About The Marriage of Figaro

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Opera Colorado’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro runs May 4–12, 2019.
For tickets and information, click here.

To read a synopsis of The Marriage of Figaro, click here.

Program Note

This first of three collaborations between composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte almost perished at birth. The Beaumarchais play from which it drew inspiration had been banned in Paris for its volatile political content, considered dangerous in pre-Revolutionary France. Austria’s Emperor Joseph II, elder brother to the embattled French queen, adopted the same prohibition in his own realm. One could possess a copy of the text (Mozart did), but it could not be staged. Thus, writing an operatic Figaro was optimism at its best. Yet Mozart was determined. Da Ponte later remembered, “As fast as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music.  In six weeks everything was in order.”

Of course, there was still the problem of obtaining permission to perform it. Fortunately, Da Ponte, either through foresight or good fortune, had replaced Figaro’s pointed political diatribe with misogynist complaints. No longer were monarchs immoral; now, only women were untrustworthy. The alteration proved acceptable to the emperor, who approved the project. Rehearsals soon began under Mozart’s watchful eye. Tenor Michael Kelly, cast as Basilio and Curzio, later recalled the delight with which the performers responded to the music:  “Viva, viva, grande Mozart! Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding.”

Behind the scenes, though, all was not well. The composer’s father wrote of “cabals” against his son, and named “Salieri and his followers” as principal opponents. The conspirator’s best-placed ally was Count Rosenberg, Director of the Court Opera. Much as was shown in the film Amadeus, Rosenberg tore two pages of dance music from the score. Da Ponte’s memoirs claim himself as the witness. Fortunately for Mozart’s creative spirit—and for the satisfaction of generations of opera lovers—the conflict was settled essentially as Hollywood saw it: with the emperor himself insisting that the music be reincorporated.

Figaro premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater May 1, 1786, to immediate acclaim. So insistent were calls for encores that, before long, the emperor declared only arias would be reprised; otherwise, performances would run too late into the evening. However, perhaps Salieri and Company had not entirely conceded. Late in the summer, one reviewer remarked upon “the unruly mob in the gallery” that was still determined to disrupt Figaro. Yet, he added, “one would have to side with the cabal or tastelessness if one were to entertain a different opinion than that which admits the music of Herr Mozart to be a masterpiece of the art. It contains so many beauties, and such a richness of thought as can proceed only from the born genius.”

Indeed, the musical delights of Figaro are countless. From the ebullient overture to the final ensemble—in which good will is rapturously restored, and then exuberantly celebrated—Mozart never missed a chance to prove his artistry. Perhaps of particular note are the arias. Each intends to capture the character’s personality, even reflecting moods changing in different situations. Consider Figaro’s two Act One arias. First, in Se vuol ballare, he is infuriated by the Count’s intentions toward Susanna; then, scarcely a quarter hour later, in Non piu andrai, he playfully teases young Cherubino about the youth’s pending military service. Ballare Mozart sprinkles with firm outbursts, expressing Figaro’s scarcely contained outrage; Andrai brings more nimble phrasing, and even dashes of trumpet to emphasize the martial imagery. The other characters, too, have music that varies according to mood; no composer understood better than Mozart how to achieve this goal.

In Figaro, one finds humanity displayed vividly and memorably upon the stage, more humanely than in the play from which the characters arose. Characters who Beaumarchais sketched as ideologically shaded silhouettes gain through Mozart’s music the hearts and souls of persons one might embrace. A youth trembling with new passions. A young man confident of his cleverness. A loving wife, forlorn, her husband estranged. Couples that, like real couples, can both quarrel and forgive. Without characters with whom one can empathize, an opera is little more than so much music, however beautiful. Mozart understood, and used his music to draw listeners into their lives. Figaro’s text is impressive, its music even more so. The combination entwines one’s heart in the fates of these otherwise fictional persons.

Program notes and synopsis © Betsy Schwarm, author of the Classical Music Insights series, including Operatic Insights.

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