Mozart in Prague: Reconstructing Past Experience

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Mozart in Prague follows acclaimed tenor Rolando Villazon as he attempts to recreate the first performance of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni. Villazon travels to Prague to gain an insight into the music of the opera and the original social context in which it was first performed. The final product of which is a performance of the opera’s finale as it would have looked and sounded on its premiere night.

At the beginning of the programme, Villazon excitedly tells the audience: “We are going to restage Don Giovanni’s finale to understand the challenges Mozart faced, so we can all see and hear it as the first audience did.” The aim of the programme creates a sense that by being able to recreate the look and sound of something, you recreate the experience of being in that time and place. This is a concept that television as a medium inherently perpetuates. We are used to the weird unreality of being able to bend the rules of time and space with television. We no longer duck when the train comes charging towards us on the cinema screen because we know what we are witnessing is not real in the sense that it is happening in this moment and in this space. We are instead being offered glimpses of events that happened in the past and in another place. The fact that we see and hear events as they unfold prompts us to believe they are real, but the discrepancy in time and space reminds us that they are constructed images.

So through the medium of television it is quite easy to immerse ourselves in the illusion that we are watching and therefore experiencing an opera taking place in the past. It’s why costume dramas on television and cinema are popular: the nature of television as a medium that transcends how we usually experience linear time and space in our everyday lives lends itself well to presenting the past in a way that is believable. Not believable in the sense that we are under the delusion that these programmes were actually made in 1787, but rather that we are able to immerse ourselves and therefore become emotionally engaged in the narrative.

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When the finished product is presented on screen we watch the opera’s finale with little interruption or narration from Villazon. Although we do hear him at one point offer a few words on a character’s performance it is not too intrusive, as if he is sitting beside us in the theatre whispering in our ear as we watch. But we do not experience the opera as the audience would have experienced it in a true sense. We only see the finale, isolated from the scenes that came before it. We do not see the entire stage but a range of shots and close-ups. We are given subtitles to translate what the performers are singing. What we appreciate while watching the performance is the care and effort put into creating it. That is really what we have experienced during the course of this programme. The outcome is less significant than the process that led to it.

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In his conclusion, Villazon frames the documentary as a journey that has helped him understand more about Mozart. This fulfils slightly different aims than those set out at the beginning of this documentary, with its emphasis on the viewer experiencing the opera as it was originally performed. But, of course, a reproduction will never truly allow us to experience an opera as it was on opening night. However, it does offer a valuable insight into the creative process of the artists themselves through the task of imitating their work. More than being a witness to past events, we are a witness to their construction on screen and the creative process that made them possible.

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