The Mozart-da Ponte “Le nozze di Figaro” (1786) is the oldest opera in the standard repertoire. In other words, it is the first “modern” opera. Before “Figaro,” opera was one thing, afterward it was another. Why is this?
As Mozart was coming of age, the European political pot was coming to a rapid boil. The American Revolution was just on the horizon, and the social unrest that would explode into the French Revolution was simmering everywhere. Mozart was not what you would call a political radical or a revolutionary, but he was definitely a man of his times. The biggest problem for him, and what would cause him great anguish, was that he might have actually been ahead of his times. While his father felt fortunate to wear the livery of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart, who knew very well how talented he was, balked at the idea of being a mere servant, musician or not. At dinner, the musicians of Mozart’s time sat equally as close to the head of the table, and thus had the same social standing as the cooks.
Naturally Mozart loved to leave the archbishop’s court at every opportunity to travel abroad, either to soak up foreign musical influences or to show off his skills for some other aristocrat in hopes of landing another job. Leopold knew that his son would grow up and have to earn a living. He also knew that the most lucrative field of music in those days was Italian opera. So he begged leave of Archbishop Colloredo on several occasions to take Wolfgang to Italy where he could learn how to speak Italian fluently and how to compose Italian opera.
On his first trip to Italy, Mozart’s reputation as “Das Wunderkind” preceded him and he was welcomed warmly everywhere. In Rome, he was invited to attend the playing of Allegri’s “Miserere” in the Sistine Chapel. Mozart heard it two times and he enjoyed it so much he asked if he could look at the score. No, he was told, the “Miserere” was the private property of the pope and must be kept a secret. The 14-year-old genius, however, was not put off by this and told the cardinals that he had the score memorized anyway. When they called him on this, the teenager sat down with a pen and music paper and wrote out the entire score note-for-note — voices, instruments, everything! The “Miserere” was no longer held from the public. Word of Mozart’s uncanny achievement spread quickly, and by the time he reached Milan before crossing the Alps to go home, he was invited to compose an opera for the Teatro Regio Ducal, the predecessor of La Scala.
As a “servant” of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart composed a huge number of pieces, both vocal and instrumental. But whenever he got the chance, he would try to find employment elsewhere. One of these “job-searching” trips had its good points, but ended in the deepest tragedy for the young man. In 1777 (note that the American Revolution was in full swing then) Mozart “resigned” his position in Salzburg and went on a trip that took in Mannheim, Augsburg, Paris and Munich. (One problem, as Mozart found out, and as J. S. Bach had learned before him, was that a “servant” simply couldn’t “resign” without his lord’s permission!) Leopold could not get leave to go this time, so Mozart’s mother went with him.
Mozart was especially happy in Mannheim, Germany, because this city had such a large and very competent orchestra. He also became acquainted there with the four Weber sisters and fell in love with the oldest, soprano Aloysia. (Alas, she didn’t feel the same about him and married someone else!) Paris seemed to hold the most opportunity for him, but even though he composed a wonderful symphony and several other pieces for the local nobility, all he was offered was a job as church organist at Versailles. This was just not what he was looking for. At this time, in a city among people who he really didn’t like, he got very low on funds (a situation that would plague him throughout his life) and his mother became very ill. Probably because he didn’t have enough cash to have a good doctor treat her, none came until it was too late, and she died in their grubby hotel room.
We can only speculate as to the guilt the young Mozart felt about losing his mother, but we know that he was very saddened. Not caring so much immediately about his own prospects, he resumed his job at Salzburg, and just plodded along until he traveled with the Archbishop to Vienna. Now he really wanted to go out on his own, having no doubts that he was head-and-shoulders a far better composer than anything Vienna had to offer. But Archbishop Colloredo stubbornly refused to give Mozart permission to leave his service. Mozart let his his displeasure with the situation be known, so much so that the archbishop finally gave in and had this incredible artist, and great comfort to countless millions, literally kicked out of his court — a Count Arco doing the kicking!
Mozart’s Vienna career, which took up the last years of his short life, really began in Munich in 1781 with the production of the opera, “Idomeneo, Re di Crete.” It was an Italian opera that featured two “castrati” in its cast. It was extremely well received, and enhanced Mozart’s welcome to Vienna, although at this time he was still a servant of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Several months later, however, after Mozart was so outrageously dismissed from the Archbishop’s service, he arrived in Vienna to begin what he thought would be a triumphant career. Always bent on pleasing his father, he could not help but be somewhat distressed when Leopold (who was definitely not a man of this revolutionary time) begged his son to come back to Salzburg, apologize to the archbishop, and plead with him to get his job back. But Mozart was through with Salzburg for good.
It is probable that in a very short time he would have been recognized as the best composer there was. This is exactly what the Italian-dominated Viennese musical establishment led by court composer Antonio Salieri feared. So they did everything they possibly could to keep Mozart from composing Italian opera for the emperor. As long as they presented a united front, it was impossible for Mozart to break into this lucrative field. But finally, in 1786, one of the Italians broke ranks from the others. He dreamed of being immortal, and thought his best chance of doing that was to collaborate with a composer like Mozart, who could write infinitely better than his “paesani.” This man was poet Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838).
Up to this time, high voices in opera, for both male and female characters, were sung by “castrati,” those odd but apparently very talented men who had been castrated before their voices changed. They were freaks, but they were men, so they presented no problem in performing. (Going back to the Greeks, and even Shakespeare, women were not allowed to sing or act in public.) Mozart, being a true man of his times, like so many others, absolutely couldn’t stand this practice. He wanted his men to be men and his women, women! Today this seems like such an obvious thing, but back in the late 1700s this was a revolutionary concept! And once audiences began to experience women performers, the novelty was so overpowering that they couldn’t get enough of them. As a matter of fact, it was now not uncommon for women performers to occasionally sing the parts of male characters. These were known as “pants roles,” and the practice extended into the 20th century. (The title role of “Der Rosenkavalier” (1911) by Richard Strauss is one of these!) This should be mentioned because one of the most prominent parts in Mozart’s first Viennese Italian opera is a pants role (Cherubino).
In any case, da Ponte discreetly let Mozart know that he would be willing to use his clout as Imperial Poet to go directly to the emperor to get an Italian opera composed by Mozart staged for the court. Did he have a particular subject in mind? Yes, said Mozart, “The Marriage of Figaro,” a 1784 play by Pierre Beaumarchais (1732-1799). Now, we only have da Ponte’s “Memoirs” to go on (which are filled with exaggerations, if not out-and-out lies), but what follows sounds fairly believable. The subject Mozart chose was definitely problematic. It was filled with political rhetoric championing the common man over the aristocracy, but that was commonplace in these years. What may have been most troubling to the emperor were the many sexual innuendoes in the text. Indeed, Joseph II had banned the play’s performance in Vienna. According to da Ponte, he reminded the emperor that a kind of precedent had been set when a Neapolitan, Giovanni Paisiello, had composed and staged “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (“The Barber of Seville”), the first installment of Beaumarchais’ dramatic trilogy, several years earlier for Catherine the Great in Russia. He also assured the emperor that all political dialogue would be removed, he would “clean up” all the sex stuff and with Mozart doing the music, the final result should be something really special. The Emperor agreed and the project went forward.
“Le nozze di Figaro,” has no “castrati” roles and is filled from beginning to end with beautiful music. The mention of the “castrati” here is important in understanding Mozart’s contribution to the evolution of musical composition. The “castrati” (or the “musici,” as they called themselves) had to compete with one another for jobs, just like everyone else does in every field of endeavor. Probably the most remarkable thing they did to stand out, one from the other, was to improvise, much like a jazz saxophonist or rock electric guitarist does in our times. They would especially improvise long runs of 16th notes or arpeggios or scales or trills and ornaments of all types, and their audiences would be delighted!
Besides being turned off by the man-playing-woman thing, Mozart had a problem with all the improvisation, especially because his runs, roulades, ornaments, etc. that he heard when the creating fit was upon him, were better than what the “castrati” could do. And he wanted complete control over the music. At the same time he understood the singers’ point of view, and knew that they had to have an outlet to show off for an audience. So Mozart painstakingly wrote out all the stuff that had previously been left to the improvisation of the “castrati.”
This practice has come down to us as a style called “coloratura” singing. As the dramatic element of opera gained in importance on the musical aspect in the 19th century, “coloratura” began to fade away from common scoring. But it did not ever die out completely. You’ll hear some in “Stridono iassù” or “The Bird Song” from Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” (1892) and “Quando m’en vo’” or “Musetta’s Waltz,” from Puccini’s “La bohème” (1896), just to cite only two examples.
Lorenzo da Ponte is not depicted in Peter Shaffer’s excellent play/movie “Amadeus” (1979/1984). That’s fine, because the playwright wanted to build his drama on the relationship between Mozart and Salieri, and da Ponte would have been just too big a character. But that didn’t prevent Shaffer from basing some of the drama’s most humorous scenes on passages from da Ponte’s “Memoirs.” What comes to mind is when Count Orsini-Rosenberg, imperial theatre director, snatches pages from Mozart’s score for a scene when people are dancing because the emperor recently banned the ballet from the Vienna stage. If da Ponte can be believed (and this rings true, as it sounds like you couldn’t just make it up), Joseph II unexpectedly stopped in to see a rehearsal of “Figaro” at a time when dancers were going through their steps on stage without music. Perplexed, the emperor asked his theatre director what was going on and Orsini-Rosenberg proudly told him how he had stripped the scene of its music due to Joseph’s recent citywide ban on the ballet. Not pleased, the Emperor told him to restore the music immediately!
Taking away some of Mozart’s original music was not the only way some of the Italians tried to sabotage Figaro. They persuaded some of the singers to miss rehearsals or sing wrong notes and put out rumors that the whole thing was a dog. Actually, they probably couldn’t have done anything to prevent the opera from being a brilliant triumph. When “Le nozze di Figaro” was premiered on May 1, 1786, the audience had never heard the likes of it. But aside from being “difficult and unusual” as an idiot of a critic had said about the Haydn Quartets, it was long — far longer than what the Viennese audiences were used to. But there was still something about it — perhaps its beauty and grandeur — that made it something of a success. It was a disappointment to Mozart at the time, but it would lead directly to the very happiest days of his life!
I will point out just two things about the opera that I believe make it so universally appealing and timeless. A number of years ago, I was lecturing on “Figaro” to a class of mostly retired folks and was playing a recording of Kiri Te Kenewa singing the “Dove sono,” one of the Contessa’s major arias. I also explained that translated, “Dove sono …” and “Dove andare …” mean respectively, “Where are they …” and “Where do they go …” referring to the wonderful intimate and loving times she used to share with her husband, Count Almaviva, who has lately been cheating on her and is now planning to seduce her maid. As the beautiful music played, I noticed that several elderly ladies in my class were quietly weeping.
After class, I asked one of these ladies what made her cry when I played the “Dove sono” and she replied that it had nothing to do with her late husband at all. It just brought back a flood of memories of all kinds from many points in her life. Whenever I hear it now it does the same for me, and I’ll bet Mozart’s music has made millions over the centuries feel the same.
All of us, as human beings, through our weaknesses, cause harm to others, even to those we love. So at times we all seek forgiveness for what we have done. In the finale of “Figaro,” Count Almaviva, caught red-handed by the Contessa trying to seduce her maid, gets down on his knees and begs forgiveness. When the soprano sings “Dico di sì” (“I tell you yes”), the music here is as moving as has ever been written. No wonder this opera has such universal appeal!
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The Lyric Opera of Chicago kicks off its 2015-16 season with a new production of “Le nozze di Figaro.” Adam Plachetka will sing Figaro; Christiane Karg, Susanna; Amanda Majeski, Countess Almaviva; Luca Pisaroni, Count Almaviva; and Rachel Frenkel, Cherubino.
Barbara Gaines will be the stage director, Jim Noone the set designer and Henrik Nánási the conductor.
Scheduled performances Sept. 26 and 30, and Oct. 3, 6, 9, 15, 18, 21 and 24.
To reserve seats or for more information, call 312-827-5600, or visit www.lyricopera.org