Last month I decided to do a piece for my national Examiner.com site about the popularity of the musical Mamma Mia! in China. As an opera-goer I was struck by the fact that the Chinese producers were getting push-back from their audiences about having translated the ABBA songs into Mandarin. Since it is hard to imagine anyone going to this show for any reason other than hearing the songs and since those songs continue to be known best through the original ABBA recordings, this is entirely understandable. However, I could not resist comparing this phenomenon with my own reaction to the film that Ingmar Bergman made of a Swedish production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The opera was performed in Swedish; but, as I watched the film, I kept hearing the German words that I knew so well in my head.
I was reminded of this yesterday as I have been working my way through the mammoth Wilhelm Furtwängler: The Legacy CD collection. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is represented most extensively by three full opera performances: Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Magic Flute. The Don Giovanni recording appears to come from a Salzburg Festival performance for which I already have a DVD that I highly value. However, while this is sung in Italian, Figaro is sung in a German translation. The latter also comes from a live performance given in 1953, probably at the Vienna State Opera. This was no more surprising than the Swedish-language performance of Magic Flute; but the same phenomenon emerged. I kept hearing the Italian in my head, particularly when it involved singers, such as Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, whom I knew were perfectly comfortable singing in Italian; and, when an aria like “Dove sono” is involved, the results are definitely on the weird side. On the other hand Furtwängler’s approach to pacing this aria is justification enough for giving the recording serious listening. (Indeed, however out of place the vowels and consonants may be, this is probably the best I have heard Schwarzkopf under any circumstances.)
Things have advanced considerably when it comes to attitudes about the language in which an opera should be sung, but probably the most important advance comes from audiences no longer insisting that the native tongue is more important than the language for which the music was performed.