When Mozart and his new librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, put together their Italian version of Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1778 play, The Marriage of Figaro, revolution was in the air. The story follows traditional commedia dell’arte structures, with many characters adapted from stock characters; for instance, Figaro is inspired by the zanni (servant) character Brighella, smart and vindictive, who can be in turns both moral and unscrupulous, a clever liar, good humored, and brave. Since The Marriage of Figaro was originally conceived as a sequel (to the first play in the Beaumarchais trilogy, The Barber of Seville), in the play, Figaro and his former master Count Almaviva are reunited in order to foil Dr. Bartolo (the long-lost father of the title character). Beaumarchais wrote detailed notes on the characters, suggesting that Figaro must be played without any suggestion of rude caricature; the Count with great dignity and affability; the Countess with restrained tenderness; Suzanne as intelligent and lively but without brazen gaiety; and Chérubin as a charming caricature of youth, played even in the original play as a trouser role for a woman, due to a lack of boys “who could understand the subtleties of the role.”
Like Frederick the Great and other German princes, Joseph II (1765–1790, and the brother of Marie Antoinette) admired the language, enlightened materialism, and pragmatism of the French court. He reformed church music, encouraged the dramatic arts, founded theatrical companies, set up colleges for sons of the lower aristocracy, and inaugurated state primary schools. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, one of Mozart’s strongest supporters, was Joseph’s minister for education and censorship. Both Mozart and Da Ponte owned copies of his Catalogue of Forbidden Books (which sarcastically listed itself in its own register), and used it as a way to discover new and exciting dramatic works.
Mozart pursued Lorenzo Da Ponte as a librettist in hopes of creating a largely buffa-style comic opera with an opera seria female part for contrast. Da Ponte’s own life “in disguise” enabled him to infuse the operatic cliché of disguise with irony. He put a lot of himself into the work: born a Jewish Venetian in 1749, he changed his name and converted to Catholicism as a result of his father’s remarriage. Both ordained as a priest and employed as a professor of literature, he led a colorful—by some accounts, dissolute—life (living in a brothel, organizing the entertainments there, and having children with a mistress). After he was banished from Venice, Da Ponte’s fellow Venetian Antonio Salieri had introduced him to Viennese society and helped to find him work as an adaptive librettist for the Italian Theatre. Da Ponte collaborated three times with Mozart (Figaro, 1786; Don Giovanni, 1787; and Così Fan Tutte, 1790). He worked closely with composers and remarked that he avoided direct translation, preferring to study the style of a play and imitate it, reducing the number of characters, greatly shortening and restructuring texts to encourage musical variety, and aiming “to paint faithfully and in full color the diverse passions that are aroused.” Alan Tyson’s 1988 study Mozart: Studies of the Autograph Scores shows evidence of Da Ponte’s collaborative style.
King Louis XVI had been shocked by the title character’s long speeches directly challenging the Count during the first (private) reading of the play, and French censors fought to restrict it from public performance. To avoid clashing with their own censors in the Viennese court, Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera focuses and disarms these speeches. The defining moments of the original French text included lines such as, “Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages?” The Figaro of the opera, instead, indirectly challenges the Count to dance in his aria, “Se vuol ballare.” Enlightened thinking à la Rousseau, which denounced aristocratic privilege was—at least in the Austrian Empire—still a relatively new phenomenon. Figaro was a controversial, fresh work to Mozart, since the play finally had its public premiere in Paris in 1784 (Mozart had completed his opera by 1786).
Conflict between the sexes is a common trope in opera buffa, and Da Ponte worked carefully with Mozart to create final couplings that could be musically and dramatically sensible: Figaro’s true parents, Marcellina and Bartolo, are reunited, the youths Barbarina and Cherubino end up together, the Count and Countess reaffirm their commitment, and Figaro and Susanna present the model of optimistic, sustained love. In the opera’s opening scene, Mozart’s juxtapositions between major and minor modes contrast Figaro and Susanna’s perceptions of the proximity of their new marital room to the Count’s—Figaro exclaims, “so close!” in major; Susanna echoes skeptically in minor with, “too close...”. In Act IV, Susanna (in disguise) needles the Figaro who doubts her honor with the teasing, lilting aria, “Deh vieni, non tardar” (“Oh come, don’t delay”); Figaro, when he realizes the ruse, responds in kind by pretending to proposition the Countess. But by the end of the opera, their intrigues, too, give way to a joyful truce and understanding.
But more than any other scene, Mozart and Da Ponte revised and polished the conclusion of Act II, creating their most elaborate finale, which begins with two voices and ends with seven distinct, overlapping themes. Although the style of the time was to write set pieces, each one coming to a conclusion and separated by recitative, this scene is a masterpiece of plot development and musical continuity: 87 pages of score lasting almost 20 minutes, admired by Antonio Salieri as “a miniature opera in itself.”
The Marriage of Figaro is a masterful blend of comedic and tragic elements, playing with operatic conventions and introducing innovative musical elements. In the words of Johannes Brahms, “…each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again….”
April 28 – May 7 at John Hancock Hall at the Back Bay Events Center
Images, top to bottom: Portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte, by Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791–1872); Scene from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Cherubino hides behind Susanna’s chair as the Count arrives, anonymous, 19th century; The score title page of Le Nozze di Figaro.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Coda magazine.