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
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
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