Guide to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

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Who wrote The Marriage of Figaro and when?


The Marriage of Figaro, written in 1786, was the first of three collaborations between the composer Wolfgang AmadeusMozart and the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte; their last two were Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte.

What’s the story?

Based on the 1784 theatrical comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, La Folle Journe or the Marriage of Figarothe opera tells the story of two servants – Figaro and his future wife Susanna – who have gathered their wits to thwart their womanizing employer, Count Almaviva, and teach him a lesson in loyalty.

The action begins with Figaro and Susanna arranging the new bedroom given to them by their master, the Count. Susanna explains that the Count’s motivation behind this generous gift is to keep her close: he intends to seduce her, reinstating the abolished “lord’s right” which allowed a lord to sleep with a servant on the evening of his wedding.

Enraged, Figaro swears to foil his plans, and together with the long-suffering Countess Susanna and the excited page boy Cherubino, they hatch a cunning plan. The result, which takes place over a single day, is a lot of cross-dressing, concealment, mistaken identity and chaotic hilarity.

How is the music?

From the sparkling overture to Cherubino’s serenade “Tell me what love is” (“Voi che sapete”), Le Marriage of Figaro is packed with hits, many of which rank among the most famous and hummable in classical music history. The orchestration is inventive, the overall writing is very sophisticated, and there is plenty of imaginative scene painting. But, for me, what really defines Mozart’s writing is the depth of feeling he communicates in the most understated ways, like in the finale, where the Count begs his wife to forgive him: is so melodically simple, yet so moving.

What is the historical context?

Written in the years leading up to the French Revolution, Figaro’s wedding horrified aristocrats with its emphasis on class tensions and the limits of rank and privilege. This is why the original piece by Beaumarchais on which Mozart based his work was banned by the authorities in place in France. And that is why Emperor Joseph II was cautious before authorizing the performance of Mozart’s opera in Vienna. In order to win her approval, Da Ponte had to rid the play of its more incendiary political references, famously replacing Figaro’s climactic diatribe about inherited nobility with an equally impassioned aria about unfaithful wives. His modifications were accepted and the opera premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 1, 1786, under the direction of Mozart himself.

Was it successful?

Yes, although it has been somewhat eclipsed by the popularity of another work: that of Martín y Soler Una cosa rara (also on a libretto by Da Ponte). It was really after Le Figaro Premiere in Prague a few months later as the opera’s popularity skyrocketed. “The joy caused by this music is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it”, wrote the Hungarian poet Ferenc Kazinczy while Haydn wrote that he had heard the opera in his dreams. Composers of later centuries continued to consider Figaro as the pinnacle of lyrical success, with Brahms among the most virulent enthusiasts: “Each issue in Figaro is a miracle,” he said, “it’s totally beyond me how anyone could create something so perfect. It is still widely regarded as the greatest opera of all time.

But what makes it so special?

With its clever libretto, sophisticated music, multi-layered characterization, and universal themes of love, transgression, infidelity, rejection, and forgiveness, Figaro’s wedding reaches a level of humanity that escapes many tragedies. And that’s despite being a comedy.

Recommended recordings:

Yannick Nezet-Seguin with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe

Karl Böhm with the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Claudio Abbado with the Vienna Philharmonic

Bernard Haitink with the London Philharmonic (DVD by Glyndebourne Production)

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