Exactly when Mozart met Lorenzo Da Ponte, the man with whom he would collaborate on three of the greatest operas ever written, seems to be unknown. In his thoroughly entertaining but often factually suspect Memoirs, Da Ponte said they met at the house of Baron Raimund Wetzlar. That would make a lot of sense. Wetzlar was an admirer of Mozart’s, the godfather to the composer’s first child, and for a while Mozart’s landlord. As a wealthy, cultured Viennese he would certainly be on good terms with people involved with the court theater. But it was two years after Mozart’s letter to his father before the promised libretto appeared.
Da Ponte had arrived in Vienna in 1781, the same year Mozart rather abruptly left the service of Prince-Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg and suddenly found himself a freelance musician in the Imperial city. His Italian opera Idomeneo had been well received at its premiere in Munich on January 29, 1781, so Mozart, naturally, wanted to write an opera for Vienna. The following year he had a huge success with Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) a singspiel (a play with songs) that spread his name throughout German speaking countries. But then in 1783 the emperor, Joseph II, turned his attention from German opera and revived the Italian opera, making Da Ponte poet to the court theater.
Mozart needed an Italian libretto. “I have looked through at least a hundred libretti and more, but I have hardly found a single one with which I am satisfied,” he wrote to his father. Understandably he tried Giovanni Battista Varesco, the librettist for Idomeneo, but after working a few months on Varesco’s L’Oca del Cairo (The Goose of Cairo) Mozart abandoned it in early 1784. During the same period Mozart toyed with Lo Sposo Deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom), even making some notations about singers from the Italian company in the libretto, but he soon abandoned that, as well.
Exactly when Mozart and Da Ponte finally decided to collaborate we don’t know. Da Ponte said he made the suggestion they write an opera together, but that it was Mozart who suggested turning Beaumarchais’ latest play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro into an opera. It was an utterly inspired idea in some ways—and an almost ludicrous one in others.
Emanuel Schikaneder—who would later write the libretto for Mozart’s last opera, The Magic Flute, and create the character of Papageno—wanted to give Beaumarchais’ play in German translation at the Kärntnertoer Theater of which he was the director. But the Emperor banned it “since this piece contains much that is objectionable.” However he did allow its publication. Still, having banned the play would it be likely the Emperor would allow its operatic version to be staged? Mozart and Da Ponte were taking an enormous risk. They were writing it on spec, not on commission, and since there was no guarantee the Emperor would allow the opera to be given, they might never see any money from the project. (In the end, Mozart received 450 florins from the theater for Figaro; Da Ponte, 200.)
On the plus side were several factors. The play itself was a topic of conversation in Vienna. Even more promising was the fact that Paisiello’s opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia, based on Beaumarchais’ earlier play, was a smash hit in Vienna when the new Italian company gave it on August 13, 1783. So the characters were known—and popular—with the Viennese public.
The Marriage of Figaro was very much a contemporary opera. Beaumarchais’ play had finally been given in Paris in 1784, after having been banned for some time. It concerns real people—not the mythological figures and emperors of the older opera seria. It makes the case for the dignity of common people, even going so far, on occasion, as to show them superior to their aristocratic masters—a reflection of the social unrest stirring Europe at the time. It was obviously a play that resonated with both Da Ponte and Mozart personally. In one of the letters Mozart wrote his father in 1781, explaining why he could not return to the service of Archbishop Colloredo, Mozart used words that Beaumarchais could easily have put into Figaro’s mouth: “It is the heart that ennobles a man; and though I am no count, yet I have probably more honor in me than many a count. Whether a man be a count or a valet, if he insults me, he is a scoundrel.”
“Where in Il Barbiere di Siviglia there was an essentially benevolent insolence lurking beneath the comedy, in Figaro there is a positively dangerous spirit of revolution,” conductor Jane Glover aptly notes in her marvelous book Mozart’s Women. Da Ponte was masterful in adapting the play in such a way that the most flagrant political expression was deleted, while retaining the conflict between the characters and classes, as well as a good deal of the provocative atmosphere of the day. Since Mozart and Da Ponte both lived in Vienna we have no letters between them, no actual evidence of how they worked together. What did they argue over? What did Mozart demand of his librettist? What did Da Ponte dig his heels in about? We simply don’t know. Decades later Da Ponte claimed, “As fast as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music. In six weeks everything was in order.” Which might or might not be true. We know they were at work on the project by November 1785 because Mozart’s father referred to it in a letter he wrote his daughter: “I’ve finally received a letter from your brother, it’s dated 2 November and is all of 12 lines long … he’s up to his eyes in work on his opera Le Nozze di Figaro … I know the piece, it’s a very tiresome play and the translation from the French will certainly have to be changed if it’s to be effective as an opera.” Mozart entered the opera in his thematic catalogue on April 29, 1786, traditionally the date he wrote the overture, which is certainly more than six weeks from the beginning of November. But since the opera premiered two days later, most of it had to have been written considerably earlier.
As it happened, just as they were finishing Figaro, the theater suddenly needed a new opera. Irish tenor Michael Kelly was a member of the company and created the roles of Basilio and Don Curzio in Figaro. He was a friend of Mozart’s and his Reminiscences (written long after the events) give a marvelous look into the Vienna of Mozart’s time. According to Kelly, there were three operas ready to be put in production: “One by Vincenzo Righini, one by Salieri (‘The Grotto of Trophonius’), and one by Mozart … and each composer claimed the right of producing his opera for the first. The contest raised much discord, and parties were formed. The characters of the three men were all very different. Mozart was as touchy as gunpowder, and swore he would put the score of his opera into the fire if it were not produced first. Righini was working like a mole in the dark to get precedence. [Salieri was] a clever, shrewd man, possessed of what Bacon called crooked wisdom: and his claims were backed by three of the principal performers, who formed a cabal not easily put down. Every one in the opera company took part in the contest, I alone was a stickler for Mozart … The mighty contest was put an end by His Majesty issuing a mandate for Mozart’s ‘Nozze di Figaro’ to be instantly put into rehearsal.”
Da Ponte claims that he went personally to the Emperor and informed him of the opera he and Mozart had written. He relates word for word (albeit decades later) the conversation in which he gradually overcame the Emperor’s objections to the subject. But cabals against Figaro continued during rehearsals. While most of the audience seemed delighted at the premiere on May 1st, 1786, others were not, finding the music too new to truly understand (a not uncommon Viennese reaction to Mozart’s music at the time). Michael Kelly wrote, “Never was any thing more complete than the triumph of Mozart and his ‘Nozze di Figaro.’” So many of the numbers had to be repeated that the performance lasted almost twice as long as planned. After the third performance the Emperor issued a ban on encores of anything except solo arias because performances were simply lasting too long. Even so, there were only nine performances in Vienna that year, and it was not revived there until 1789 when it notched twenty-six performances, leading to the commission of Così fan tutte.
Some critics have called Le Nozze di Figaro the most perfect opera ever written. In Mozart’s Women, Glover sums it up brilliantly: “For all the stirring portrayals of character in the works of Mozart’s predecessors and contemporaries, even indeed in his own operas, nothing before had ever discovered such astonishing depth of veracity. Between them, Mozart and Da Ponte had finally held the mirror up to the audience: ‘This,’ they were saying, ‘is all about you.’”