Mozart 'debuts' as a collaborator


If you weren't in Boston over Halloween weekend for a huge Mozart moment, don't despair. A Telarc recording by the same performers, the Boston Baroque orchestra, is in the works, and you can hear for yourself just how much a great composer can do with a cat's meow.

That's a hint of the distinctive pleasure derived from hearing the modern-day world premire of "The Philosopher's Stone" (1790) - a concert version that let us in on the fun that Mozart and four pals must have had in composing such a wild fairy tale of an opera.

"You do the meows, Wolfgang," we can imagine one of the others saying, "and I'll do the flutes when the magic bird finally sings."

This is the kind of tale in which a good god awaits a pure woman to be identified by the bird's singing. And the one woman the bird finds pure enough is horrified because she wants to stay with her mortal beloved.

It's also the kind of tale that Mozart's "Magic Flute" would use a year later. Musicologists are having a field day tracing connections between the two operas. Both were done for a Viennese theater run by their librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder.

Another collaborator was Benedikt Schack. He used to take walks with Mozart, a "power walker" of his day, according to musicologist David Buch. Last year Mr. Buch discovered Mozart's name along with others on parts of a "Philosopher's Stone" manuscript. While waiting for Schack to get dressed for an outing, Mozart purportedly would amuse himself by writing passages into whatever opera Schack was working on at the moment.

Perhaps in some such way - though controversy continues - "The Stone" has a little more Mozart in it than the single duet that has been linked to him. That's the one in which a husband tries to communicate with a wife whom a bad god has condemned to meowing like a cat.

It hardly pays to ask why. But the plot is explained in a new English narrative read by the elegant Carmen de Lavallade and the waggish Alvin Epstein while the singing in German is periodically put on hold. Like parts of the opera itself, this may have been more fun in the making than it was at Boston's Jordan Hall.

The recording will use the original spoken German, according to Martin Pearlman, founder and music director of Boston Baroque, an early-instruments orchestra celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Heard at the Nov. 1 performance, the music was a mellow delight as whatever part was Mozart blended with the paler-than-Mozart whole. The assembled singers gave a generally fine account of the music - if not always of the German, said a native speaker.

An unsung collaborator, you might say, in bringing the work to light was Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union. The "Stone" manuscript was reportedly discovered after World War II among papers transported to Leningrad (St. Petersburg) from Hamburg, Germany. Mr. Gorbachev, according to a story attributed to Buch, sent them back in exchange for a truckload of computers.

The Boston venture has reportedly drawn interest in the possibility of a fully staged and costumed production. Can't you see the bad god plunging into the abyss and the eagle flying in with the all-powerful philosopher's stone in its beak intended for the pure woman's human husband-to-be?

The manuscript was reportedly discovered after World War II among papers transported to Leningrad from Hamburg.

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