Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Odysseus Unbound

Most scholars and readers would agree that the wanderings of Odysseus represent a mythical canvas and that there is little point in trying to find the "real" cavern of the Cyclops, or the "real" clashing rocks. These were myths developed by the fertile imaginations of early Europeans (and even possibly by Indo-European forebears). Nevertheless, the success of Schliemann in the 19th century in discovering a historical Troy and then a previously unknown palace civilization in Greece--the Mycenaeans, named after their largest palace complex found near modern Mycenae--that just might have been the same as Homer's"Argives", has encouraged amateurs and experts alike to think that there may well be a core of historicity to the Homeric poems. This line of thinking emphasizes that while it may be foolish to look for a "real" Trojan horse or a "real" Circe, the myths are, nonetheless, probably based on true events that took place around 1200 B.C. in the Aegean world. According to this interpretation, there really was a war between Greece and Troy and the greatest of the Achaean and Trojan warriors may well have been based on historical personages of the time. Take Odysseus for example; in the Homeric epics, his island home is Ithaca--and on the west coast of modern Greece there is indeed an island called "Ithaki" that most searchers after a historical subtext in the poems, have always thought to be a good starting place for establishing the whereabouts of the island home of the Greek hero. However, there have always been serious objections. First and foremost among these was the fact that the geography of Homer's Ithaca and modern Ithaki simply doesn't match. For example, Homer describes Ithaca as the most Western lying of a group of islands in which Cephallonia was the largest. However, modern Ithaki is the most EASTERN lying of a group of islands in which Kefallinia (modern name of Cephallonia?) is the largest. Maybe, as Homer was apparently from Ionia, he simply knew nothing about the real geography of Ithaca? Perhaps he was a poet and simply couldn't care less about accurate geography?...At this point enter an amateur classicist and full time business man with a point to prove,

Robert Bittlestone was visiting the Kefallinian islands when it occurred to him that Paliki, a peninsula of modern Kefallinia, may once have been an independent island separated from the main land by a narrow sea channel. He acquired the help of a couple of experts, one a Cambridge University Professor of Classics and the other a Scottish Don who was very knowledgeable about the geology of the area. Early signs were positive. The isthmus connecting the two islands had once been under water and the locations on Paliki seemed to match the Homeric landscape with a certain amount of exactitude. Perhaps most satisfactory of all, Paliki was the most WESTERN lying of the group of islands. In 2005 Bittlestone's book appeared, "Odysseus Unbound", in which he stated his basic theory and gave initial reasons for preferring Paliki as the site of Odysseus' island rather than Ithaki. The book was very well received by scholars and classicists--and nothing discovered so far, has done anything to refute Bittlestone's theory. Tests are continuing apace and if the geologists can show that Paliki was an island 3200 years ago (at the assumed time of the Trojan War) then the weight of circumstantial evidence for identifying Paliki with Homer's island home, Ithaca, will be great indeed. The final proof would be the discovery of a large scale Mycenaean palace civilization on Paliki--something that has never been found so far on Ithaki.

Some will say that it really doesn't matter where Odysseus' island home lay--nor even whether it, or Odysseus himself, ever existed at all. The Homeric poems, for these readers, are essentially oral and, later, literary texts that are mythological and poetic in character--however much they may, over a period of time, have come to define essential elements in Western civilization itself. Most of us, with a more romantic turn of mind, will follow the efforts of Bittlestone's team with interest and, if Paliki should indeed prove to be Homer's Ithaca, eventually reward him with the same praise and enthusiasm that greeted Schliemann's great discoveries in the 19th century.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The Tragical History of Jerry Hadley

About a year ago, I bought an opera on DVD: the 1983 Glyndebourne production of Mozart's "Idomeneo" starring Yvonne Kenny, Carol Vaness, Philip Langridge and Jerry Hadley. The production was conducted by Bernard Haitink. Just a week ago I got round to watching it and was greatly impressed by the very high musical and production values of the piece. Twenty-four hours ago I listened more carefully (no skipping!) and recognized a favourite aria of mine from long ago, when I was a very young man, that had featured on an album of Mozart arias by the Welsh soprano, Margaret Price. Imagine my surprise on hearing it sung by a personable young tenor (in the story, Idamante, son of Idomeneo) with a pure and agile voice! Had I remembered the aria wrongly? Impossible. As a great lover of Mozart, I could not have remembered such a beautiful aria wrongly. Had Ms. Price taken the liberty of transposing the aria for soprano? Possible: but more digging would be necessary before any final answer could be deduced. The first thing I did was to look up the biography of the tenor who had brought back past memories of that beautiful aria to me: Jerry Hadley.

Imagine my horror and sadness on discovering that the fifty-five year old American tenor had died in July of this year, after shooting himself in the head with an air gun! He had suffered terrible brain damage and after a couple of days, his life support machine was switched off. He died on July 18, 2007: little more than a month ago! In the very moments that I had been enjoying his beautiful singing, bringing back a cherished memory of long ago, the man's spirit was still fresh in its passing! Traditional ideas about what happens to people who commit suicide are not very encouraging. Personally, I believe that those who take their own lives are probably filled with a sense of confusion and relief immediately following the suicidal act. The unbearable situation they could not get beyond has now been resolved--but what happens next? This is the question that probably creates confusion. No doubt in the end, the suicides like the non suicides must learn the lessons of their life before passing on to new experiences. Finally, the person who takes his or her own life will surely find forgiveness. It is an ending that could, theoretically, befall any of us. If we reach the end of our lives never having known a black despair so great that we could not withstand it, then we have indeed been fortunate! Personally, I believe we should try to appreciate the contingency of our lives and of everything around us when seeking to lessen the tribulation and sorrow we may find in our lives: perhaps in this case, we would not take ourselves and the events of our daily existence quite so seriously. Life is certainly a gift and an adventure; but often it is also a place of frightening despair. Maybe, the best way we can get through times of desperation is by understanding the extent to which everything in life is, at least to some extent, an illusion; failure could be far more useful than success to the growth of some people--and each one of us improves, to some extent, by being touched with despair. Nothing is as serious as it seems: not broken relationships, not financial crises, not failure in our careers--not even death itself.

It seems that life had not been very kind to Hadley since he turned 50. First, there was a divorce from his wife of 26 years in 2000. On his own admission this affected his singing badly (despair he said "goes straight to the throat") and he had appeared rarely since 2004. In the last few years, since 2004, he had suffered long periods of depression and, at the time of his death, was about to file for bankruptcy. As if all this was not enough, he was also drinking heavily and had started doubting his true sexual orientation (often frequenting New Yok gay clubs and bars). This was all a very long way from the golden voiced tenor who in his heyday of the eighties and nineties had sung so beautifully in all the major opera houses of the world. May God have mercy on his soul--and on ours too!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Does Colour Exist?

This is a question that has bothered me for some time since learning that all colours are merely the different wavelengths of colourless light. It seems that an object's absorption, reflection or scattering of pure light will determine it's colour. An object that scatters light completely will be white, while an object that absorbs all light will be black. Other objects, depending on the way in which they reflect, scatter or absorb light, could be any colour in between. Now to me, this seems like a fundamentally important concept with important repercussions for the everyday manner in which we think about phenomena. Most of us, when the lights go out, are convinced that the colours of the objects that surrounded us in the presence of a light source, are "real". That is to say, we do not doubt that the wall of our bedroom is blue, nor that our bed coverlet is green and the curtains yellow: it just happens that for a spell the light is turned off and we can't see these colours. However, it would be more true to think that without a light source, all objects cease to have any colour at all. In a universe where all the stars suddenly went out, there would be no colour. Colour would not be a property of objects that existed in the dark. Perhaps colour might be compared to the fine clothes we like to display ourselves in. They are pretty, but have no real connection to the man or woman beneath the clothes. The only reason why certain objects seem to have a certain constancy of colour is due to their properties as spatially extant things. For example, a rough, hard surface will often absorb light in a particular way to appear more or less brown to us most of the time (trees, furniture, wood, etc). However, the object is in no way really "brown". "Brownness" is merely a temporary attribute of its appearance for as long as it interacts with a light source. To illustrate this idea still further, certain birds, insects and fish have eyes that are more "colour sensitive" than ours and experts insist that some little dull brown birds, are filled with the most gorgeous colour in the eyes of the other birds! In a similar way, scientists have also suggested that birds are able to follow migratory patterns so exactly because they are able to physically see the colours of the magnetic field surrounding the earth (wavelengths beyond the perception of the human eye).

Presumably "vision" is a quality of a universe that is lit by star power. Without stars, light wouldn't exist and nor would colour. We might further speculate, that living organisms develop the attribute of "sight" (and eyes as physical organs) in a universe that has been created (or has created itself) in order to be seen. If light didn't exist, nor would eyes and no doubt we would all be eyeless and sightless as are some creatures that live deep in the ground or deep in the sea. Of course, without light there would also be no warmth, so only the most barren of universes could be contemplated that didn't have "vision" as one of its attributes. Perhaps current ideas about temperature and what is hot and cold might be totally rearranged in a universe without star power. Nevertheless, this is mere speculation and, to tell the truth, it is really impossible to imagine a universe that doesn't possess the star power to give heat and light.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Arrigo Boito's "Mefistofele"

I lived in Parma in northern Italy for several years and, late at night, I used to regularly pass the "Conservatorio Arrigo Boito". It always seemed a desolate and wind swept place--much like the opera "Mefistofele" itself--and it was always interesting to reflect on the "satanic" music students that might be being trained inside there! Boito himself was born in Padua, but had long standing professional connections with the well-to-do town of Parma, birth place of Boito's great collaborator, Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi came from a poor village, just outside Parma, called "Roncole" (now renamed "Roncole Verdi" in his honour). It is said that Verdi hated Parma and it is certainly true that once he got successfully away to Milan, he never returned there. The relationship with Boito, however, proved more productive and today Arrigo Boito is remembered mostly as the writer of the superb libretti (or books) for Verdi's last two Shakespearean operas: "Otello" and "Falstaff". Perhaps there are even some music enthusiasts that are unaware of Boito's reputation as a gifted musician and composer--in spite of the fact that his masterpiece, "Mefistofele" has now been a regular part of the European and American operatic repertoire for more than a hundred years.

Boito, unlike most young Italian composers was profoundly influenced by Richard Wagner's ideas about "music drama": in particular, the concept that the drama was as important--if not even more important--than the music, affected the way he thought about opera. With the discovery of the Faust legend, Boito believed he had at last found a theme sufficiently grand and noble for him to turn into an opera. Of course, the story of Faust was a recurring theme in medieval Europe with its compelling presentation of a learned man who still believed himself to be a fool, knowing nothing worthwhile. Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to discover truth and enjoyment in life; eventually, however, he is forced to pay his debt to Mephistopheles and deliver up his soul. At last then, even though it is too late, he acknowledges his own stupidity and hybris. Christopher Marlowe's renaissance drama ("Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?") follows this traditional presentation with Faust torn to pieces by devils at the end. However, the romantic German writer, Wolfgang Von Goethe, saw things in a different light and allowed Faust to find eventual forgiveness. First, however, he must find a moment of perfect beauty and ask for time to be arrested so he can enjoy it eternally ("Arrestati, sei bello!"). After Faust has exhausted all the beauties of Greek art and feminine loveliness, the grace of the Judeo-Christian God falls upon him and he asks that the fleeting moment should be stopped--thus cheating Mefistofele of the soul he had expected to take.

Boito took over this more expansive version of the Faust legend from Goethe for operatic treatment and although the strangeness of the first performance alienated many listeners (who saw too many similarities to the hated Wagner in Boito's score), a subsequent revision of the score during which the central part of Faust himself was transposed from baritone to tenor, successfully won over the Italian critics. During the rest of his life, Boito wrote only one more opera, "Nerone" (or "Nero"), which was still incomplete at the time of his death. "Mefistofele", however, had been enough to establish his reputation at home and abroad.

In opera houses around the world today, the American baritone, Samuel Ramey has made the part of Mefistofele very much his own. Indeed, "Mefistofele" demands a very special quality of voice and high acting skills from its chief characters. The great closing scene, where Mefistofele is denied Faust's soul and is stung by corrosive rose petals sent down from God's angels, is probably one of the most dramatic in all opera. The curtain eventually closes on Faust being taken up on high while Mefistofeles, "the old reprobate" is left whistling his hatred and contempt for God.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Odyssey

Most interested readers know that Homer, the blind Ionian bard, is thought to have written the first two masterpieces of Western literature: "the Iliad" and "the Odyssey". They probably also know that a proto-Greek society existed in Greece around 1200 BC and that it is currently named after its most famous centre, "Mycenae". Furthermore, most amateur ancient historians will be aware that the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, discovered an ancient city on the western coast of Turkey that had been destroyed by fire and warfare: the so-called "Troy VII (a)". It is all most fascinating. However, how many modern amateur detectives of the ancient world have actually READ "the Iliad" and "the Odyssey"? Not too many I'm sure!

The first thing to realize about these texts is that in ancient times they were regarded in the same way that modern people may regard the Bible or the Koran. In other words, they were essentially religious texts that made sense (or tried to make sense) of the world to which they belonged. On the one hand, they set out what is appropriate and moral behaviour for a man in his relations with other men; on the other, they show us the gods themselves reacting with one another on Mount Olympus. Finally, they go some way towards suggesting what is the right behaviour for men in the presence of the gods

What conclusions may be reached from reading the stories in this way? First of all, it is just behaviour for a man to fight for what is rightfully his: whatever else a man may be, he should also be a warrior, ready to defend his own and his family's honour. Secondly, a man should show humility and reverence for the gods at all times. If he should be fortunate in his life, then that is predestined by the gods. Equally, if he is unfortunate, this is evidence that he has displeased the gods in some way. The gods are not always strictly fair in their dealings with humans (being determinedly anthropomorphic in their passions), but men should not concern themselves with this too much. The gods are above men and can do what they like. In particular, humans should be careful to treat strangers kindly at all times as the gods themselves often travel the world of men in disguised forms: putting it bluntly, to help a stranger might be to help a god in disguise!

One aspect of Mycenaean age chivalry seems to have been the necessity and expectation of revenge. Everybody does it--most of all the gods themselves! It is taken for granted, for example, during Odysseus' wanderings abroad, that he will make the suitors pay sorely for their disrespect to his family when he returns. When Odysseus actually does return to Ithaca, Pallas Athene, no less, spurs him on to take his great, blood soaked revenge against the young men infesting his house and eating up his wealth. Several of the suitors plead for mercy before being hacked down or transfixed with an arrow, but Odysseus kills them all without exception. Twelve of the fifty serving ladies in Odysseus' house have been providing the suitors with easy sex, so Odysseus gets his son, Telemachus and supporters, to take them outside into the courtyard where they are hanged without compunction (a detail usually omitted from modern renderings).

In order to make this final scene both believable and moral, Odysseus' great sufferings during his twenty year exile are emphasized to high emotional affect and, given the way the story is presented, it is difficult to feel that the parasitic suitors get anything other than their just desserts from the returning hero. His actions are sanctified by Zeus' and Pallas Athene's support. Furthermore, the goddess herself actually fights side by side with the hero in his great battle with Penelope's suitors. Penelope herself is viewed as the most virtuous of women for having waited for more than 20 years for her husband's return. Great Agamemnon, in Hades, contrasts the faithful Penelope's behaviour towards Odysseus with that of his own wife, Clytemnestra who was complicit in the plot to kill him after his return from Troy.

In the final analysis, the moral world of the Iliad and Odyssey reflected the exigencies of late bronze age societies: fight your way to the top, kill your enemies, revenge your friends and family and, most importantly of all, get some great god to fight and plot on your behalf!

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe"

I have been doing some holiday reading which has included a couple of "Sharpe" books and an Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson. Now, it is not my intention to repeat the things I said in an earlier post about the Banks series of books. Suffice it to say that I found my Banks novel clever, excellently plotted and highly readable; in spite of this I skipped over large sections, leaving them unread. Why was this? Well, the average Banks book now runs to about 350-400 pages--far too long, in my opinion, for the detective or police procedural novel. Agatha Christie knew what she was doing and kept her seventy odd books of the genre to around 190 pages each. This is a nice size to set the scene, have a murder, let the detection take place and, finally, take a little fun along the way. Four hundred pages for such a book is a monster and presupposes that we have an interest in the characters as people; usually, however, we don't. How much do we know of Hercule Poirot's private life? Or Sherlock Holmes'? Wisely, Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie choose sleuths for their investigations who hardly seem to have a private life. This is as it should be in the murder mystery universe, leaving the detectives an optimum period of time to solve their cases. Bank's relationship with Annie Cabbott, or his wife Sandra, interests me not one jot: heart to hearts with his guitar playing son are often difficult to credit and also slow down the main action. Peter Robinson has decided to take the path of P.D. James (wrong headedly in my opinion) and invests his sleuth with a "real" character. As far as I know, Banks doesn't write poetry like Dalglish--but he does seem to be an expert on classical music and wine.

Now this has proved a long introduction to my main interest in this post which is to praise Bernard Cornwell's fascinating series of "Sharpe" books. For anyone who has been living in Mongolia for the past twenty years and has neither read a book nor seen an ITV film of the series, I should give a little background information. Richard Sharpe is a soldier who fought in the Napoleonic Wars rising from the lowly rank of Private, while in India, to Lieutenant Colonel at the battle of Waterloo. Sharpe is a tough devil and the books narrate his battles with authority, his many acts of bravery, his struggles with treacherous enemies and, most importantly, historical reenactments of real battles on which the fictional figure of Richard Sharpe is made to impose himself. The mixture (with an occasional dab of romance added) works perfectly and 350 pages are hardly enough to cover all the bases before the final great battle scene comes around, Sharpe is a born rebel and his character interests us in a way that a copper's personality doesn't. There are so many diverse strands of action taking place in a Sharpe novel (sometimes including elements present in a good murder mystery), that the story simply cannot be told in less than about 350 page--even without padding of any kind! Unfortunately, this is not equally true of Robinson's Banks novels and the ever present threat of pretentiousness is, at present, threatening to sink what began as a very entertaining series of novels.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


Most people are vaguely aware that Da Ponte was the writer of the "libretti" of Mozart's most famous three Italian operas ("Le Nozze di Figaro", "Don Giovanni" and "Cosi' Fan Tutte"), but would be hard pushed to say much more about the Venetian poet. In fact the story of his life would itself have made a fine opera. Born in Veneto in 1749 ( and so seven years older than his most famous collaborator, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) into a Jewish family as Emanuele Conegliano, Da Ponte took his name from the Bishop that baptized his family into the Roman Catholic faith. Subsequently he trained as a teacher and later was ordained as a priest, However, he was unable to live his life in a way that was suitable to either profession and, as a consequence, Da Ponte found his way blocked to making a living in these careers. In consequence, he happily gave himself up to the creative muse that was most congenial to him and, after a move to Vienna, he was appointed court librettist to Joseph II. During this period, Da Ponte spent most of his time writing libretti for Mozart's chief rivals on the Vienna scene, Antonio Salieri and Martin Y Soler. Da Ponte had an excellent reputation in Vienna as a fine poet who could take an original drama from the French or Spanish and quickly turn it into elegant and dramatic Italian poetry.

Of course it as the librettist of Mozart's mature operas that Da Ponte is best remembered and it seems that the two men had a close and congenial working relationship. During the composition of "Don Giovanni" Da Ponte and Mozart hired adjacent rooms in a rented house and developed the opera together amongst much laughter and horse play. "Le Nozze di Figaro" was based on an earlier play by the French dramatist, Pierre Beaumarchais and Da Ponte quickly changed the barbed French social satire into a depoliticized love story full of exquisite Italian poetry. The only original story that Da Ponte wrote for Mozart was "Cosi' Fan Tutte" a somewhat sour tale of the frailties of women in love that some believe to be Mozart's very finest opera.

After the death of Mozart in 1791, Da Ponte continued working as a librettist for other composers for more than another decade but the rewards, due to a decline in European patronage of the arts, became fewer and fewer. Finally, in 1805 at the age of 56, Da Ponte moved himself and his whole family to New York City where he initially set up a grocery shop and later a book store in order to make a living. Later, he was to become the first Professor of Italian Literature at Columbia University (he was also the first faculty member to have been born a Jew and the first to have been ordained as a Catholic priest). In 1828, at the age of 79, Lorenzo Da Ponte became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Ten years later, in 1838, he died and was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Manhattan. Interestingly, this cemetery was later moved due to building work and all the bodies were hopelessly mixed up together. Ironically then, like the great composer Mozart himself, Da Ponte now rests in an unknown and unmarked grave.

Who could possibly imagine today, listening to Da Ponte's almost perfect and perennially fresh collaborations with Mozart, the strange and dramatic story of the poet's own life which took him from Jew to Christian, from priest to poet, from grocer to university lecturer and from book store owner to early American citizen? Of one thing we can be sure: like Mozart himself, Lorenzo Da Ponte was a one off: we will not see his like again.

Friday, August 03, 2007


Hector Berlioz has always been one of my more quirky musical passions. As a composer he was undeniably odd, but just a few years after the death of Beethoven, he did come up with the quite incredible tones of the "Symphonie Fantastique". Add to that his splendid "Mass of the Dead", the lovely viola concerto written for Paganinni, "Harold in Italy", the concert opera, "The Damnation of Faust" and a host of other fine works and it should be easy to see why I was looking forward to hearing his last opera "Les Troyens" with a rare anticipation. But...alas!...all my hopes were dashed!

"Les Troyens" was written between 1856 and 1858 and Berlioz appears to have viewed it as the musical culmination of his entire career. The composer wrote both the libretto (based on Virgii's "Aenead") and also the music to the opera and given a running time of over 4 hours, the work may reasonably be compared with the operas of Berlioz's great contemporary, Richard Wagner. Unfortunately, any comparison one wishes to make, is sure to tell in favour of the German composer. While Wagner's music dramas are tight and filled with fascinating dramatic situations and music, Berlioz's "Les Troyens" is flaccid and static. Most surprisingly of all, while Wagner is famous for giving the orchestra a prominent and complex role in his operas, "Les Troyens", at times, seems reminiscent of early Verdi with the orchestra (for all its size) doing little more than give a basic accompaniment to the vocal line. The majority of the action takes place off stage, so for most of the 4 hours running time we are faced with a single character, or at most two, lamenting this that or the other (the fall of Troy, the death of the Trojans, the hopeless love of Dido and Aeneas...etc.) in centre stage. Upbeat tempos seem hard to find and for the most part "Les Troyens" seems content to wallow in its own misery. Melodic invention is thin on the ground--and just when the listener thinks Berlioz is about to burst into one of those wonderful tunes, so typical of the majority of his work, Cassandra, Dido, or some other wet blanket staggers to centre stage in order to plunge the music back into the lugubrious minor key and start the lamentations all over anew. Occasionally, a large chorus of "Trojans", "Greeks", "Carthaginians" is trotted out to give some muscle to the singing, but usually they seem strangely separated from the main action.

I watched "Les Troyens" on an "Art House" DVD recording from the 2000 Salzburg Festival with Sylvain Cambreling conducting the Paris Orchestra. Two Americans, Jon Villars and Deborah Polaski, took the major roles. Given the paucity of invention in the music itself they performed well enough, but the staging by (the now late) Herbert Wernicke was absurd and seemed to be mostly designed to produce the opera on the cheap. A huge white stage, empty for most of the time, was occasionally filled with lamenting Trojans, exulting Greeks and rich Carthaginians. However, it was mostly difficult to tell the difference as they were all dressed up as second world war soldiers and,ocassionally, tuxedoed dinner party guests. I guess it's cheaper to find 100 or so great coats and fake guns than it is to rent or buy 100 sets of bronze age armour and weapons!

All in all this was an experience to forget. The next time some enthusiastic music student tells you that "Les Troyens" is Berlioz's forgotten masterpiece, just smile and start whistling the "march to the scaffold"!

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Sometimes we just take certain things for granted: the earth goes round the sun, Australia will win the cricket World Cup, Mozart is better than Pergolesi. However, occasionally we need to take a long hard look at these preconceptions when new facts emerge.

"Lo Frate 'Nnamorato" (The Brother in Love) was written by Pergolesi for the Neapolitan stage around 1732--just four years before his untimely death from tuberculosis at the early age of 26. As such, it is rightly considered a baroque work. Nevertheless, to view the La Scala production, conducted by Claudio Abbado on DVD, is to realise that Pergolesi's comic world is only a step away from the classicism of Mozart's greatest operas. Indeed, Pergolesi's work is far more inventive and dramatically coherent than the majority of Mozart's early attempts at opera. I have always loved the delightful overture to Mozart's early opera buffa, "La Finta Giardiniera" (The Pretend Gardener), but a deeper exploration of the work via the recent Zurich Opera version on DVD, shows clearly the musical and dramatic superiority of the young Pergolesi over the young Mozart. Both works are mostly divided into separate arias with few duets, trios and choruses, but the Pergolesi is dramatically tighter and the music has dramatic weight. In contrast, the early Mozart is filled with pleasant sounding music that often appears to have little dramatic connection to the story. Furthermore, after a while, one sees clearly that the decision to place "La Finta Giardiniera" in the contemporary world and add a few sight gags is no more than a device to try and cover up for the deficiencies of the music. The first recognisably "Mozartian" opera is surely "Die Entfuhrung Aus Dem Serail" (The Harem): before this, the young man was learning his trade--and he seems to have done it rather more slowly than Pergolesi. It is also worth pointing out that Pergolesi worked with a far more circumscribed orchestra than Mozart. For example, in "Lo Frate 'Nnamorato" there is no use of drums or timpani--though in spite of this, Pergolesi achieves his sonic effects and dramatic colorings with a surer hand and better aesthetic taste than the young Mozart.

All in all, "Lo Frate 'Nnamorato" reminds us that there is much fine music from the past that rarely gets played. "La Finta Giardiniera", on the other hand, teaches us a different lesson. Namely, that there is a lot of average music that is played on a regular basis only because the composer later became famous.