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Learn the story behind "The Marriage of Figaro" by Mozart

“The Marriage of Figaro,” also known as “Le nozze di Figaro” in Italian, is a comic opera (opera buffa) crafted by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He composed this opera comprising four acts in 1786, while Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote the Italian libretto.

Origin

The premiere of “Le nozze di Figaro” was held premiered on the 1st of May 1786, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria. The libretto is based on a stage comedy titled “The Mad Day,” or “The Marriage of Figaro” by Pierre Beaumarchais. It’s the story of servants Susanna and Figaro, whose romance successfully flourishes into marriage. They also foil the efforts of their employer Count Almaviva, a philandering nobleman trying to seducing Susanna and teach him the value of faithfulness.

History & Performances

“The Marriage of Figaro” was at first banned in Vienna, but Da Ponte eventually managed to acquire the Emperor’s official approval. The operatic version went on be a grand success. This was the first collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo. Wolfgang had approached Da Ponte with “The Mad Day,” while the latter crafted the libretto within six weeks. The political references were removed, as was Figaro’s (the protagonist) original climactic rant, and the whole thing was transformed into poetic Italian.

Mozart's music generally garnered applause among the audience and was also admired by the connoisseurs. Ferenc Kazinczy, the famous Hungarian poet praised it, so did Joseph Haydn. Mozart even reused a musical phrase from the first act of opera in the overture for his own “Così fan tutte.” “Non più andrai,” Figaro’s Aria is also quoted by the composer in “Don Giovanni.” This Aria is further utilized as a “military march.” In 1819, an English adaptation of “The Marriage of Figaro” was crafted by Henry R. Bishop. He re-introduced some of Mozart’s compositions but further added some of his own work.

The Play

It is a continuation of another famous opera, “The Barber of Seville.” The play depicts “la folle journée,” or a “day of madness,” and is set several years after its predecessor. The events take place in Seville, Spain in Count Almaviva’s palace.

Act I

The Marriage of Figaro Act 1

Figaro, Count Almaviva’s servant, also the protagonist, is on the verge of marrying Susanna, maid to the Countess. As he takes measurements of a room, Susanna is trying on her wedding bonnet, as they sing the duet “Five, ten, twenty,” or “Cinque, dieci, venti.” Sussana expresses her concerns about being too close for comfort to the Count’s chamber, who is also pursuing her. He plans on invoking “droit du seigneur,” the feudal right that allows a lord to consummate a servant girl before her husband, that too on her wedding night. Although the Count himself abolished this ritual when marrying Countess Rosina, he wants it reinstated. Figaro vows to put an end to the Count’s schemes and leaves, as “If you want to dance, sir count” plays in the background.

Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo enter the scene. Bartolo is irate with Figaro for making a fool out of him, while Marcellina is irate with Susanna, who stole Figaro from her. However, the women act politely, albeit sarcastically, performing the duet “After you, brilliant madam,” before they leave. Next, Cherubino, a young page seeks advice from Susanna. He is being sent away as the Count has caught him alone with Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter. He explains how he is infatuated with women, and cannot control himself through the song “I don't know anymore what I am.” However, before he gets any advice, Count Almaviva interrupts them. Cherubino quickly hides, as the Count proposes a private romantic getaway to Susanna. However, the Count is subsequently forced to hide as another voice is heard. Don Basilio, a music teacher enters the scene referencing Cherubino’s alleged infatuation towards the Countess. Almaviva, in a fit of rage, reveals himself through a chamber work “What do I hear!” He relates to an amused Bertillo the scene involving Cherubino and the gardener’s daughter and further states that he will be sending the page away. He then discovers Cherubino and is infuriated that the boy has heard him courting Susanna. He vows to give him a military commission and ruin his life, as the song “No more gallivanting,” or “Non più andrai” plays in the background.

Subsequently, Figaro returns with the townspeople, who are all merry and ready for a ceremony. Figaro requests Almaviva to bind him and Susanna in holy matrimony. However, the Count stalls him.

Act II

The act begins in the chambers of Countess Rosina, who laments the Count’s lack of attention and love towards her through the song “Grant, love, some comfort.” She discusses the Count’s promiscuous nature with Susanna, who desperately wants to left alone. She comforts Rosina by sharing a plan that she and Figaro have hatched - they will send Almaviva a letter informing him that his wife is having an affair. Susanna will rendezvous with the Count, but Cherubino (disguised) will go instead of her.  

Next, Cherubino enters the scene with a commission letter Almaviva had forgotten to seal. However, he is amazed when the women ask him to undress. Susanna performs the Aria “Come, kneel down before me,” or “Venite, inginocchiatevi” as she teaches the page to walk and behave like a woman. The Countess quickly hides Susanna and Cherubino as the Count himself arrives unexpectedly. He has received the letter and wants to discuss it with his wife. However, he becomes suspicious after noticing her restlessness. He demands to enter the locked inner chamber where Cherubino was hiding. However, the Countess thwarts him, claiming Sussana is trying her wedding dress inside, as the trio “Susanna, come out” plays in the background. Almaviva, still not convinced, forces Rosina to accompany her as he searches for a crowbar. As they leave, Susanna locks herself in the inner chamber as Cherubino escapes through the window, while performing the duet “Open the door, quickly!” However, Rosina, unaware of these events, confesses everything to the Count. She is subsequently shocked as Susanna is found inside the chamber, as the finale “Come out of there, you ill-born boy!” is performed. Almaviva, ashamed, begs for her forgiveness.

Figaro arrives at the scene to gather them up, followed by the gardener Antonio, who is upset that someone destroyed his flowers by jumping over the Countess’s balcony. As he inquires, Figaro claims himself to be the culprit. When the gardener displays the military commission Cherubino’s had dropped, Figaro claims he was keeping it to acquire the Count’s seal. Basilio, Doctor Bartolo, and Marcellina enter the scene, claiming that Figaro is bound to pay an outstanding debt by marrying Marcellina. The suspicious Almaviva vows to investigate and subsequently postpones the wedding.

Act III

The Marriage of Figaro Act 3

At  Rosina’s insistence, Susanna meets the Almaviva in the garden that night, as the duet “Cruel girl, why did you make me wait so long,” is performed. However, as Susanna leaves, she is overheard by the Count telling Figaro that he will win the case. The Count, furious, realizes he’s being tricked and vents his frustrations through the song “You've already won the case!”...”Shall I, while sighing, see.” He decides to force Figaro to marry Marcellina.

At the court, Figaro reveals that he cannot marry without his family’s consent, as he is of noble birth, but was taken from them as an infant. It is subsequently discovered that Figaro is the illegitimate son of Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo. A touching reunion is followed by more celebrations. Bartolo even agrees to marry Marcellina, as a double wedding is planned in the evening. The sextet “Recognize in this embrace” is performed in the background. As the crowd leaves, Cherubino is invited into the house by Antonio's daughter Barbarina. Meanwhile, the Countess ponders her situation through the Aria “Where are they, the beautiful moment.” In the next scene, Antonio informs the Count about Cherubino.

Susanna updated the Countess about their plan to trap Almaviva. The Countess then asks Susanna to deliver a love letter to The Count on her behalf. The letter requests Count Almaviva to meet Susanna that very night. It also asks him to return the pin fastened to the letter as a token of acknowledgment. The scene is accompanied by the duet “On the breeze.. What a gentle little zephyr.”

Next, a group of young peasants serenades the Countess. The Count recognizes Cherubino among them, but his anger subsequently dispelled by Barbarina. Antonio’s daughter reminds him of a promise to give her anything in return for certain favors and demands to marry Cherubino. The embarrassed Almaviva agrees. The act is closed with the double wedding, and Sussana delivering the letter to Almaviva as the Finale “Here is the procession,” plays in the background.

Act IV

Later that night, Count Almaviva instructs Barbarina to return the pin to Susanna. However, Barbarina loses it and expresses her feelings through the Aria “I have lost it, poor me.” Marcellina and Figaro hear about the situation. Figaro becomes overtly jealous after recognizing the Count’s pin, and further hearing that the pin is being delivered to Susanna. He thinks Susanna is being unfaithful and swears revenge. Marcellina fails to pacify him and belts out the Aria “The billy-goat and the she-goat,” lamenting that where wild beasts of the opposite sex can get along, rational humans fail.

Figaro seeks help from Basilio and Bartolo, and the latter urges caution. He renders the Aria “In those years,” signifying the importance of not opposing powerful men. Figaro, still bitter, muses the unfaithfulness of women through the Aira (recitative) “Everything is ready..Open those eyes a little.” Susanna learns about Figaro’s suspicions from Marcellina, and teases him with the Aria “Oh come, don't delay.”

As Figaro hides behind a bush, the Countess arrives dressed as Susanna instead. The Count, bereft of the fact, starts making love to her. The real Susanna, dressed as Rosina, enters the scene. Figaro, although confused, finally recognizes his partner in disguise. They reconcile, as the song “Peace, peace, my sweet treasure” is performed.

The Count, unable to find the real Susanna, confronts Figaro. He mistakenly thinks Figaro is seducing his wife, and calls the guards through the song “Gentlemen, to arms!” All the characters enter the scene and beg for him to pardon Figaro and the disguised Susanna. Count Almaviva refuses at first, but when the real Countess Rosina enters, he identifies their marriage ring. Thoroughly remorseful and ashamed, he begs for forgiveness from his wife. The song “Countess, forgive me!” is played in the background. The Countess pardons him through the song “I am more mild,” or “Più docile io sono,” as a happy ending follows.

Musical Overview 

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart - Cover of music

The Opera utilizes the following instrumentation - strings, timpani, two each of trumpets, horns, bassoons, clarinets, oboes, and flutes. The delivery style is accompanied by keyboard instruments, usually harpsichord or fortepiano, sometimes even a cello. This instrumentation generally depends on the choice of the performers and especially, the conductor.

There are 2 Arias in act 4 that are often ignored, “In quegli anni,” and “Il capro e la capretta.” The first depicts Don Bastillo narrating stories of his youth, while the second portrays Marcellina lamenting the abuse that people shell out to each other. Mozart even concocted two replacement Arias for the role of Susanna, “Al desio di chi t'adora,” and “Un moto di gioia.”

The music which offers a palpitating tremor at the beginning suddenly fulminates into a comical fanfare. The prelude music doesn’t return, but it does brew up a feverish atmosphere of something churning - the upcoming crazy events. Each event culminates into exactly what Mozart wanted to portray. Figaro is equipped with the most moving yet humiliating music. However, the real showstoppers are the women. Mozart reserved the best for them, music that is simultaneously tragic, poised, and refined.

The grandeur and vastness of the musical numbers are refined to diminish the monotony and vexation of long dialogues and to further express the various emotions at play here. Mozart had adopted a more classical style of music, with several sections of the opera resembling a “Sonata.” They build and eventually resolve a palpable musical tension, evident through the movement of keys. He successfully synthesized symmetrical resolution with a dose of accelerated complexity - making it the dramatic equal of the original play, and in several respects superior.

An Eternal Classic

Mozart’s brilliant imagination fuse the instrumental structures beautifully with spot-on comedy. The result was a foundation of repertoire, and still remains one of the most performed operas. The ensemble music steals the show here, creating a reinvigorated operatic discourse. The Finale in Act 2 is a testament to that - offering a long uninterrupted stretch of music where the composer seamlessly crafts the tension and blends it with perfect dramatic confusion.

The power of Mozart’s composition is unparalleled, it makes the viewers believe in the opera. A fizzing volcano of emotions that connects with us, which informs us that this vast cycle of commitment, infidelity, transgression, and forgiveness is actually a part of life. And it will, perhaps, forever remain intertwined.

Johannes Brahms called it a miracle. He was astonished by Mozart managed to reach perfection. Nothing like “The Marriage of Figaro” was ever created again. It remains, above all, a spectacle.

 


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