Saturday, May 1, 2021

This Day in Classical Music History (Mozart’s Marvelous ‘Marriage of Figaro’ Premieres)

May 1, 1786— Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), the latest opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, opened at Vienna’s Burgtheater to a more mixed reception than the 30-year-old composer might have liked, as the orchestra experienced problems with the technical demands called for by the piece.

But in Prague, with the 30-year-old composer conducting the orchestra himself, his four-act Italian opera buffa (comic opera) ended up performed before enthusiastic audiences for four weeks. Since then, it has become a standard part of the repertoire of opera companies around the world.

The theme of this piece of musical theater—class conflict—appeals to contemporary companies (including in a free 2019 adaptation, Figaro 90210!, by Chautauqua Opera). In Mozart’s time, that profoundly unsettled an Austrian monarchy that dreaded disorder.

But after speaking with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart glimpsed intriguing possibilities in characters created by the French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (ones who would later also be used in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville). The librettist removed the more explicit references to political revolution that had troubled France’s ancient regime, and which could have done the same in Austria.

It would, in truth, be hard to find musical partners more appreciative of worldliness, careening from one scrape to another, and surviving by the skin of one’s teeth than Mozart and Da Ponte.

Though Peter Shaffer unfairly caricatured Mozart as an “obscene child” in the 1979 play Amadeus, the composer’s letters do indisputably depict him as possessing a sense of the mischievous and an ever-pressing need to keep his debt obligations in check. And Da Ponte, who had been ordained a Catholic priest in 1773, was banished from Venice for having a mistress, and only ended up on his feet as librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna through the help of his friend Antonio Salieri.

Mozart and Da Ponte would go on to create Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte. Seldom has an opera collaboration proven so consistently daring and fruitful.

In a sense, The Marriage of Figaro is an attempt to wrest, from the kind of disorder these men experienced in their own lives, a redeeming harmony. It foreshadows the modern screwball comedy with its disguises, mistaken identities, trickery and outbursts of jealousy, but it observes one of the classical dramatic unities by setting all of this within a single day. Indeed, the satiric tension is heightened because of this compression.

Like the American musical-theater masters Oscar Hammerstein II and Stephen Sondheim, Mozart created his compositions for the stage organically, through the demands of the dramatic situation. The songs originate from a character’s particular psychology, or from the action of the play at that moment.

Mozart’s achievement in this form is all the more remarkable as a demonstration of his overall musical versatility. While other opera composers of his time preferred to specialize in this genre, his endeavors in this occurred in the same decade when he was also generating peerless symphonies, chamber music, and masses. He knew how to exploit the collective resources of an orchestra because he was a host in himself as a conductor, pianist, organist and violinist.

If the opera celebrates liberation from the constraints of class and convention, so has its use in film, most notably in the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd comedy Trading Places and in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, where the doors of the factory are unlocked by playing Mozart’s masterful overture.

The creation of that overture itself manifested Mozart’s improvisational genius. Not only did it depart from the usual practice of overtures of including snatches from what will follow, but it was also finished on the fly—the very day of the opera’s first performance. 

Remarkably, these four minutes of whirling, frenetic joy have become among the favorite stand-alone pieces of classical orchestras worldwide, even when removed from the opera that Johannes Brahms had termed “a miracle.”

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