The Marriage of Figaro

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and The Marriage of Figaro

The choice of a libretto based upon Beaumarchais’ Le mariage de Figaro must be understood within the context of the reign of Emperor Joseph II of Austria whose interest in the arts, theatre and music during Mozart’s lifetime made for a rich but not always helpful environment for the composer. Joseph was a reformer and a staunch believer in the tenets of the Enlightenment. This was a ruler who rarely dressed the part, often mingling unknown amongst his subjects. He was responsible for limiting the power of the aristocracy, working towards their full subjugation under the law along with all other citizens. One of his first acts was to provide complete religious freedom within the empire, something that came as a real boon to Jewish citizens. He also worked towards the limitation of ecclesiastical power, particularly the financial power held by Austrian monasteries, something which often put him in conflict with the pope and local church authorities. But Joseph was also an autocratic despot. Because he was a ‘reformer’ doesn’t mean that he was interested in democracy, for instance. And his reforms were pushed forward without regard to the feelings or criticisms of his subjects.

Joseph was intimately involved in theatrical and operatic entertainment in the capitol, Vienna. Without his agreement as de facto director of the royal opera theatre and National Theatre, no work would come to production. It is interesting then that the librettist Da Ponte and Mozart were able to persuade him to allow the production of Le nozze di Figaro for the Hofoper (at the Burgtheater, later known as the Nationaltheater) despite the fact that he had forbidden any production of the original Beaumarchais comedy. Volkmar Braunbehrens, in his groundbreaking book Mozart in Vienna, suggests that the Emperor’s decision was an adroit political calculation meant to hold up a mirror to the Austrian nobility whose families all held boxes in the Nationaltheater. A comedy about a servant’s one-upmanship of a nobleman, while not entirely revolutionary (in fact the Austrian state censors acted as a strong deterrent to Da Ponte’s retaining any of the more ‘dangerous’ elements of the original play) was certainly provocative and that was surely what Joseph had in mind.

It must be remembered as well that Giovanni Paisiello’s version of the previous Beaumarchais comedy, Le barbier de Séville was a triumph in Vienna during the 1783 opera season as Il barbiere di Siviglia. Figaro deals with many of the same characters, so Mozart and Da Ponte hoped that the memory of Barbiere would assure them with a modicum of success if not a succès de scandale.

Composition of Le nozze di Figaro probably began in the winter of 1785, composer and librettist working closely together. At their disposal in residence at the Nationaltheater was possibly the finest company of opera buffa singers in Europe, many of whom had been involved in the great success of Paisiello’s Barbiere two years before. Of special note in the original cast were Nancy Storace, an English soprano of Italian descent who sang the first Susanna, and Michael Kelly, the Irish tenor who created the roles of Basilio and Don Curzio and whose written reminiscences of Mozart are a key factor in our understanding of the composer today. Though it may have taken Mozart and Da Ponte only six weeks to draft the opera it took considerably longer to get it produced. But it finally found its way to the stage on May 1, 1786 at the Nationaltheater where it had nine performances. In a 1789 revival at the same theatre it received twenty-six performances and was deemed such a success that the Emperor commissioned Così fan tutte.

The Libretto and Source of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, the author of Le mariage de Figaro, was a fascinating character. Born in 1732 he (like his character Figaro) enjoyed many different professions during his life. He was a watchmaker, an instructor of harp, a judge, a diplomat and even, at one point in his life, a spy. He was also a man of contradiction, having at one time purchased a noble title but at another time furnished arms to rebels involved in both the American and French revolutions. Above all, however, he was a writer for the stage, his first theatrical efforts being produced when he was 25 years old.

The Barber of Seville was the first in a cycle of three plays, all featuring the same characters whom we watch grow older and deal with different situations in their lives. These characters are Count Almaviva, the lovely Rosina who is the object of his affections, and his servant Figaro. In the first play Almaviva outwits the old doctor Bartolo in order to marry the doctor’s ward, Rosina, all the while helped by the machinations of his barber Figaro. In the second play, The Marriage of Figaro, they’re a few years older. It is now the servant Figaro who outwits his aristocratic master. Figaro has to protect his new young bride Susanna from the Count who desires her and who wishes to continue the ancient tradition of the droit du seigneur, the right of a reigning nobleman to have access to his subjects’ brides on the first night of their marriage. At the same time Figaro tries to preserve the Count’s marriage to Rosina, who is now, of course, the Countess Almaviva. The third play, rarely revived these days, is called The Guilty Mother. It takes place twenty years after the previous play, and involves the illegitimate children of the Count and Countess, the potential loss of their fortune and, again, the last minute redemption of his employers by Figaro’s wit and wisdom.

While Barber is pure comedy with roots in the works of Moliére, Le mariage de Figaro was heavily barbed and dangerously flirted with breaking down the barrier between the serving class and the nobility. The Guilty Mother, however, has a darkness and cynicism that reflects the Revolutionary period during which it was produced and first staged in 1792.

It’s interesting to note that Beaumarchais wrote both Barber and Figaro with music in mind. The original Marriage of Figaro was one of the lengthiest plays written up to that point simply because there were so many musical numbers demanded by the author. And Barber was conceived as an opéra comique from its inception and was only rewritten as a straight stage play after it was rejected for production by the Theatre Italienne. And so it was eventually staged by the Comédie Française and has been a part of their repertoire ever since. Beaumarchais led a fascinating life filled with political intrigue and even imprisonment on more than one occasion, but to opera lovers he will be best known as having providing the source material for two of the greatest operas ever written.

According to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s memoirs it was Mozart who chose to set the Beaumarchais play as an opera, giving Da Ponte the chore of making the necessary alterations to create a singable libretto and a work that would pass muster with the state censors. In any event he created a brilliant libretto that is true to the original text and created ample opportunity for Mozart to comment musically on the social and character detail found within it. It seems that the two worked closely on the work. Again, quoting Da Ponte: “I…suggested that we write the text and music without letting anyone know about it, then wait for an opportune moment to offer it to the management or the emperor himself, and I courageously volunteered to carry out this project…Thus we set to work side by side; each part of the text was set to music by Mozart as soon as I had written it, and in six weeks the work was finished.”  Considering that Da Ponte was a relative beginner at writing libretti, the poem for Le nozze di Figaro stands out as a monumental achievement in the history of opera.

The Music of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro

The first thing that can be noted about Figaro is its directness and brevity (not to be confused with its overall length). The arias and ensembles are all relatively short, getting to the dramatic point quickly so that we can move on to the next plot point. In short, Mozart treats Beaumarchais’ play exactly as it is meant to be: as a comedy. Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte must have respected the Beaumarchais original greatly. Acts I and II are virtually the same as they exist in the play, point for point. Things get a little more complicated in the final acts but that is because much of what Da Ponte had to excise in order to pass the censors is contained in those acts. What’s fascinating, however, is how Mozart uses his music to insinuate and hint at what Da Ponte had to leave on the table. How else does one explain the ascending scale passages in Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” other than to say that they unmistakably underline the sexual suggestiveness that the character intends?  Or the presence of those wonderful passages for a pair of horns at the end of Figaro’s “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi”, a bold reference to his supposed cuckolding by Susanna (‘corni’ or ‘horns’ referring to a husband having been ‘horned’ by his cheating wife)?

The glories of this score all lay in the brilliance of Mozart’s musical characterizations. Take the character of Cherubino, the adolescent page to Count Almaviva who spends much of the opera dealing with his raging hormones (the fact that the character is sung by a mezzo-soprano in trousers rather than by an actual adolescent boy who could never do justice to the role is as much about the underlying titillation in his scenes with the Countess, whom he adores, as about vocal appropriateness). Note how in his first act aria “Non so più” the vocal line and the orchestral accompaniment work together to give us a kind of breathless, excited quality as he tries to describe these new sensations coursing through his body. In his second act aria, “Voi che sapete”, these same feelings bubble up again and Mozart cleverly takes him through numerous distant key areas in order to project his nervousness in the presence of his ideal love.

Other characters are dealt with similarly. In  “Se vuol ballare”, considering that the text expresses the servant’s intention to make the Count ‘dance to his tune’, Mozart casts the aria in the form of a minuet, adding shorter note-values, sixteenth notes, in the accompaniment to express Figaro’s underlying hurt and anger. After the Count sends Cherubino off to the army, Figaro sings “Non più andrai”. Listen to the running commentary in the orchestra: as he refers to the feathered hats that Cherubino will no longer wear we hear a ‘feathered’ flourish from the violins in the previous measure. The joke continues as he says “You’ll no longer have those feathers, that hat, that head of hair, that sparkling aspect”: cascading and descending scales describe both Cherubino’s finery as well as the direction of his mood as he glumly looks forward to ‘boot camp!’

Through these rather simple musical means the composer humanizes his characters and helps us to identify with them. Nothing can compare to the moment when, at the end of the opera, Count Almaviva begs forgiveness of his Countess for all of his digressions during ‘day of folly’ (La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro is Beaumarchais’ official title for the original play). The allegro assai of the previous number comes to a halt, Mozart indicates a silent pause in the music, and then the Count begs his wife for pardon in an exquisitely simple vocal phrase, accompanied in the orchestra by the outlining of the most basic cadence in Western music: tonic to dominant. “Contessa, perdono!  Perdono, perdono!”  The Countess’ response is equally simple but in the context of the drama, ultimately stunning.

Simplicity, economy and beauty: no other opera rivals The Marriage of Figaro in these qualities. It is a supreme achievement in lyric theatre.

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