By far, the most popular of Mozart’s operas are the three opera buffa that he wrote to libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan Tutti are beloved works that are regularly performed to this day. Opera buffa rose in popularity to overtake opera seria in the middle and late 18th century. It is a genre of “comic” opera, but the term encompasses everything of the time that is not opera seria. Opera buffa was popular entertainment for the rising middle class, who began to have disposable income to pursue pastimes they enjoyed. Where opera seria was a genre supported by the noble and aristocratic audience, opera buffa often featured stories wherein the aristocrats were not portrayed in their best light. Many stock character types from Italian Commedia dell’arte were reused in opera buffa, and instead of the serious stories borrowed from Greek history, opera buffa used real life persons in real life (often bawdy) situations. The Marriage of Figaro is a masterpiece of the opera buffa style, featuring two servants who outsmart their aristocratic employers.
Lorenzo Da Ponte was the skilled librettist who wrote the words Mozart set to The Marriage of Figaro. Da Ponte is a colorful character in his own right. He was born Emanuele Conegliano, into a Jewish family. His father later had him baptized into the Catholic faith, as a way to ensure he got an education. He became a priest, but by no means a model one. In fact, he was thrown out of the priesthood because of adultery. He was a very talented poet and author of opera libretti, but a horrible businessman. He gambled and womanized his way, eventually escaping his Italian debts by moving to New Jersey. In America, he ran failed businesses as a grocer, bookstore owner, and distiller, among other things. If Lorenzo Da Ponte approached you with a business venture, you should run the other way.
Da Ponte adapted The Marriage of Figaro libretto from a play by a Frenchman Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais actually wrote a trilogy of plays featuring the character Figaro. The first play Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville), was made into an opera by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782, and most famously by Gioachino Rossini in 1816. The last play, La Mere coupable (The Guilty Mother), was made into an opera by Darius Milhaud in 1966, a work I would love to hear if anyone knows of a recording in print. La Mere coupable also is a subplot “opera within an opera” in John Corigliano’s 1991 opera, The Ghosts of Versailles (a marvelous work). The Marriage of Figaro is the middle play of the trilogy, and was itself banned by censors after Louis XIV saw a reading. Lorenzo Da Ponte had to make many cuts of controversial scenes to get his libretto to receive approval by the censors. The objectionable characterizations of the aristocratic class that Da Ponte cut out of the play were quickly put back in by the genius music of Wolfgang Mozart. Napoleon had described The Marriage of Figaro as “the revolution already in action”, a full three years before the French Revolution began in 1789.
For all of its political overtones of street-smart servants outsmarting bumbling aristocrats, The Marriage of Figaro is truly a funny comedy. The music is genius in the way it portrays the characters, in recitative, aria, and ensembles. The most famous ensemble has to be the finale of Act II, where two singers start in duet, grow to a trio, then a quartet as more characters enter the scene. Five, six and seven characters all enter the production in a wonderful scene that encompasses over twenty minutes of continuous music. Below you can see a video clip that gives you the first six minutes of the finale, to whet your appetite for more.
Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro has been an operatic favorite since its premiere. The great composer Johannes Brahms said of the work, “In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.” It is truly a masterpiece, but equally astounding is the fact that it took the 30-year-old Mozart only six weeks to write the opera! I still have a hard time wrapping my brain around the speed with which Wolfgang completed the work.
Easily, I could go into another few thousand words about the inner workings of The Marriage of Figaro, the conventions of opera buffa, the character archetypes it contains, the arias, the ensembles and on and on. I still think that knowing some of the technical mechanics of the work can bring out a deeper meaning. I am also coming to the realization, however, that knowing how an internal combustion engine works does not show us the reasons why people find sports cars sexy. (I am from the Motor City, Detroit, Michigan. Believe me, I know about the love people have for cars.) There is a book by a sociologist, Claudio E. Benzecry, entitled The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession. In this book, Benzecry follows a group of opera lovers who frequent the famous Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires. There are stories from this largely blue-collar group of fanatics whereby some have traveled hundreds of miles, or camped out all night to get tickets to a performance. These people are familiar with opera, but the overwhelming message in their stories is their passion for the performance. They tell how some of their favorite arias move them to tears, they argue about their favorite singers and performances, and overall have a deep and long-lasting love of the art form. Something sparked this passion in them, long before they learned about the mechanics and conventions of opera. I can write about all of the theory and technical detail, but what I want to do more than anything is share my passion for Good Music, and spark something similar in someone who reads this blog.
I will try my best. 🙂