A Mar­riage made in heaven

Our singers have de­clared Mozart’s Mar­riage of Fi­garo the great­est opera ever writ­ten. Ge­orge Hall delves into the bril­liance of the Mozart-da Ponte part­ner­ship

BBC Music Magazine - - COVER FEATURE -

1 Mozart Mar­riage of Fi­garo (1786) Bril­liantly con­ceived char­ac­ters and en­sem­ble writ­ing grab Mozart’s com­edy the top slot Com­ing in at No. 1 is one of the supreme mas­ter­pieces of oper­atic com­edy, whose rich sense of hu­man­ity shines out of Mozart’s mirac­u­lous score.

The Mar­riage of Fi­garo’s in­tri­cate plot fol­lows four of the prin­ci­pal char­ac­ters from The Bar­ber of Seville a few years down the line. Both op­eras are based on plays by the French drama­tist Pierre-au­gustin Caron de Beau­mar­chais which quickly be­came clas­sics de­spite their in­cen­di­ary po­lit­i­cal con­tent: these prob­lems were par­tic­u­larly acute in

Le Mariage de Fi­garo, which was widely banned due to its crit­i­cism of the no­bil­ity.

Hav­ing re­lo­cated to Vi­enna from his na­tive Salzburg in 1782 to fur­ther his ca­reer, Mozart was de­ter­mined to show the Em­peror Joseph II, his court and the en­tire Im­pe­rial cap­i­tal what he could do with a comic Ital­ian li­bretto, team­ing up with the poet at­tached to the city’s opera house, Lorenzo da Ponte.

Ac­cord­ing to Da Ponte, it was the com­poser’s idea to make an opera of Fi­garo, the most con­tro­ver­sial play of its time. After the Em­peror had given it the go-ahead, the work was pre­miered in Vi­enna on 1 May 1786 and has been en­ter­tain­ing au­di­ences since.

As usual, Mozart in­tro­duces his opera with an over­ture, and while it uses none of the opera’s sub­se­quent ma­te­rial, it per­fectly de­fines the gen­eral mood of the piece with its Presto tempo mark­ing and busy, bustling orches­tral writ­ing sug­gest­ing the con­stant whis­per­ing and in­trigue dur­ing the course of what Beau­mar­chais’s full ti­tle – La folle

journée, ou le Mariage de Fi­garo – calls a

‘crazy day’.

All of the main char­ac­ters are given mem­o­rable arias, in­clud­ing Bar­tolo’s fu­ri­ous ‘La vendetta’, in which he swears vengeance on Fi­garo in Gil­bert & Sul­li­van-like comic pat­ter; Cheru­bino’s ‘Non so più’, in which the rapid flut­ter­ing of his vo­cal line in­di­cates his con­stant emo­tional and sex­ual ex­cite­ment; the Count­ess’s sor­row-laden ‘Porgi amor’, whose shapely melodic line traces the depths of her feel­ing of aban­don­ment; and the Count’s ‘Ve­drò men­tre io sospiro’, in which his aris­to­cratic fury at Fi­garo’s chal­lenge to his en­ti­tle­ment is banged out in firm rhythms and grand triplet roulades.

Fi­garo is un­usu­ally rich in en­sem­bles, where the test for the com­poser is to main­tain in­di­vid­ual vo­cal char­ac­ter and spe­cific in­di­vid­ual emo­tions while the other char­ac­ters are singing some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent – a trick Mozart pulls off with fly­ing colours, no­tably in the sex­tet in the trial scene in Act III that was Mozart’s own favourite piece in his score.

But it is in the two big fi­nales that end the sec­ond and fourth acts that Mozart brings his skills in en­sem­ble writ­ing to an apogee rarely equalled – even by him. Here his mu­sic re­flects each tiny twist and turn of the plot, reach­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary heights of com­plex­ity as the au­di­ence ex­pe­ri­ences every fleet­ing emo­tion that the in­di­vid­ual char­ac­ters are feel­ing; few oper­atic come­dies can match Fi­garo’s com­bi­na­tion of wit with emo­tional truth.

Mozart’s mirac­u­lous score shines with a rich sense of hu­man­ity

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