Mozart: Selections from Le nozze di Figaro, K.492

JOANNES CHRISOSTOMUS WOLFGANG GOTTLIEB MOZART 

BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria 

DIED: December 5, 1791, Vienna 

COMPOSED: Begun in October 1785 and entered into Mozart’s catalogue of compositions on April 29, 1786 

WORLD PREMIERE: May 1, 1786. The composer conducted at the Burgtheater in Vienna 

US PREMIERE: May 10, 1824. Sung in English at the Park Theater, New York

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: The selections heard today run about 40 mins

THE BACKSTORY Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro was moderately successful when it was unveiled at Vienna’s Burgtheater in May 1786, but it grew into a major hit with its production in Prague later that year. Writing from Prague to his friend Gottfried von Jacquin back in Vienna, Mozart reported, “Here nothing is talked about except Figaro; nothing is played, blown, sung, or whistled except Figaro; no opera draws the crowds like Figaro—it’s always Figaro. Certainly it’s a great honor to me.” It was a brave choice for the first collaboration between Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, as the play on which it was based, Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro, had become the subject of intense controversy. It was banned from the stage throughout Germany and Austria (though it could be acquired in print) due to what was taken to be its disrespectful portrayal of the aristocracy. Da Ponte assured the Emperor that he would tone down the offending passages and, on those terms, was given the green light to move ahead with his libretto. 

The result grew into what many consider the finest opera ever written, a profound human tragicomedy, at once hilarious and heartbreaking, in which the Countess Almaviva, abetted by the servants Susanna and Figaro, manages to shame her husband (the Count) for his egregious philandering—at least momentarily. (That’s just the barest outline of a subtle and convoluted plot.) Adding to the mix is a colorful supporting cast, headed by the impassioned adolescent page Cherubino (what we would call a trouser role, i.e. a juvenile male character sung by an adult female performer). The opera is a showcase for Mozart’s far-ranging gifts, comic genius, dizzying facility in composing complex ensembles, and skill in establishing character through distinct sonic profiles. Still, the idea of subterfuge goes to the heart of Le nozze di Figaro, and Mozart was not unskilled when it came to imagining ways to underscore psychological states through music.

THE MUSIC Mozart customarily held off writing his overtures until he finished the rest of the opera he was preparing, and evidence suggests that this was indeed what happened with Le nozze di Figaro. On the surface, all is effervescent gaiety in the Figaro Overture. The themes are high-spirited, and none of those undergoes any measure of “learned” development. At one point, Mozart did begin sketching out some slower music that would have stood as a contrasting section in the middle of the Overture. But he scrapped that idea; we can’t say whether this was because he didn’t want to impede the onslaught of his Allegro or because he was already worried about the opera’s running time (and it is long). As it is, this jewel of an Overture lasts only about four minutes, and, although it doesn’t cite a single tune from the acts that will follow, it perfectly prefigures the opera’s winsome exhilaration.

As the curtain rises the soon-to-be-married couple Figaro and Susanna are having a spat over their new lodgings in the Count’s palace (Cinque. . . dieci). Figaro finds the location convenient to the masters of the house but Susanna is concerned that these new quarters put her too close to the Count, who’s had his eye on Susanna for some time. 

Fast forward a bit. The page Cherubino is being tossed out of the house for his “enthusiasm” for the various ladies of the manor. The Count dispatches Cherubino to join the army and Figaro sends him off with the wonderfully mock-heroic showstopper, “Non più andrai.”

But Cherubino is not so easily dissuaded. He ditches his commission and finds his way back to his two favorite crushes and confidantes, the Countess and Susanna. In the sweetly melancholy aria “Voi, che sapete,” he shares his turbulent adolescent emotions to the accompaniment of Susanna’s guitar. 

This idyll is short-lived, however, as the Count arrives to stir up trouble. Susanna and Cherubino hide in the Countess’s inner chamber as the Count deduces that something is amiss (Susanna, or via, sortite). 

Central though the Count is to the action, he does not get a full-scale aria until Act Three of the opera. He has overheard a conversation from which he surmises the plot that is being hatched against him, and he breaks into the recitative and aria Hai già vinta la causa!… Vedrò mentr’io sospiro,” a fascinating scena in which he gives vent to his fury at being tricked by a mere servant (Figaro), one who, to make things worse, seems on the verge of marrying the woman (Susanna) the Count so ardently desires.]

The Count’s fury is contrasted by the Countess’s sadness as time stops for the supremely beautiful recitative and aria E Susanna non vien. . . Dove sono.” Excited by the plan she and Susanna have devised, the Countess is shamed by being reduced to intriguing with her maid against her husband; melancholy at the seeming collapse of her young marriage, she still entertains some hope that the Count's heart might again be hers. 

Cut to Act Four, as the plot to reveal the Count’s infidelity is in play. Only Susanna and the Countess know the full plan, however, and a misunderstanding leads Figaro to expect the worst. The puppet-master Susanna decides to have some fun at her jealous fiancé’s behalf, singing “Giunse alfin il momento. . . Deh vieni, non tardar ” to an imaginary lover, knowing that Figaro will overhear her.

From here the comedy reaches a high point as the Count falls hook, line, and sinker for Susanna and the Countess’s plan. He is humbled, and all are reconciled in the stunning finale. 

—Michael Steinberg, James M. Keller, and Steven Ziegler