San Francisco Opera: On This Day, A Mozart Masterpiece Premiered

On This Day, A Mozart Masterpiece Premiered

A thin little man settled in the conductor’s seat behind the keyboard, preparing to lead the orchestra in a premiere of his newest work. It was May 1, 1786, and the world was about to hear, for the very first time, a collaboration that would redefine opera: composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.

Theirs was a partnership that proved to be short but fruitful. Not only did they produce Figaro, but Da Ponte and Mozart went on to create two more iconic operatic works: Don Giovanni in 1787 and Così fan tutte in 1890.

In his memoirs, Da Ponte relays how he came to create that first opera with his “dear friend” Mozart.

“I could easily see that the sweep of his genius demanded a subject of great scope, something multiform, sublime,” Da Ponte writes. They settled on a Beaumarchais play with a witty servant as its protagonist, Figaro. “I set to work, accordingly, and as fast as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music. In six weeks, everything was in order.”

But the story they chose had a crucial flaw. The acid-laced satire had upset Europe’s nobility with its depiction of a hypocritical count. So in his memoirs, Da Ponte recounts — with characteristic exaggeration — that he approached Emperor Joseph II himself to get approval to stage the work in Vienna.

Joseph II ultimately allowed the work to open at Vienna’s Burgtheater. There, it would win some early fans, including composer Joseph Haydn. After Haydn left Vienna on February 9, 1790, he wrote that his sleep conjured pleasant dreams of The Marriage of Figaro — only for the blustering north wind to wake him, blowing away his nightcap and reminding him of what he’d left behind.

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