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Operapedia: The Marriage of Figaro 

Henry Stewart discovers the class warfare in Mozart’s glorious comedy.

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First Performances

Nozze had its premiere in Vienna on May 1, 1786, even though the Beaumarchais play on which it was based was banned from the stage there. “I have left out and shortened anything that might offend the delicacy and decency of an entertainment at which your Sovereign Majesty presides,” the librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, told the emperor, according to his memoirs. Because of professional rivalries, “It will be surprising if it is a success,” Mozart’s father, Leopold, wrote. “Salieri and all his supporters will again try to move heaven and earth to down his opera.” But it was a success, if a minor one, receiving nine performances that year; it wouldn’t be staged again in Vienna, though, until 1789.

The Basics

A count tries to exercise his right to have sex with his servant’s fiancée. After countless cases of mistaken identity, several schemes and many lessons learned, he doesn’t.
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Hit Tune

The overture’s antic gaiety threatens to topple over into volatility—from comedy into drama, just like the opera. It accompanies the Tale of Two Philadelphias that opens the 1983 Eddie Murphy–Dan Aykroyd comedy Trading Places, in which wealthy men make a poor man rich and vice versa, just for kicks. “What Trading Places seems to want from its reference to Figaro is mostly the idea of the resourceful and sociable young and poor overcoming with various disguises the conniving of the unsociable old and rich,” philosopher Stanley Cavell writes in Cavell on Film, “but with no sense that the old may be redeemed by a recognition of their faults and no revolutionary desire to see the world formed on a new basis.”

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

At the Met on New Year’s Day, 1902, Emma Eames and Marcella Sembrich sang the letter duet. Encores had recently been banned, but it went over so well that the audience “literally would not permit the act to continue,” a critic told OPERA NEWS in 1937. “Finally Sembrich … neatly turned over the ink-bottle on the freshly written note. Then lifting up the paper, for the audience to witness the great ink-blot that had been made, she indicated that for once it would be necessary to write a second letter. Instantly the public took in her ruse… The scene was repeated.”
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Something Completely Different

In 1988, at SUNY Purchase’s Pepsico Summerfare festival, director Peter Sellars capped his trilogy of audacious Mozart–da Ponte stagings with a Nozze set in Trump Tower. “For Sellars, the pompous nobility that Mozart and da Ponte parodied were the equivalents of today’s beautiful people,” the LA Times reported in 1988—people, Sellars explained in his program synopsis, “for whom perjury, loss of happiness and absence of consciousness can be compensated for by the feel of money, the sense of being on top and the sweet certainty that their own barren lives will be enriched by the amusement and consolation offered by the collapse of the hopes and plans of others.”

Reactions

“The opera bored me,” wrote influential critic Count Zinzendorf after the premiere. He added, in his diary, “Mozart’s music is strange; hands without a head.” In his 1824 biography Life of Rossini, Stendhal wrote, “No one doesn’t have a headache and know deadly exhaustion at the end of four acts of Nozze di Figaro; one believes oneself to be tired of music for eight days.” But he meant it as a compliment! Mozart hadn’t impressed the man who mattered most—Emperor Joseph, to whom “Mozart remained a brilliant virtuoso and a mediocre composer,” German biographer Annette Kolb writes. “Now as ever he was not taken seriously.”
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Where It Is This Season

There are fifteen productions this month alone, in Philadelphia, Boston, Vancouver and all over Germany.

 

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Time and Place

Beaumarchais’s 1784 play was a riotous succès de scandale; three people died at the premiere. Napoleon wrote, “It was the Revolution already in action,” feeding and enflaming a public desire to see the upper classes upended by the lower, which would climax in France five years later. “Beneath the fun and frivolity there is a quality which is not to be confused with indifference,” John Wood wrote in the introduction to his English translation. “A man who must laugh at the world lest he should weep is a figure only the happier ages of history can ignore.” In the modern era, Figaro has lost some of its edge. “Once it was a document of revolution,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1940: “today it is a romantic comedy of love-intrigue.”

 

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In Pop Culture

Act III’s letter duet, “Che soave zeffiretto,” appears in The Shawshank Redemption, when inmate Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) broadcasts it on the loudspeaker system, offering fellow prisoners a transcendent respite from the spiritual confinement of prison. “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about,” Morgan Freeman says in voiceover. “I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words.” Except those are words they’re using; they’re just Italian words! There might be some irony to the choice of music, sung by two characters scheming to catch a philandering husband: Dufresne is in jail for killing his wife and her lover.

 

The Plot Thickens

“It is a very tiresome play,” Mozart’s father wrote of Figaro, “and the translation from the French will certainly have to be altered very freely if it is to be effective as an opera…. There will be a lot of running about and discussions before he gets the libretto so adjusted as to suit his purpose exactly.” Leopold was right about that last part, but da Ponte managed an impossible feat—censoring it without defanging it, versifying it without floralizing it, adapting it without destroying it.

 

Surprise Showstopper

Near Nozze’s end, at the height of its madcappery, Mozart abruptly changes the mood: the Count begs forgiveness, and his wife grants it, in aching music. “On the most profound level of all, the scene uncovers a core of decency under all the shabbiness which the farce has exposed, and tried to rationalize in laughter,” OPERA NEWS reported in 1953. Twenty years later, it added, “The effect of this moment stems in part from our awareness that some universal truth of human nature has canceled out the artificial differences of social position. True nobility does not arise from some accident of birth but grows out of loving, steadfast hearts that have been tempered by suffering.” This came through clearly in 2014 at the Met, thanks to Peter Mattei’s and Amanda Majeski’s earnest performances. spacer
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