The story revolves around the concept of the droit du Seigneur—the lord’s righta feudal custom that granted the lord of the castle the authority to take the virginity of his subjects’ brides on their wedding day, before the marriage couple could consummate their union. While there is no reliable historical evidence that such a custom existed, the belief in it was used as a rallying point against the nobility in eighteenth-century France and beyond. The droit du Seigneur appeared in the writings of Voltaire and Diderot, among others, and served as the dramatic kernel in Beaumarchais’ Le mariage de Figaro, initiating and precipitating the intrigue that takes place in Count Almaviva’s household on the wedding day of two his servants, the valet Figaro and the Countess’s chambermaid Suzanne. In the play (and the opera), the Count, who had abolished the feudal practice upon marrying Rosina, the Countess, wishes to revive it in order to possess Suzanne.

Themes of abusive noble privilege, class division, and licentiousness are inherent in the concept of the droit de Seigneur—a sure recipe for titillation and scandal in any work—and even the King himself could not suppress the play’s growing popularity. It was presented in private readings and performances at aristocratic gatherings until Louis relented and allowed the work to be staged publicly at the Comédie-Française in 1784, where it met with great success. The play was a sequel to Beaumarchais’ enormously popular comedy Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville) in which the Count courts and wins the hand of the pert young Rosina from under the nose of her jealous guardian, the elderly Dr. Bartolo. The Count is aided in his quest by the machinations of the wily local barber, Figaro. Le mariage de Figaro is in fact the central panel of a triptych of plays, written between Le Barbier de Séville (which Rossini would later transform into a scintillating comic opera in 1816) and La Mère coupable (The Guilty Mother). Many of the same characters appear in all three works.

Beaumarchais wrote Barbier as a delicious entertainment, an offshoot of character-types and antics found in commedia dell’arte. Le mariage is different:  it is on the surface a comedy of intrigue, mistaken identities, and humorous wordplay. But at its core, it was a harsh satire of contemporary politics and the louche mores of aristocratic society. During the course of its five acts, it presents a veritable catalogue of aristocratic privileges and abuses, and we are constantly reminded of the Count’s determination to exercise the droit du Seigneur. The play is filled with sarcasm and provocations, designed to expose and humiliate the antagonistic Count—and by extension all noble born. For example, while Suzanne and Figaro refer to the droit variously as “disgusting business,” “that nauseating right,” “a certain horrible custom,” keeping this ignominy at the forefront of the dialogue, the Count refers to it as “a charming old custom,” “a tiny favor.”  Nowhere is the sharp tone of the play more evident than in Figaro’s lengthy soliloquy in the final act. Figaro denounces the arrogance of the nobility with these words, addressed ostensibly to the Count:  

No Monsieur Count, you shall not have her, you shall not have her!  You think that because you are a great lord you are a great genius!  Nobility, wealth, rank, high position, such things make you proud. But what did you ever do to earn them?  You managed to be born, and nothing more. Otherwise, you are an ordinary man….And you dare cross swords with me!

Mozart’s operatic version of the story premiered in Vienna in 1786, just two years after the play’s public opening in Paris. How did the notorious play make its way to Vienna, and how did it come to the attention of Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte?  In an age of rationalist Enlightenment thought and simmering discontent toward the ruling classes, the play’s outspoken commentary on aristocratic corruption and social inequality ensured its popularity throughout Europe. It was immediately translated and published in several languages; Mozart owned a German edition of the work. Too, Mozart would have been familiar with the play’s predecessor, Le Barbier de Sévilleif not in its original form then certainly in the operatic version by Paisiello, which was mounted in Vienna in 1783 to great acclaim.

Already renowned as a virtuoso pianist, Mozart had long desired to make his mark in Vienna with an Italian opera buffa, and he was constantly on the search for a suitable libretto. The Viennese had applauded his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), written and sung in German at the National Theater, an institution created by Emperor Joseph II to promote the creation and production of operas and plays in the native tongue. But Italian opera proved more fashionable among the Viennese, and eventually the National Theater was dissolved in the wake of Joseph II’s establishment of an Italian opera theater. It has been conjectured that it was Joseph II—himself an avid devotee of Italian comedy and responsible for hiring Da Ponte as the court librettist for Italian works—who proposed that Mozart write an opera on the Beaumarchais sequel, although Da Ponte insists in his memoirs that it was Mozart’s own idea.

In any case, there was a complication. Joseph II allowed the play to be published uncensored in German, but he had banned public performances—unless the inflammatory sections were excised or altered:  “Since this play contains much that is offensive, I order the censor either to reject it completely, or to have changes made that would enable him to take responsibility for the performance of this work and the impression it might create.”  Da Ponte relates that he took it upon himself to convince the Emperor that his adaptation had transformed the work into a charming but innocuous comedy, shorn of all political satire, and that Mozart’s music, by his judgment, seemed to him a masterpiece.

Once Mozart and Da Ponte had settled on the idea of Le mariage de Figaro (now Le Nozze di Figaro), they began the task of rendering it suitable for operatic presentation. For this second stage of the Figaro story, Da Ponte recast the play’s five acts into four, reduced the number of characters from sixteen to eleven, deleted sub-plots, abridged scenes, and, of course, omitted any potentially objectionable political and social commentary. Figaro’s Act V soliloquy was gutted; only the part where he laments the inconstancy of women was retained, though vestiges of Figaro’s diatribe against the nobility—especially its vituperative spirit—inform his first aria, “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino” (“If you would like to dance, little Mr. Count”), which he sings when he learns of the Count’s intentions toward Susanna and resolves to quash them. Da Ponte handled the central droit de Seigneur plot device gingerly. He could not dismiss it, but he never specifically names it, choosing instead to point it out through euphemism (the “custom”), reference, and allusion. The basic plot remained, focusing now on the comic imbroglio which takes place on the day of Figaro’s wedding.

Of crucial importance was reworking the play to conform to the musical requirements of comic opera. Lines of speech and dialogue had to be separated into sections suitable for arias, duets, ensembles, and quasi-sung recitative, and the narrative thrust of the work had to be suitably shaped within these guidelines. Shading from the comedic sections to more serious situations had to be determined. And, to stay true to the comic aspect of the original source, an overall structure had to be created that moved quickly with swift changes of action. A prime example of these challenges is the shaping of the finales of Act II and Act IV, at the midpoint and end of the opera. The structure of the central Act II finale was a particular convention of opera buffa, which, through plot twists, brought the story to a point of high conflict. It had to be constructed as a chain of different sections, each with music of its own tempo, key, and character. The number of characters grows until the entire ensemble participates, and the final section produces a kind of frenzy, leaving us with a cliffhanger when the curtain falls at intermission. Da Ponte spoke of this convention with a combination of amusement and exasperation:

The finale, which has to be closely connected with the rest of the opera, is a sort of little comedy in itself. This is the great occasion for showing off the genius of the composer, the ability of the singers, and the situation of the drama. Recitative is excluded from it; everything is sung, and every style of singing must find a place in it—adagio, allegro, andante, amabile, armonioso, stepitoso, arcistrepitoso, strepitosissimo, and with this the said finale generally ends….In the finale it is a dogma of theatrical theology that all the singers should appear on stage, even if there were three hundred of them, by ones, twos, threes, sixes, by tens, by sixties, to sing solos, duets, trios, sextets, sessantets. And if the plot doesn’t allow it, the poet must find some way of making the plot allow it…

[NB:  In Le Nozze di Figaro, the Act II finale begins when the Count orders Cherubino to emerge from the locked room only to have Susanna appear instead, to everyone’s astonishment. In the last act, the finale begins when Cherubino courts the “Countess,” who unbeknownst to him is really Susanna in disguise.]

In all these matters, Mozart and Da Ponte would have worked hand in hand to fashion the libretto to meet Mozart’s musical and dramatic conception. Mozart expounded on this necessity in a letter to his father:

An opera is sure of success when the plot is well worked out, with words written solely for the music and not shoved in here and there to suit some miserable rhyme. Verses are indeed the most indispensible element for music…[but] the best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix.

Da Ponte proved to be Mozart’s “true phoenix”; he would go on to collaborate with the composer on Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte.

The ultimate stage of Figaro’s transformation into an opera fell to Mozart alone—providing the musical dimension to the comedy, illuminating the words, thoughts, and actions in a way that a spoken, theatrical rendering could not. Lyricism is the attribute of music that most clearly distinguishes the spoken from the sung. Mozart’s music transcends the spoken word by portraying degrees of emotion, nuances, gestures, unspoken thoughts. It highlights, colors, and projects the emotional content of the words. It determines inflection, mood, and pacing. By constantly varying the character of the music to suit his dramatic and expressive purposes, Mozart could heighten the tension through stark musical contrasts—note, for example, the dramatic alterations of musical dynamics Mozart uses throughout the score. He could also convey the subtlest shades of feeling, which he does to heartbreaking effect in the Countess’s two reflective arias, “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono.”

At the end of Figaro’s long and eventful wedding day all obstacles are surmounted, allowing him to marry an unsullied Susanna. All is resolved. The opera concludes with a spirited final chorus, as any comic opera from those times ordinarily would. In Mozart’s hands, however, nothing is ordinary. Moments before the jubilant closing chorus, Mozart gives us an extended passage of sheer poetry, creating a world far removed from the jollity of theatrical comedy. The passage is the emotional apex of the opera:  the Count’s plea for forgiveness and the Countess’s acceptance. Here, Mozart’s music leaves no doubt as to the Count’s sincerity or the Countess’s genuine happiness in forgiving her errant spouse. The Count’s supplication is set as two gently arching phrases, which the Countess echoes and extends tenderly in delivering her pardon. In Beaumarchais, the Countess grants the pardon with laughter, a reaction appropriate to the play’s goal of showing the Count humiliated by his servants. In the opera, Mozart gives the Countess an expansive lyrical phrase that is poignant and touching. She pardons the Count with simplicity and dignity. There is no irony, rancor, or sense of triumph—only love. The reconciliation is not a matter of humiliation, but humility. The chorus then repeats the Countess’s pardon, transfiguring it with sumptuous harmonies as an expressive hymn to humanity.

Mozart’s operatic version of the Figaro story transcends comedy and satire. Through laughter and tears, pain and forgiveness, the composer’s music probes the joys and frailties of the human heart.

Ronald Gallman serves as director of education for San Francisco Symphony. He is a frequent writer and speaker on symphonic music, opera, and chamber music.