine the style of Mozart's overtures and how they vary in character over time. With Mitridate, one hears more of that famed Mozart melodic lyricism, coupled with his playfulness at the end of the piece. Ascanio in Alba is sunny yet majestic at the beginning, and this contrast is carefully performed by La Cetra.
On previous releases, Natalie Dessay has established herself as perhaps the leading coloratura soprano of the day. Consider, for example, her artistry on the 1998 Lakmé. From the sensational fireworks heard in The Magic Flute's "Queen of the Night" arias that open and close this stimulating disc, her venture into the Mozart repertory is a resounding success. Dessay's elaborate embellishments in the arias from some of Mozart's little-known earlier works are as breathtaking–the high-flying aria from Ascanio in Alba leaves one begging for more. But roles like Pamina in The Magic Flute and Kostanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio are more properly the province of lyric sopranos, and often one feels the need for a voice with more expansive depth. Dessay nicely captures the tenderness in her affecting "Ach, ich fühl" lines, but Kostanze's "Martern aller Arten" would benefit from a juicier mid- and lower range. But the coloratura arias alone are worth hearing for their thrilling vocalism. –Dan Davis