Music with Ease > Opera Before 1800 > The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart) - Synopsis
The Marriage of Figaro
(Italian title: Le Nozze di Figaro)
An Opera by W A Mozart
Opera in four acts by Mozart; words by Lorenzo da Ponte, after Beaumarchais. Produced at the National Theatre, Vienna, May 1, 1786, Mozart conducting. Académie de Musique, Paris, as "Le Mariage de Figaro" (with Beaumarchaiss dialogue), 1793; as "Les Noces de Figaro" (words by Barbier and Carré), 1858. London, in Italian, Kings Theatre, June 18, 1812. New York, 1823, with T. Phillips, of Dublin, as Figaro; May 10, 1824, with Pearman as Figaro and Mrs. Holman, as Susanna; January 18, 1828, with Elizabeth Alston, as Susanna; all these were in English and at the Park Theatre. (See conducting paragraph of this article.) Notable revivals in Italian, at the Metropolitan Opera House: 1902, with Sembrich, Eames, Fritzi Scheff, de Reszke, and Campanari; 1909, Sembrch, Eames, Farrar, and Scotti; 1916, Hempel, Matzenauer, Farrar, and Scotti.
FIGARO, his valet
DOCTOR BARTOLO, a Physician
DON BASILIO, a music-master
CHERUBINO, a page
ANTONIO, a gardener
DON CURZIO, counselor at law
SUSANNA, her personal maid, affianced to FIGARO
MARCELLINA, a duenna
BARBARINA, ANTONIOS daughter
Time: 17th Century.
Place: The Counts chateau of Aguas Frescas, near Seville.
Libretto of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), Prague, 1786.
"Le Nozze di Figaro" was composed by Mozart by command of Emperor Joseph II., of Austria. After congratulating the composer at the end of the first performance, the Emperor said to him: "You must admit, however, my dear Mozart, that there are a great many notes in your score." "Not one too many, Sire," was Mozarts reply.
(The anecdote, it should be noted, also, is told of the first performance of Mozarts "Cosi Fan Tutti.")
No opera composed before "Le Nozze di Figaro" can be compared with it for development of ensemble, charm and novelty of melody, richness and variety of orchestration. Yet Mozart composed this score in a month. The finale to the second act occupied him but two days. In the music the sparkle of high comedy alternates with the deeper sentiment of the affections.
Michael Kelly, the English tenor, who was the Basilio and Curzio in the original production, tells in his memoirs of the splendid sonority with which Benucci, the Figaro, sang the martial "Non più andrai" at the first orchestral rehearsal. Mozart, who was on the stage in a crimson pelisse and cocked hat trimmed with gold lace, kept repeating sotto voce, "Bravo, bravo, Benucci!" At the conclusion the orchestra and all on the stage burst into applause and vociferous acclaim of Mozart:
"Bravo, bravo, Maestro! Viva, viva, grande Mozart!"
Further, the Reminiscences of Kelly inform us of the enthusiastic reception of "Le Nozze di Figaro" upon its production, almost everything being encored, so that the time required for its performance was nearly doubled. Notwithstanding this success, it was withdrawn after comparatively few representations, owing to Italian intrigue at the court and opera, led by Mozarts rival, the composer Salieri -- now heard of only because of that rivalry. In Prague, where the opera was produced in January, 1787, its success was so great that Bondini, the manager of the company, was able to persuade Mozart to compose an opera for first performance in Prague. The result was "Don Giovanni."
The story of "Le Nozze di Figaro" is a sequel to that of "The Barber of Seville," which Rossini set to music. Both are derived from "Figaro" comedies by Beaumarchais. In Rossinis opera it is Figaro, at the time a barber in Seville, who plays the go-between for Count Almaviva and his beloved Rosina, Dr. Bartolos pretty ward. Rosina is now the wife of the Count, who unfortunately, is promiscuous in his attentions to women, including Susanna, the Countlesss vivacious maid, who is affianced to Figaro. The latter and the music-master Basilio who, in their time helped to hoodwink Bartolo, are in the service of the Count, Figaro having been rewarded with the position of valet and major-domo. Bartolo, for whom, as formerly, Marcellina is keeping house, still is Figaros enemy, because of the latters interference with his plans to marry Rosina and to secure her fortune to himself. The other characters in the opera also belong to the personnel of the Counts household.
Aside from the difference between Rossinis and Mozarts scores, which are alike only in that each opera is a masterpiece of the comic sentiment, there is at least one difference between the stories. In Rossinis "Barber" Figaro, a man, is the mainspring of the action. In Mozarts opera it is Sussana, a woman; and a clever woman may posses in the role of protagonist in comedy a chicness and sparkle quite impossible to a man. The whole plot of "Le Nozze di Figaro" plays around Susannas efforts to nip in the bud the intrigue in which the Count wished to engage her. She is aided by the Countess and by Figaro; but she still must appear to encourage while evading the Counts advances, and do so without offending him, lest both she and her affianced be made to suffer through his disfavour. In the libretto there is much that is risque, suggestive. But as the average opera goer does not understand the subtleties of the Italian language, and the average English translation is too clumsy to preserve them, it is quite possible -- especially in this advanced age -- to attend a performance of "Le Nozze di Figaro" without imperiling ones morals.
There is a romping overture. Then, in Act I, we learn that Figaro, Count Almavivas valet, wants to get married. Susanna, the Countesss maid, is the chosen one. The Count has assigned to them a room near his, ostensibly because his valet will be able to respond quickly to his summons. The room is the scene of this Act. Susanna tells her lover that the true reason for the Counts choice of their room is the fact that their noble master is running after her. Now Figaro is willing enough to "play up" for the little Count, if he should take it into his head "to venture on a little dance" once too often. ("Si vuol ballare, Signor Contino!")
Unfortunately, however, Figaro himself is in a fix. He has borrowed money from Marcellina, Bartolos housekeeper, and he has promised to marry her in case of his inability to repay her. She now appears, to demand of Figaro the fulfillment of his promise. Bartolo encourages her in this, both out of spite against Figaro and because he wants to be rid of the old woman, who has been his mistress and even borne him a son, who, however, was kidnapped soon after his birth. There is a vengeance aria for Bartolo, and a spiteful duet for Marcellina and Susanna, beginning: "Via resti servita, madama brillante" (Go first, I entreat you, Miss, model of beauty).
The next scene opens between the page, Cherubino, a boy in love with every petticoat, and Susanna. He begs Susanna to intercede for him with the Count, who has dismissed him. Cherubino desires to stay around the Countess, for whom he has conceived one of his grand passions. "Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio"- (Ah, what feelings now possess me!) The Counts step is heard. Cherubino hides himself behind a chair, from where he hears the Count paying court to Susanna. The voice of the music-master then is heard from without. The Count moves toward the door. Cherubino, taking advantage of this, slips out from behind the chair and conceals himself in it under a dress that has been thrown over it. The Count, however, instead of going out, hides behind the chair, in the same place where Cherubino has been. Basilio, who has entered, nbow makes all kinds of malicious remarks and insinuations about the flirtations of Cherubino with Susanna and also with the Countess. The Count, enraged at the free use of his wifes name, emerges from behind the chair. Only the day before, he says, he has caught that rascal, Cherubino, with the gardeners daughter Barbarina (with whom the Count also is flirting). Cherubino, he continues, was hidden under a coverlet, "just as if under this dress here." Then, suiting the action to the words, by way of demonstration, he lifts the gown from the chair, and lo! there is Cherubino. The Count is furious. But as the page has overheard him making love to Susanna, and as Figaro and others have come in to beg that he be forgiven, the Count, while no longer permitting him to remain in the castle, grants him an officers commission in his own regiment. It is here that Figaro addresses Cherubini in the dashing martial air, "Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso" (Play no more, the part of a lover).
Act II. Still, the Count, for whom the claims of Marcellina upon Figaro have come in very opportunely, has not given consent for his valets wedding. He wishes to carry his own intrigue with Susanna, the genuineness of whose love for Figaro he underestimates, to a successful issue. Susanna and Figaro meet in the Countess"s room. The Countess has been soliloquizing upon love, of whose fickleness the Count has but provided too many examples. "Porgi amor, qual che ristoro" (Love, thou holy, purest passion.) Figaro has contrived a plan to gain the consent of the Count to his wedding with Susanna. The valets scheme is to make the Count ashamed of his own flirtations. Figaro has sent a letter to the Count, which divulges a supposed rendezvous of the Countess in the garden. At the same time Susanna is to make an appointment to meet the Count in the same spot. But, in place of Susanna, Cherubino, dressed in Susannas clothes, will meet the Count. Both will be caught by the Countess and the Count thus be confounded.
Cherubino is then brought in to try on Susannas clothes. He sings to the Countess an air of sentiment, one of the famous vocal numbers of the opera, the exquisite: "Voi che sapete, che cosa è amor" (What is this feeling makes m so sad).
The Countess, examining his officers commission, finds that the seal to it has been forgotten. While in the midst of these proceedings someone knocks. It is the Count. Consternation. Cherubino flees into the Countesss room and Susanna hides behind a curtain. The evident embarrassment of his wife arouses the suspicious of her husband, who, gay himself, is very jealous of her. He tries the door Cherubino has bolted from the inside, then goes off to get tools to break it down with. He takes his wife with him. While he is away, Cherubino slips out and leaps out of a window into the garden. In his place, Susanna bolts herself in the room, so that, when the Count breaks open the door, it is only to discover that Susanna is in his wifes room. All would be well, but unfortunately Antonio, the gardener, enters. A man, he says, has jumped out of the Countesss window and broken a flowerpot. Figaro, who has come in, and who senses that something has gone wrong, says that it was he who was with Susanna and jumped out of the window. But the gardener has found a paper. He shows it. It is Cherubinos commission. How did Figaro come by it? The Countess whispers something to Figaro. Ah, yes; Cherubino handed it to him in order that he should obtain the missing seal.
Everything appears to be cleared up when Marcellina, accompanied by Bartolo, comes to lodge formal complaint against Figaro for breach of promise, which for the Count is a much desired pretext to refuse again his consent to Figaros wedding with Susanna. These, the culminating episodes of this act, form a finale which is justly admired, a finale so gradually developed and so skillfully evolved that, although only the principals participate in it, it is as effective as if it employed a full ensemble of soloists, chorus, and orchestra worked up in the most elaborate fashion. Indeed, for effectiveness produced by simple means, the operas of Mozart are models.
But to return to the story. At the trial in Act III, between Marcellina and Figaro, it develops that Figaro is her long-lost natural son. Susanna pays the costs of the trial and nothing now seems to stand in the way of her union with Figaro. The Count, however, is not yet entirely cured of his fickle fancies. So the Countess and Susanna hit upon still another scheme in this play of complications. During the wedding festivities Susanna is to contrive to send secretly to the Count a note, in which she invites him to meet her. Then the Countess dressed in Susannas clothes, is to meet him at the place named. Figaro knows nothing of this plan. Chancing to find out about the note, he too becomes jealous -- another, though minor, contribution to the mixup of emotions. In this act the concoction of the letter by the Countess and Susanna is the basis of the most beautiful vocal number in the opera, the "letter duet" or Canzonetta sull aria (the "Canzonetta of the Zephyr") -- "Che soave seffiretto" (Hither gentle zephyr); an exquisite melody, in which the lady dictates, the maid writes down, and the voices of both blend in comment.
The final Act brings about the desired result after a series of amusing contretemps in the garden. The Count sinks on his knees before his Countess and, as the curtain falls, there is reason to hope that he is prepared to mend his ways.
Regarding the early performances of "Figaro" in this country, these early performances were given "with Mozarts music, but adapted by Henry Rowley Bishop." When I was a boy, a humorous way of commenting upon an artistic sacrilege was to explain: "Ah! Mozart improved by Bishop!" I presume the phrase came down from these early representations of "The Marriage of Figaro." Bishop was the composer of "Home, Sweet Home." In 1839 his wife eloped with Bochsa, the harp virtuoso, afterwards settled in New York, and for many years sang in concert and taught under the name of Mme. Anna Bishop.