Some weeks ago I was searching for photos of the Royal Opera House’s classic production of Mitridate designed by Graham Vick, but when I Googled ‘Mitridate‘ and ‘Vick’, I didn’t get quite the results I was expecting. Instead I found the most incredible series of pictures taken by Tyson Vick, an American photographer, who has spent ten years working on an ambitious project to take at least one representative photograph for every Mozart opera. And I mean every. This remarkable book is the result, and it truly is Mozart as you’ve never seen him before.
I immediately warmed to Vick because I could sympathise with the kind of obsession that would drive someone to spend ten years focusing on a single composer. Indeed, when I told Dehggial about this book she initially found it hard to believe there was someone other than me who was strange enough to draw artistic inspiration from early opera. But Vick’s project is a triumph: the photographs are very chic, taken with immense flair and style. He is also a fashion photographer and it shows in his aesthetic, although he didn’t have the benefit of vast armies of dressers and gaffers here. He scouted out the locations, he designed and made the costumes and he spent years, if necessary, searching for the right face to represent each character. He explains in his introduction that he had strict rules: if a character in an opera was a man, the model should be a man (hence a delightful teenage Cherubino), and Vick also strove to find age-appropriate models (Idamante is played by a fifteen-year-old).
The photos alone would be brilliant, and even those who don’t like Mozart might find them amusing, but Vick’s book offers more than just a procession of flamboyant images. He writes a short introduction to each of the operas, and also includes one-act operas, cantatas and even pieces for which Mozart wrote only incidental music. In total there are 24 sections of the book, where lesser-known works such as Bastien und Bastienne, La Betulia Liberata, Thamos and Il Sogno di Scipione stand alongside the big hitters: The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte and, of course, Don Giovanni at his most smouldering (to be frank, I think it was the sight of Vick’s Don that persuaded me to buy the book).
Frivolity aside, this promises to be an extremely useful reference work. Vick has loved Mozart since he was a boy and has listened, I think, to every single piece he talks about. For each work there are details of the librettist, the date and a quote taken from the opera, alongside a frontispiece; then there is a double-page spread with a synopsis and further details, written in an engagingly chatty way as if Vick is enthusing to you over a quick pre-show cocktail. Purists will doubtless find it too eager and not thorough enough, but for most of us this is exactly the sort of thing we need to brush up on an opera before going into the auditorium (and it’s much better looking than Wikipedia). Perhaps the only drawback is that it seems to have been self-published and so is rather more expensive than you might expect for its size.
There’s a whole range of styles in the photos, from Giuditta’s astonishing Cranach-style dress in the photo for La Betulia Liberata, through plenty of Rococo silks, to slick, more obviously Photoshopped images featuring skyborne figures or sea monsters. For my part, some work better than others: I love the earthy tones of Vick’s photos for Il Re Pastore, for example, while the shot of the Greek gods for Idomeneo looks rather too over-oiled and Harryhausen, but that’s the beauty of the book. It’s one man’s incredible vision of Mozart’s works and naturally there will be some interpretations that other aficionados might disagree with. But everything is done extremely well. Some photos are set up within elaborate scenes, while others are simple shots of figures against pale backgrounds, like those of the brooding Lucio Silla or the shockingly young and pretty Sesto, above. Vick does have a tendency to track down remarkably attractive models, which is also the case for his other sideline in steampunk photography, another gloriously geeky field of interest which has resulted in some stunning imagery.
So, if you dread ever finding yourself facing unknown Mozart, as I faced unknown Handel in Halle with Lucio Cornelio Silla, this is the book for you. It isn’t aimed at the scholarly old school but at enthusiasts, like its author. It brims over with knowledge and colour and is hopefully just the kind of creative publication that can convince a broader audience that early opera isn’t fusty but often bizarre and sensual. I’m immensely impressed by Vick’s initiative and I’ll be keeping an eye on his equally intriguing steampunk work. You can find out more about his shoots for his Mozart project on his blog, and you can see a gallery of the final images here.