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Beaumarchais was one of history's fabulously colorful characters. Born of humble parentage, he became, through guile, shrewdness, talent and lucky marriages, a successful business entrepreneur, a musician, an inventor, the secretary to the King of France, a revolutionary and supplier of arms to the American colonists, and, not least of which – a literary figure. His plays The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother caused a sensation first in France and subsequently throughout Europe, as they presented themes of liberation – exalting the common man while criticizing the nobility.
This was exactly the subject that Mozart had been searching for since Christmas 1782, when Count Orsini-Rosenberg had invited him to compose a new comic opera for the Imperial Court Theater in Vienna. Mozart had the friendly ear of the Emperor himself, who made him Court Composer, but he had powerful rivals in Vienna – the Italians Salieri, Paisiello, Sarti and the Spaniard Soler were all more highly esteemed than the German Mozart who, for all his talent, had only produced one opera thus far, and that one, the Abduction from the Seraglio, in German. Fortunately, Mozart selected the brilliant poet Lorenzo da Ponte, a favorite at court, to write the libretto for the new opera.
Emperor Joseph II favored Da Ponte, and gave his blessing to the project. When Mozart played the new opera for the Emperor he was enchanted by the music, ordered it copied and the opera immediately scheduled for performance. On May 1, 1786 Mozart's he Marriage of Figaro premiered to a full house, and received so much applause that the performance lasted almost twice as long as the opera itself. It is a masterpiece among masterpieces that speaks to us even today. For more information about The Marriage of Figaro, download An Irreverent Guide for Enjoying: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.”.
The Marriage of Figaro takes place several years after The Barber of Seville. The wedding of Figaro and Susanna is to take place that evening and, as a gift, the Count has given them a room to convert into their bedroom – the new quarters conveniently situated between the Countess’ and the Count’s bedrooms so the servants can better attend their respective masters. Figaro is measuring the room for their bed, while Susanna models a new bonnet. She is not happy with the new living arrangements: “While you are off on errands for the Count, he could slip into our room some evening – he has designs on me,” she explains. Figaro resolves to foil the Count’s plan.
Enter Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina. He is still smarting from the escapades of The Barber of Seville and the Barber has promised to marry Marcellina if he can’t repay a debt to her. After Bartolo and Marcellina leave, Cherubino enters. He is desperately in love with every girl he meets. He rushes in to tell Susanna that the Count has caught him misbehaving with the gardener’s daughter, Barbarina. When they hear the Count approaching, Cherubino hides behind the armchair. The Count enters to intimate his intentions toward Susanna. But just as he is about to approach her, Don Basilio enters. The Count does not want to be found in a compromising situation, so he also hides behind the armchair – as he does, Cherubino quickly slips under the sheet that is covering the chair. Basilio suggests that Cherubino has been lurking around Susanna’s door – and that the pageboy even has desires for the Countess. When the Count hears this he flies into a jealous rage. He discovers Cherubino hiding under the armchair cover and realizes that he has heard everything that has transpired. In order to get rid of him, he sends him off to the army – a turn of events that Figaro delights in.
ACT II. We are now reintroduced to Rosina, the Countess Almaviva. The youthful girl of The Barber of Seville has changed greatly since her wedding. Her husband neglects her, and her life is filled with loneliness. Enter Susanna with Cherubino who is carrying his written orders admitting him to the Count’s army. They ask the Countess to help keep Cherubino out of the army. The women decide to disguise him as a chambermaid. When they hear the Count returning from a hunting trip, Cherubino hides in the Countess’ closet. The Count is suspicious of the situation. The Countess feigns indignation at her husband’s accusation, but he is resolved to catch her infidelity. When they leave the room to get tools to break down the closet door, Susanna lets Cherubino out – he jumps out the window into the garden and scurries off – but, he loses his army commission in the process. When the Count returns, the door is opened to reveal Susanna, to his and the Countess’ shock. The Count finds Cherubino’s army commission just as Figaro enters. When the Count questions him about Cherubino’s orders, Figaro tells him that they were improperly certified and that Cherubino had given them to him to take care of. Just then, Antonio the gardener enters to complain that someone jumped out of the Countess’ window, right into his flowers. To add to the chaos, Bartolo and Marcellina enter to petition the Count to force Figaro to marry Marcellina.
ACT III opens with the Count trying to make heads or tails of the day’s events. Susanna enters and agrees to have a rendezvous with him that evening, after her wedding, in the garden. She and the Countess have agreed to play one more, hopefully final trick on the Count to bring him to his senses. They write a letter, inviting the Count into the garden. Meanwhile, Bartolo and Marcellina have seemingly trapped Figaro, but in a delightful turn of events it is revealed that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother and Dr. Bartolo his father. The marriage of Susanna and Figaro takes place at last – the letter inviting the Count to meet Susanna in the garden has been delivered – the trap is set.
ACT IV. That evening in the garden. Susanna and the Countess exchange hooded robes to fool the Count. The comic genius of Mozart ensues as the Count attempts to woo ‘Susanna’, who is actually his wife in disguise. Figaro, who knows nothing of the ladies plans, overhears the Count making advances to a woman he believes to be Susanna. But when Susanna, dressed as the Countess approaches him, he recognizes her immediately, but plays along to make the Count jealous. When the Count overhears Figaro’s advances to the supposed Countess he flies into a rage - he has fallen into the ladies trap. The Countess reveals her true identity, and the Count realizes that he has been a fool.
In one of the most moving moments in all of opera, the Count begs his wife to forgive him. The sparking finale of The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) tells us that all will be well – at least for the moment.
There are some very good choices for those who are interested in a contemporary look at the work; that is, trying to recreate the performance practices of Mozart’s time, performing the piece as we believe it would have been performed in the 18th century:
The 1994 live performance from Glyndebourne Festival Opera starring Renee Fleming.
John Eliot Gardiners’s recording with Bryn Terfel on Archiv Produktions
Rene Jacobs performance with the Concerto Koln.
And a beautiful recording by Sir Neville Mariner on Philips.
But for me, there is only one choice.
Carlo Maria Giulini (cond), Elizabeth Swarzkopf, Giuseppe Taddei, Anna Moffo; Philharmonia Orchestra. EMI. I love this recording. It is a testament to Mozart’s genius that a full orchestra, with big voices, singing in a ‘stilo vero italiano’ can bring life to this incredible work of art. And, to hear Swarzkopf’s Countess is moving if not revelatory.
Now I know, some of you are thinking ‘how indulgent, ridiculous, old school’ – yes, yes, I know. But the interpretations are incredibly detailed, well honed and conceived. Taddei’s Figaro alone is worth the price of admission.
“No good opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible.” -- W.H. Auden
Tunes to learn:
Non piu andrai – Figaro’s mock farewell to Cherubino when the boy is sent off to the army by the Count for having listened in on the Count’s attempted seduction of Susannah.
Contessa perdono – at the very end of the opera. This magical moment in the finale is when the Count, finally coming to his senses, kneels before his wife and begs her forgiveness. This is Mozart at his most sublime – simple – profound.
For the full list of recommended recordings visit Maestro's Selection.
Mozart was born on January 27, 1756 in the Austrian city of Salzburg, where his father Leopold was a moderately successful musician. It was obvious very early on that the boy was a musical genius: he began composing at age six and wrote his first opera at twelve. Young Wolfgang was a keyboard and violin virtuoso, and had an uncanny knack for improvisation. After several years touring Europe, Mozart settled into an unrewarding position at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg. The death of his mother in 1779 kept him from pursuing commissions elsewhere. In 1781, his early opera seria triumph Idomeneo was well-received in Munich, and Mozart finally left Salzburg for Vienna, where he would spend the rest of his life. In 1782 he married Constanze Weber, and the couple lived modestly on an income from teaching and concerts. Mozart's operas enjoyed a moderate success, and he found a strong supporter in Emperor Franz Joseph II, who awarded him a small court appointment in 1787. Even so, Mozart's financial concerns deepened. He began to overwork himself, which no doubt affected his already failing health. He died in Vienna on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35.
Over four hundred of Mozart's compositions survive, in almost every form and style. His catalogue includes 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, 25 string quartets, 17 operas, countless other instrumental and vocal music, and the great, unfinished Requiem Mass (it was completed by his pupil Süssmayr). The most famous of his operas are Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio, 1782), Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, 1791).
Mozart's often irreverent behavior and frequent financial troubles have led to many rather melodramatic depictions of his life, most notably Peter Shaffer's hit play and move Amadeus. However, many of these accounts, including Mozart's supposed death at the hands of his rival Salieri, are greatly exaggerated. Above all, Mozart was a musical genius, whose works illuminate mankind's weaknesses and nobility with unparalleled grace and sympathy.
No Language Barrier!
Enjoy the beauty of the original language and understand it all with English translations. The English text is projected on a screen above the stage for each opera. Easy to follow, and easy to understand every twist and turn of the plot!