San Francisco Opera | The Spirit of this Place: Mozart’s 'The Marriage of Figaro'

The Spirit of this Place: Mozart’s 'The Marriage of Figaro'

This essay was first published in the June 2015 issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

“Oh, come par che all’amoroso foco l’amenita del loco, la terra e il ciel risponda…”

(O, how the spirit of this place, the earth and the sky, seem to echo the fire of love!)

—Lorenzo da Ponte, from his libretto for The Marriage of Figaro

That overused word, genius, is not the fixed image we often seek; it is a kaleidoscope. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s extraordinary gifts continue to mystify and inspire because he exemplifies a complex idea of genius—for some he is spiritual enlightenment itself, music’s great philosopher—to others he is earthly proof of a deity. To still others he is a visionary miscreant, a bawdy and brilliant savant. He utterly satisfies the intellect while piercing the heart. For a few curmudgeons who deserve avoidance, his music just isn’t dramatic enough to be found interesting.

Unlike most composers, who exceled in one genre over another, Mozart mastered every type of music he composed: his piano concertos remain the pinnacles of the repertoire, even if the later concerti of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, or Prokofiev are flashier and more readily win competitions. Name any musical form: symphonies; string quartets and quintets; piano trios; concertos for violin, horn, and all the woodwind instruments; sonatas for many instruments; masses; dances; and many other forms, but once bitten by the stage, opera became his fundamental obsession. What is now his first mature opera, Idomeneo, was, at age 25, the work of a seasoned opera composer. His twelfth opera, Idomeneo was an eighteenth-century artistic peak of more than a thousand operas based on various Trojan War sources, a creative impulse that would culminate almost a century later in Hector Berlioz’ vast The Trojans, also in San Francisco Opera’s repertory this summer. The operas that consumed the remainder of Mozart’s brief life are unprecedented in their depth of understanding of the universality of love, loss, and humor: The Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute, and La Clemenza di Tito. Each has numerous instances of enlightened transcendence, frozen moments of enriching beauty unique to Mozart’s operas, with the most poignant appearing in the two act-closing ensembles of The Marriage of Figaro.

In his 1979 play and 1984 film Amadeus, Peter Shaffer created the modern image of Mozart. The rival composer for the emperor Joseph II’s attention and support, Antonio Salieri, is painted as a man fully cognizant of his own mediocrity, vowing revenge on a god who would so capriciously bestow musical gifts on such an immoral child as little Wolfgang, while he’d lived a virtuous life in service of music. Shaffer’s Salieri, reading through then-unheard Mozart manuscripts, brings them to sonic life in his imagination:

“She had said that these were original scores. First and only drafts of the music. yet they looked like fair copies. They showed no corrections of any kind. It was puzzling—then suddenly alarming. What was evident is that Mozart was transcribing music completely finished in his head. and finished as most music is never finished. displace one note and there would be diminishment. displace one phrase and the structure would fall….i was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an absolute beauty.”

Though the action of Amadeus is fictional: Mozart was not poisoned and Salieri did not help him write the Requiem, nor was Salieri less than supportive of his brilliant colleague, Schaffer’s wonderful play carried an emotional truth about Mozart’s music that makes it one of history’s most important films about creativity.

It took a trio of geniuses from three nations and diverse backgrounds to bring Figaro’s characters to life. Before Mozart could ignite them with his indelible music, Pierre-Augustine Caron de Beaumarchais created them and Lorenzo da Ponte adapted them into an operatic scenario. All three men had roving eyes to varying degrees, so much so that it is a puzzling wonder that they created one of the great works of art about forgiveness, constancy, and young love.

In addition to a busy and productive writing career, Beaumarchais pursued female flesh across europe with such an astonishing zeal that one wonders how he ever wrote anything. He found time to support the American War of independence and to play a role in the early days of the French revolution, not the least of which was his writing of three French plays that follow the Almaviva family through generations, Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro, and La Mère Coupable, (The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Guilty Mother). Because the plot of The Marriage of Figaro depicted a servant, Figaro, saying “no” to an aristocrat, the Count, royalists blamed Beaumarchais for igniting the restless feelings of a working-class populace they had assumed to be perfectly content.

Lorenzo da Ponte’s life was as packed with frenzy as Beaumarchais’s. Born emmanuele Conegliano in the Jewish ghetto of Venice in approximately 1749, da Ponte was intellectually gifted but so precocious that his father thought it best to send him to the Catholic priesthood. He cannot, by any generous standard, be said to have been an exemplary priest. He met a fellow Venetian, Giacomo Casanova, whose name still conjures the sexual exploits that da Ponte emulated. His fathering of illegitimate children, as well as several shady business deals, sent him scuttling out of both the priesthood and the Venetian republic. He eventually landed in the young United States, where the man who wrote the librettos of three eighteenth-century Mozart operas worked briefly as a nineteenth- century grocer in Pennsylvania, before becoming the first professor of italian literature at Columbia College, which would later become Columbia University in New york City. in the 1830s he produced the first Don Giovanni in the Americas, and founded the first opera company in New York City, though he could make it last for only two seasons. another half-century would pass before the establishment of the metropolitan Opera in 1883.

As fascinating as da Ponte and Beaumarchais are, it is Mozart who has kept The Marriage of Figaro alive through the centuries. This is a score fueled with the most elemental of human characteristics— curiosity and humor. Mozart takes small thematic materials and plays with them, as though they are a puzzle to be solved, or he a tour guide to their impulses. The opera’s familiar overture, for example, develops out of a comically simple five-note flourish, igniting the light-hearted emotional complexity of an opera whose title most musicians utter with a contented sigh. its humor, both visual and musical, is the humor of youth: disguises and tricks to the eye and ear. Mozart so loved these characters that they seemingly fly on the page: we hear Figaro’s excited measurements of his marriage bed in the ever-larger intervals of his counting. We hear the joy of the young lovers singing in duet, something we never hear from the Count and Countess. We hear the cynical orchestral imitation of a guitar in Figaro’s first aria, in which he refers to his employer as Contino, an insulting diminutive of Count. We hear the martial bravado of Cherubino’s possible military life. We hear the pain of the Countess longing for a revival of her love. We hear every possible human emotion in The Marriage of Figaro, all with a musical humor that erases the barrier of the centuries.

The two arias of the page Cherubino are both characterized by a then-new instrument Mozart particularly loved, the clarinet. The instrument got its name from the italian word for a small trumpet, the clarino, though the instrument itself descended from what became the modern oboe, the chalumeau (or shawm, in olde english), and was invented by Johann Christian denner in the early 1800s. Mozart was the first major composer to write a concerto for the clarinet, and The Marriage of Figaro marks its first major presence in opera.

The Marriage of Figaro, though a joyously youthful work of art, also has within it a beautiful melancholy about aging, about how love changes but endures. at one end of the age continuum is Cherubino, all libido, and on the other, the enterprising marcellina. in the middle stands the Countess, and the score’s emotional highlight, “dove sono?” The heartbroken Countess, sings alone, words which have a surface simplicity:

“Where are those happy moments of sweetness and pleasure? Where have they gone, those vows of a lying tongue?”

Mozart’s simple melody for these words, notes which slightly rise and fall around a fixed point, give the feeling of a woman seeking to recover what was once central to her happiness.

On the most important level, The Marriage of Figaro has endured simply because its music is so beautiful. But there is another reason: it is a work of deep enlightenment era spirituality. In its perfectly ordered way, it teaches us an element of how to live: forgiveness, constancy, compassion, and truth matter. musical beauty caresses the sadness and ferocity we see around us. Laughter is a balm. We all have, even if imaginary, an indelible memory of a single day of youthful folly that evolved into dusk, during which we experienced disguises, jokes, tears, pain, forgiveness, and a final laugh at it all by the time we slept. The Marriage of Figaro is that day, the spirit of our small place in the world, constantly renewed, recreated, and relived.

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