Music with Ease > Opera Before 1800 > The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart)
The Marriage of Figaro
(Italian title: Le Nozze di Figaro)
An Opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart set to work on "Figaro" in 1785, having at this date been ordered by the Emperor Joseph to write an opera for Vienna. Da Ponte was again the librettist, founding his text on Beaumarchais famous comedy, "Le Mariage de Figaro," which had lately been creating a stir in Paris. The opera has no regular, well-defined plot. It is rather a succession of awkward and humourous situations, calling forth an abundance of sparkling repartee. The imbroglio is "often exceedingly difficult"; but while not easy to make clear in writing, it is easy enough to follow on the stage.
Cherubino hides behind Susanna's chair as the Count arrives, in Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro, Act 1. (19th century illustration.)
The scene is laid at the country-house of Count Almaviva, the character in whom the chief amusement of the opera centres. With accommodating notions of morality himself, he is very jealous of the conduct of his Countess, whom he suspects of being rather too fond of an over-grown page, Cherubino. The Count is carrying on a flirtation with Susanna, the Countesss maid; and the droleries of the opera hang to a large extent on the incidents thus afforded. Susanna is about to be married to Figaro, the Counts valet; but the Count offers her a dowry if she will meet him that evening. She declines, and Figaro presently appears, requesting the Count to honour his marriage by giving away the bride. The Count agrees, but delays the ceremony in order to renew his suit with Suzanna.
Meanwhile, Susanna has joined with the Countess and Figaro in a plot to discomfit the Count. An anonymous letter, written by Figaro, tells the Count of certain assignations which have been made for the evening in the garden. Various diverting contre-temps arise out of this plot; and further hilarity is created when Bartolo and Marcellina, an aged couple, enter. Bartolo had been rejected by Susanna, and Marcellina had been unable to excite the tender passion in Figaro. But Figaro had promised to marry Marcellina if he failed to repay her an old debt within a certain time; and the payment not having been made, she now comes to claim her bridegroom. The Count, delighted at this turn of affairs, promises that she shall get her rights.
The Second Act is "mainly devoted to clearing up the various difficulties." It turns out that Figaro is the long-lost son of Bartolo and Marcellina. Then, in continuance of the plot above-mentioned, the Countess disguises herself as Susanna, and at the place of assignation, the Count ardently avows his passion to his own wife. He discovers his mistake and promises amendment, and he and the Countess mutually forgive each other their little flirtations. Figaro weds Susanna, and "alls well that ends well."
Da Ponte declared that Mozart wrote the whole of "Figaro" in six weeks. Mozarts note-books hardly bear this out, but at any rate the time occupied was very short. In the score we admire the spontaneous growth and continuity of the whole organism, the psychological truth and depth of sentiment which make the individual characters so life-like; resulting from these, the striking harmony in the use of means and forms, and the mixture of dignity and grace, all founded on something higher than mere sensuous beauty. While listening, "we feel the throbbing of our own life-blood, recognise the language of our own hearts, and are captivated by the irresistible charm of unfading beauty: it is art, genuine, immortal, making us free and happy." Mozart never excelled the melodic beauty of some of the numbers. What could be finer than the Countesss aria, "Dove sono"; Cherubinos "Voi che sapite"; or Figaros duet with Susanna? The verve and brightness of the music force themselves on the pleased attention throughout; and when all is over, so true is the picture, that, as Mr. Streatfeild says, one comes away with the feeling of having assisted in an actual scene in real life. Such music can never grow old, though modern realism may demand something different.
The opera was brought out on May 1, 1786, in face of the most elaborate intrigues against it, and was received with the attention it deserved. Even at the rehearsal its success was most decided; when, according to Michael Kelly (an Irish tenor who was in the cast under the name of "Signor Ochelly"), the enthusiasm of singers and orchestra rose to fever heat. Kelly says: "I remember that at the first rehearsal of the full band Mozart was on the stage, with his crimson pelisse and his gold-banded cocked hat, giving the time of the music to the orchestra. I shall never forget the little animated countenance when lighted up with the glowing rays of genius. It is as impossible to describe it as it would be to paint sunbeams."
He goes on to tell how at one point, "those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged by repeated obeisances his thanks for those distinguishing marks of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him." This was at the rehearsal. At the public performance the furore was equally remarkable. All the principal numbers were re-demanded. Indeed, so numerous were the encores that the performance lasted nearly twice the time that had been calculated upon. The success, too, of the first night was maintained at subsequent representations.
At the second performance, one duet had to be sung three times. So trying, in fact, did the encores become that the Emperor forbade them for the future. Kelly accounts how Joseph II., after issuing this order, spoke to some of the leading artists on the subject. "I daresay," he said, "you are pleased at my having put a stop to encores. It must be fatiguing for you to repeat so many songs." The artists obsequiously signified their agreement. But Kelly, who was standing by, boldly said to the Emperor: "Do not believe them, Sire; they all like to be encored. At least, I am sure I always do." And Kelly was right; for what singer does not welome the compliment of an encore? Soon afterwards, the opera was given at Prague, where its reception was even more enthusiastic. "The one subject of conversation," wrote Mozart to his father, "is Figaro; nothing is played, whistled, or sung but Figaro; nobody goes to any opera but Figaro; everlastingly Figaro." And we have so few chances of going to "Figaro" now!