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Ascanio in Alba K.111
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Text by: Giuseppe Parini

First Performance: Teatro Regio Ducale, Milan, Italy (17/10/1771)

Sources

1. Manuscript: D-B, Mus. ms. autogr. W. A. Mozart KV 111. autograph score

2. Manuscript: D-B, Mus. ms. autogr. W. A. Mozart KV 111. autograph score

3. Manuscript: D-B, Mus. ms. autogr. W. A. Mozart KV 111. autograph score

4. Manuscript: D-B, Mus. ms. autogr. W. A. Mozart KV 111. autograph score

Scoring: 4 S, T, SATB, 2 fl, 2 ob/eng hn, 2 bn, 4 hn, 2 tpt/hn, timp, str

Letters in which this work is cited | Go to the Digital Mozart Edition Opens in a new window
236 (14 March 1771) | view
239 (19 July 1771) | view
242 (24 August 1771) | view
243 (31 August 1771) | view
244 (7 September 1771) | view
245 (13 September 1771) | view
246 (21 September 1771) | view
247 (28 September 1771) | view
248 (5 October 1771) | view
249 (12 October 1771) | view
Showing the first 10 letters. Show all
Date: August-23 September 1771 (letters)

Place: Milan

Librettos: C-Tu, B-Bc, 19.332, D-B, Mus. T. 80,1, D-LEm, PT 2365, F-Pc, Th B 2081, F-Po, Liv. It. 3329 (15), I-CRg, LL.4.16, I-Lg, B. ta 940/40, I-Ma @ I-Mb, Sala foscoliana I.52

Notes: Composed for the wedding of Archduke Ferdinand and Princess Maria Ricciarda Beatrice of Modena. A letter of 13 September specifically says that the recitatives and choruses were ready by that date; similarly, a letter of 28 Sept ember notes that everything had been composed since the preceding Monday, 23 September. For an ornamented version of nr. 14, copied by Nannerl Mozart, see K293e; for a possible arrangement of the overture, see K120

Mitridate, Re di Ponto K87 of 1770 proved that the teenage Mozart could compose a successful dramma per musica. As a result, the Imperial court commissioned Mozart at the end of March 1771 to compose an opera for the marriage of Maria Theresia`s son, the Archduke Ferdinand, to the Princess Maria Beatrice d`Este. On 21 August Mozart and his father arrived in Milan and on 29 August he received the libretto by Giuseppe Parini. By the middle of September, all of the recitatives and choruses were written and finally the arias in consultation with the singers. Mozart also composed ballet music which, except for the bass part, is lost. The marriage took place on 16 October and on the next day Ascanio was first performed.

Ascanio in Alba is a serenata or, as stated on the printed libretto, a festa teatrale. The latter term had a long tradition at the Imperial court extending back at least to the beginning of the eighteenth century and was reserved for special imperial occasions. Rather than depending on solo numbers, choral and ballet scenes also play an important role.

The argument centres around the son of Aeneas, Ascanio. Venus, his grandmother, reveals that she is going to provide him with Silvia from the family of Hercules as his wife. Silvia has dreamed of a handsome youth who is to be her husband. Ascanio, however, has been told by Venus to conceal his identity from Silvia so that her true feelings might be revealed. When Silvia meets the unidentified Ascanio, she is deeply disturbed by her attraction to him not knowing that he is her chosen husband. The expected recognition scene follows and having passed tests of their political virtues (that is, duty over love), Venus advises Ascanio and Silvia of their obligation to be just and loving toward their subjects. This basic outline is embellished by a host of pastoral and mythological characters and by elaborate scenes including Venus arriving as a deus ex machina. The allegory of this plot was transparent to all. Maria Theresia was represented by Venus, Ferdinand by Ascanio, and Beatrice by Silvia. In addition, Beatrice`s father was Duke Hercules III of Modena making her identity unmistakable. The Graces, Genii and the like were their diverse subjects.

Most notable about Ascanio is how the choruses glue together a structure larger than the scene. After a single-movement overture and a ballet for the Graces, a chorus of Genii and Graces is sung (No. 2), followed by an aria for Venus (No. 3), a return of No. 2 (No. 4), after which Ascanio sings his first aria (No. 5). The refrain returns again at the end of the first part. Though the choruses of Genii and Graces provide an umbrella over the first part, beginning with Scene 3, a chorus of shepherds provides a refrain between recitatives and arias through the end of Scene 4. The second part is similarly laid out and culminates in a combined ensemble (No. 33) of these groups in praise of Venus, alias the Empress Maria Theresia. The trio for Silvia, Aceste, and Ascanio (No. 31), though itself a closed form, returns (No. 32) after a recitative. Even though there is one moment in No. 31 where the singers simultaneously express different sentiments with individual melodic profiles, one should not read this a breakthrough; Mozart still is more comfortable with his characters singing alone or in homophony.

Mozart`s arias are distributed hierarchically with four each to Ascanio and Silvia and two each to Venere, Aceste, and the Fauno and use the expansive and flexible forms found in Mitridate. Here, besides the da capo and dal segno types, Mozart also uses the cavatina (that is, the first section of a da capo aria), a binary shape with alternating tempos, and a structure (Nos. 13 and 14) that adumbrates the cavatina-cabaletta sequence of the grand scena in nineteenth-century Italian opera. These two adjacent arias for the same character also co-ordinate with a crucial moment in the drama: Sylvia has resolved her conflicting feelings.

Of the two arias for Sylvia in the second part, No. 19 is a big three-part piece deriving from the da capo tradition: the A section is a closed binary structure; B changes meter, tempo, and mode; and the return is like a written out dal segno as it quickly moves from E minor to G major for the return of the last part of A. Here the text with its `soaring and cooing heart` contrasts with her pleas for the presentation of her beloved. As in her pair of arias in the first part, this allows for a display of both lyric and coloratura styles. Sylvia`s final aria (No. 23) also changes tempo; however, its central Allegro maintains a declamatory style. This is preceded by an extended accompanied recitative making her final piece part of a large scena, which is marred by a less than vocally stellar, though dramatically effective, aria as she pleads to be delivered from her suffering.

Ascanio is characterized by his own big scena (I/2) consisting of an accompanied recitative followed by a binary aria featuring the messa da voce on the word `cara` (`dear one`), which the castrato Giovanni Manzuoli was said to deliver with particular effectiveness. In I/5 (No. 16) Mozart allows the text to shape the form with its changing tempos, meters, and moods; his aria in II/4 also contains a series of tempo changes highlighting Ascanio`s frustrations. His final aria (II/5) is less varied and more galant in style; it is notable for the colourful wind scoring with flutes, serpentini, bassoons, and horns.

Venere`s two arias found in the first part are rather one-dimensional Allegros (I/1, I/5) with elaborate coloraturas. One should not be surprised that she sings the opening aria; this was merely an Imperial protocol. Aceste`s pair of arias (I/4, II/5) are also elaborate, confirming that the tenor must have had an agile voice. Mozart writes his most demanding pieces (I/8, II/3) for the secondo uomo, who played the Fauno. His castrato soprano voice must have been in first-class shape to negotiate the coloraturas, particularly in his second piece (II/3) whose final flourish line culminates with a high d-sharp.

Though Mozart scholarship has tended to dismiss Ascanio in Alba as just another ceremonial opera, it represents a significant moment. For the same celebration, Metastasio and Hasse, the doyens of Italian opera, reluctantly undertook their last collaboration, Il Ruggiero, ouvero L`Eroica gratitudine, which was, in contrast to Ascanio, received without enthusiasm. In October 1771, the art of operatic composition had in a sense passed from the Metastasio-Hasse generation to that of Mozart.

C. Gianturco, Mozart`s Early Operas (London, 1981) D. Heartz, Haydn, Mozart and the Viennese School 1740-1780 (New York, 1995) W. Mann, Mozart`s Operas (London, 1977)

from The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia ed. Cliff Eisen and Simon P.Keefe Cambridge University Press, 2006 (courtesy of Cambridge Un. Press)

Please use the following reference when citing this website:
Eisen, Cliff et al. In Mozart's Words, 'Ascanio in Alba K.111' <http://letters.mozartways.com>. Version 1.0, published by HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.
In Mozart's Words. Version 1.0, published by HRI Online, 2011. ISBN 9780955787676.