"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.
Tailor-made for the royal wedding, the work's main function was to portray
the members of the Habsburg wedding party as generous, kindly rulers and
virtuous heroes. For the creative team of the production shown at the
Salzburg Festival but originating at the Nationaltheater Mannheim, this
specificity proved to be a rewarding challenge. Since the audience had no
pre-formulated expectations with "Ascanio," director David Hermann and his
stage and costume designer Christof Hetzer sought to draw out of this
unknown opera the elements that are of particular interest to us today.
The imaginative production - featuring a reduced chorus, a "movement
chorus" and even a segment to be watched through 3D glasses - ideally
complements the work, which is, after all, a festa teatrale and not an
opera seria! We would hardly find a hero such as Ascanio in an opera seria:
a puppet-like young man forced to follow orders and unable to determine his
own life. And Silvia, his betrothed? She's been in love for four years with
a man she's never seen...
Luckily for us, the music to "Ascanio in Alba" is a delight from beginning
to end. The 15-year-old Mozart felt free to ignore the strict conventions
of the opera seria and culled his forms from a variety of sources such as
concert arias, pastoral idylls, mass sections, recitatives both secco and
accompagnato... The work radiates an irrepressible good nature and joy of
life. Among the most highly praised roles in this production is the Faun,
sung by Diana Damrau, the Queen of the Night in the Mozart 22 recording
of "The Magic Flute."