Commoners vs. Nobility

A revolution? Certainly, but disguised as a comedy in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

Le nozze di Figaro

Salzburg Festival 2006 Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Le nozze di Figaro: Figaro, Susanna, Marcellina, Bartolo and Cherubim

Le nozze di Figaro: Figaro, Susanna, Marcellina, Bartolo and Cherubim

Salzburg Festival 2006 Photo: Monika Rittershaus

With the French revolution in the background, Beaumarchais had written the French comedy “The Barber of Seville”. The piece was considered an open challenge to nobility! Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was intrigued by the material. Furthermore, his favourite librettist Lorenzo da Ponte agreed to collaborate on the project! The result was to be an Italian Opera buffa, “Le Nozze di Figaro”, an independent musical drama full of suspense but without a clear political message. There was only a little room for allusions to the revolution of commoners against nobility. After all, Mozart wanted to avoid having a performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” prohibited by the authorities, something that had happened to different incarnations of the play in Vienna…

It was da Ponte’s task to pique the interest of the emperor in the new opera to avoid antagonising him from the very start. Mozart and da Ponte collaborated harmoniously – despite being under extreme time pressure, as always. Mozart still had to make a living for his family on the side.

The story of the opera starts where Beaumarchais' play ends: at the court of the Count Almaviva.

To win the lady of one’s heart with trickery and imagination…

Figaro, the valet of Count Almaviva, is in preparations for his wedding. Susanna, his chosen, is the chamber maid of Countess Rosina. But Count Almaviva has cast an eye on the beautiful Susanna too. The page Cherubino and Marcellina, the count’s housekeeper - to whom Figaro has promised marriage should he be incapable of paying his debts - join the merry fray. Cherubino is an enfant terrible and frequently causes chaos and confusion. The story resembles a modern screwball comedy, with changing disguises, mistaken identities, trickery and outbursts of jealousy. But the happy end is inevitable and Figaro’s marriage can take place.

The only revolutionary aspect of Mozart’s “Figaro” is the triumph of the common man over the arrogance of nobility. In one aria, for instance, Cherubino irreverently calls his employer “contino” - little count. Joseph II spotted the little jibe but was not averse to a little bit of mockery at the expense of the Viennese nobility. Mozart and da Ponte had reached their goal: “The Marriage of Figaro” was performed and even rewarded by a fee from the emperor.

The world premiere on May 1, 1786, at the Burgtheater in Vienna was not exceptionally successful. The orchestra had difficulties coming to terms with Mozart’s complicated music. The Viennese audience, more attuned to the works of the popular Salieri, were not overly thrilled. One critic wrote: “On the first night, the audience did not really know what to make of it.”

“The Marriage of Figaro” in Prague

However, Mozart’s opera was far more successful in Prague. After the less than moderate success of his work in Vienna, Mozart found himself in dire need of money again. There still was no permanent employment in sight. Unexpectedly, he was invited to conduct “Figaro” himself in Prague. Mozart travelled to the capital of Bohemia with his wife Constanze. “The Marriage of Figaro” was an overwhelming success. The audience in Prague raved and celebrated Mozart for three weeks. And the money was good: it is said that Mozart made up to one thousand guilders in Prague. Full of hope, the Mozarts returned to Vienna, where the big breakthrough would surely now be inevitable …