Could Mozart’s Funniest Opera Tell the Future?
A closer look at Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” perhaps the cleverest comedy of the opera world.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Opera! It is dramatic. It is tragic. It either involves heartbreak, murder, or both. But there is another side to this art form; it can be lighthearted, amusing, and playful. And who better to write a comedy than Mozart, the composer who created the happiest music the world has ever known?
“Le Nozze di Figaro,” better known by the English translation “The Marriage of Figaro,” premiered in Vienna in 1786, set to the words of Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and the music of Austrian composer and prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The classic comedy takes place in Seville, during an era of kings, servants, and pompous courts. Everything in Mozart’s music rings with triumph and exuberance, as the majority of his compositions do, but a closer listen reveals yearning, jealousy, and tension between social classes and sexes. The opera served as an anthem for servants of the manor house as well as an ode to female empowerment. As one can imagine, these were not themes readily accepted by 18th-century European society. The project nearly perished just as it had begun, but despite the controversy, “The Marriage of Figaro” survived the test of time, and more than two centuries later, it continues to be one of the world’s most beloved comedies.
The Metropolitan Opera recently concluded a run of “The Marriage of Figaro,” starring baritone Christian Van Horn and soprano Ying Fang as Figaro and Susanna. I was lucky enough to attend one of these performances; the house was packed and audience members absolutely loved it, laughing every five minutes. The synopsis follows the efforts of servants Figaro and his fiancée Susanna as they attempt to outwit their master, the Count, with the help of the Countess and another servant, Cherubino. Figaro is displeased with the Count’s attempts to seduce his beloved, while the Countess mourns the love she once shared with her husband. Together, the four conspirators plan to deceive the Count into believing all sorts of things. For example, they devise a scheme where Susanna leads him on with the promise of a rendezvous. Though the Count tries to uncover their plotting, he is ultimately forced to accept Figaro and Susanna’s union, and he even asks for his wife’s forgiveness, which she grants him. In the end, everyone is happy and receives a second chance.
Mozart was always a jokester, and his operas prove no different. There is comedy in almost every line that is sung and every move that the characters make. In one scene, Cherubino is forced to jump out the window of the Countess’s bedroom in order to evade the Count, and when the gardener comes to question it, Figaro feigns a limp to convince the Count that he was the one who jumped, and it works. In addition to showcasing Figaro’s brilliant wit, it gives the audience a good laugh. When Dr. Bartolo and his former servant (and lover) Marcellina, two characters who have also been plotting against Figaro, come onto the scene to force Figaro to marry Marcellina, they see a birthmark that reveals Figaro as their long lost son. In the span of five minutes, Marcellina transforms from potential wife to doting mother, creating one of the most hilarious scenes in the opera and evoking lots of laughter from the audience.
The music does a splendid job of expressing both the humor and the tension underneath. Mozart colors his music with beauty, but the colors change depending on which scene accompanies the orchestra. There is elegance in the playing of string instruments to reflect the grandeur of 18th-century European courts, and there is power in the brass to represent the Count’s authoritative status. There is Cherubino, playing the lovesick fool to the Count’s daughter, loyal friend to Susanna, and terrified lackey to the Count all throughout the opera. He is a symbol of youth and innocence, and Mozart made the perfect decision to write a female mezzo-soprano role for his character. Cherubino’s music is perhaps the happiest-sounding music in the opera, and the audience is always sure to laugh when he is onstage. But there is also pain in the Countess’s aria “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro,” when she laments her husband’s unfaithfulness and deception, which is accentuated by the scampering tunes of the violins. Even the playfulness in Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai,” when he sends Cherubino off to war, is overshadowed by undeniable truth that Cherubino has been banished by the Count to his regiment, reinforcing the divide between servants and the all-powerful aristocracy. On the surface, the opera is fun to watch, but listening between the notes will reveal the double meaning behind every recitative and aria.
There is no mistaking that the opera was written in the 18th century. In Mozart’s time, kings and queens reigned supreme, and servants bowed to them. Men could choose as many lovers as they wanted, even pursuing women who were already spoken for, while a woman who had as little as one affair would be crucified. Instead of embracing these stereotypes, however, “The Marriage of Figaro” ridicules them, portraying them as nonsensical and absurd. Rather than put Figaro on a pedestal and make Susanna and the Countess his sidekicks, the opera creates a down-to-earth titular character who views his female counterparts as his equals and looks to them sincerely for advice. Susanna is not just Figaro’s fiancée; they are equals, and she helps him as much as he helps her. The Countess is not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued from her palace; she still has faith in her husband and forgives him in the hopes of starting over. It is certainly refreshing to know that such a grand piece of art written over two centuries ago embraced ideas so ahead of its time.
The moment the curtain dropped at the end of the fourth act, the audience jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. I have attended many operas at the Met, and it is not often that an audience laughs so much throughout a three hour performance. No need to wonder why though: watching “The Marriage of Figaro” was just as entertaining as going to the movie theater, if not more. Mozart’s masterpiece continues to be performed around the world, a true testament to the timelessness of his music and his comedy, perhaps the cleverest in the opera world.