Major Operas | Le nozze di Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Classical Era
The librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote that Le nozze di Figaro offered ‘a new kind of spectacle … to a public of such assured taste and refined understanding’, and it would be fair to say that after Figaro’s premiere on 1 May 1786, opera buffa was never quite the same again.
There were precedents, of course, for the opera’s social and sexual tensions, and for its extended ‘chain’ finales – not least in Paisiello’s recent ‘Figaro’ opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’, 1782) and Mozart’s own La finta giardiniera. Still, Figaro far eclipses all predecessors in its structural mastery, owing much to Da Ponte’s ingenious adaptation of Beaumarchais’ play, as well as its mingled comic brio and profound human insight, and the way Mozart’s music simultaneously illuminates character and sweeps the drama forward. No opera unfolds at such a pace – indeed, the Countess’s lament that opens Act II is all the more moving for being the first slow music in the work.
In this funniest and most humane of musical comedies, each of the characters is brilliantly drawn in their arias, with the servant pair Figaro and Susanna revealing a growing depth as the opera proceeds. But Figaro’s greatest glories are its many ensembles, far more intricate than anything the Viennese had heard before. Here Mozart uses his symphonic and contrapuntal mastery to weave together contrasted musical lines for dramatic ends, as in the ‘recognition’ sextet in Act III, the composer’s own favourite number.
Figaro, the Count’s valet, and Susanna, the Countess’s maid, prepare for their wedding. Susanna reveals that the Count has designs on her; Figaro angrily resolves to outwit his master. Dr Bartolo enters with his housekeeper Marcellina. They plan to force Figaro to marry Marcellina to pay a debt he owes her. The Count’s page, Cherubino, arrives and announces that the Count has caught him with Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter. He professes his love for the Countess, and all the other women in the palace, but then hears the Count approaching and hides behind a chair. The Count makes advances towards Susanna, but also hides when Don Basilio, the music master, enters. Don Basilio mentions Cherubino’s love for the Countess, at which the Count reveals himself, discovering Cherubino at the same time. The Count is furious, and orders Cherubino to join his regiment. Figaro returns with other servants; they praise the Count for renouncing the old right of the master to replace his valet on his wedding night. Figaro then advises Cherubino on military life.
In her bedroom, the Countess laments her husband’s waning affection. Together with Susanna and Figaro, she hatches a plot to trick the Count: they will send Cherubino, dressed as Susanna, to meet the Count in the garden and then denounce his...
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