‘The Marriage of Figaro’: History and context | Opera

The Earl and Countess Almaviva

Figaro and Susanna, their servants, about to get married

Cherubino, young pageboy, in love with the countess

Doctor Bartolo and Marcellina, his housekeeper

It’s Figaro and Susanna’s wedding day, but Count Almaviva, bored after a few years of marriage, wants to invoke an old custom – the right of the lord of the mansion to have sex with a maid (such as Susanna) on his wedding night. As the bride and groom strive to thwart the count, two more of their opponents appear: Bartolo, demanding the repayment of a loan made to Figaro, and Marcellina, whom Figaro must marry if he cannot pay, which he can not.

The Countess plots with Susanna to expose her husband’s scams; Susanna will write to the Count agreeing to a date, but they will send Cherubino in her place, dressed as a woman. The count interrupts them and a series of increasingly rapid reversals and revelations occur. Just when it looks like Figaro is set to marry Marcellina, she and Bartolo discover that he is their long-lost out-of-wedlock son.

Later that night, Susanna and the Countess set their trap on the Count, with the Countess taking Cherubino’s place in the masquerade. Unaware of their plot, Figaro believes that Susanna is unfaithful to him, then realizes that she is posing as the countess. When the count appears, Figaro proclaims his love for her. The enraged nobleman calls on others to witness the betrayal of “the countess” and everyone begs the count to absolve the rebellious couple, which he refuses. The countess then enters, and the embarrassed count asks her forgiveness, which she grants him.


Watchmaker, music teacher, inventor, diplomat, spy, litigator, horticulturist, arms dealer, satirist, financier and active participant in the American and French revolutions. Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was all this and more during his lifetime and still found time to be the greatest French playwright of the 18th century, notably thanks to his Figaro trilogy: The Barber of Seville (1775), Crazy Day, or the Marriage of Figaro (1784), and The guilty mother (1792).

While The Barber of Seville is a plot comedy in which the aristocrat Almaviva and the servant Figaro team up to outsmart the bourgeois Bartolo – with some comments on the unfair treatment of women and class inequalities added – The Marriage of Figaro is a much deeper comedy of morals showing “the Revolution already in action”, as Napoleon Bonaparte put it. Figaro and Almaviva are now enemies and the play bristles with the resentment of the subclasses towards the aristocracy and the monarchy. When Almaviva complains to Figaro: “The servants here take longer to get dressed than the masters”, retorts his servant immediately: “It is because they have no servants to help them.

It took several years for Beaumarchais to obtain Figaro played publicly. King Louis XVI banned its presentation, even though the script was popular with the aristocracy, including his wife, Queen Marie-Antoinette. After some modifications, including moving the set from France to Spain and mitigating some, but not all, of the inflammatory speeches, it premiered at the Théâtre Français in April 1784. Beaumarchais’ play won more at the box office than any other. another French piece from the 1700s. The author donated his copyright to charity.

Lorenzo Da Ponte’s career is almost as varied as that of Beaumarchais: he is a Venetian priest (a vocation canceled out by his two passions for married women and liberal politics), Austrian librettist, arranger of operas for English theaters. and, after 1805, greengrocer. , bookseller, memorialist and theater director in Philadelphia and New York. In 1825 he became Columbia University’s first professor of Italian. He died in 1838 at the age of 89 and was buried in a cemetery in Queens.

Da Ponte was widely recognized as the most skilled Italian opera librettist of the 18th century, due to his dramatic instincts, ease with verse, sharp wit, and extensive knowledge of classical poetry and theater. Most of his 49 opera texts were adaptations of earlier plays or libretto, as is the case in The Marriage of Figaro. Da Ponte transformed Beaumarchais’ scenic masterpiece into an equally compelling opera version, eliminating the characters and compressing the scenes where necessary (in one case replacing most of the play’s third act with a five-line phrase). words), translating French prose into Italian rhymed couplets, and creating masterful ensembles full of multi-layered action.

By choosing a controversial and anti-monarchical play that premiered a year earlier, Mozart and Da Ponte were courting the disapproval of Emperor Joseph II. To secure his approval, they toned down some of his sharper pikes, especially Figaro’s Act V’s long soliloquy against “the accident of birth,” which raised those much less worthy to a high position. They turned it into an aria condemning unfaithful women, as Figaro mistakenly believes his fiancée Susanna is.

With The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart took a leap forward in the musical and dramatic sophistication of his Italian comic operas, as he did with the piano concertos written in the same years, 1785 and 1786. His first stage successes were in the ‘opera seria, like its Idomeneo, and in singspiel, the German comic form which is closer to the operetta in feeling, although The Abduction of the Seraglio and The Impresario both contain stimulating music, especially for sopranos.

His last bouffe opera completed before Figaro, La finta giardiniera, created 11 years earlier at the age of 19. It is an attractive and young work, but it is far from a masterpiece. Mozart began composing two more Italian comedies in 1783 but interrupted his work, probably realizing that the librarians were weak. An enthusiastic theater lover and insightful critic of plays and actors, he was also an aspiring playwright who started at least two screenplays on his own. In the years leading up to Figaro, Mozart is known to have read over 100 booklets without finding much to his liking.

The Marriage of Figaro had moderate success when it premiered in Vienna in May 1756; a Prague production later that year was a huge success and led to the commission which resulted in Don Giovanni one year later. Figaro is widely regarded as Mozart’s finest opera and one of the most psychological works of its kind. In the extended finals of Acts II and IV, the composer achieved a level of accomplishment for the interplay between stage action and musical form that has never been matched. While shorter and less overtly brilliant, the Act III finale is also ingenious in how it incorporates whispered dialogue and plot developments into what could be a static series of period dances.

NOTE: Mozart has used “Amadeus” for his middle name a few times, and always jokingly when he refers to himself in false Latin: “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus”. Otherwise, he opted for Amadè, Amadi or Amado. When he wanted a German version he used Gottlieb.

The inspiration for the time and place of the new Santa Fe opera house Figaro – France in the late 1930s – comes from Jean Renoir’s acclaimed 1939 film The game’s rules. As director Laurie Feldman pointed out: “This is happening at a time of great social change; wars between classes and wars between the sexes, on the eve of a global cataclysm. Just like the original from Beaumarchais.

John Corigliano, composer of this season’s world premiere, The lord of screams, used the third piece of Figaro de Beaumarchais, The guilty mother, as the basis of The ghosts of Versailles. His “grand opera buffa” premiered at the Met in December 1991 and has received almost universal acclaim. â—€

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