First-Time Perfection: Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro'

From The Vienna State Opera

fromWDAV

The scheming Count Almaviva (Erwin Schrott, left) and Basilio the music master (Benjamin Bruns) prop up a swooning Susanna (Slyvia Schwartz), the object of the Count's nefarious affections. i i

The scheming Count Almaviva (Erwin Schrott, left) and Basilio the music master (Benjamin Bruns) prop up a swooning Susanna (Slyvia Schwartz), the object of the Count's nefarious affections. Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
The scheming Count Almaviva (Erwin Schrott, left) and Basilio the music master (Benjamin Bruns) prop up a swooning Susanna (Slyvia Schwartz), the object of the Count's nefarious affections.

The scheming Count Almaviva (Erwin Schrott, left) and Basilio the music master (Benjamin Bruns) prop up a swooning Susanna (Slyvia Schwartz), the object of the Count's nefarious affections.

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

The Hit Single

At the start of Act Two, we meet Countess Almaviva (soprano Dorothea Röschmann) for the first time. She quickly reveals herself as the opera's most poignant character in the aria "Dove sono," as she wonders what has happened to her formerly happy marriage.

The B Side

As the Countess contemplates her marital predicament, she's joined by Susanna (soprano Sylvia Schwarz). Together, they compose a letter to the Count, inviting him to a late night assignation in the garden. Their duet is brief but the letter may have life-changing consequences, and Mozart made it one of the opera's most exquisite moments.

The history of drama is full of brilliant collaborations, whether it's at the opera, in the theater or at the movies — and while it might seem that a great creative team would take a while to gel, many of the most celebrated partnerships have flourished right from the start.

In 1978, when Stephen Spielberg needed music to evoke impending doom, in Jaws, he turned to composer John Williams. They had plenty of other hits after that one — witness Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List and so many others — but it was the killer shark with its ominous musical theme that got it all started.

In the early 1940s, on Broadway, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein got together for the first time — and wrote Oklahoma!. While they later turned out South Pacific and Carousel, that first effort has proven hard to top.

Still, it's an 18th-century operatic collaboration whose initial efforts may have produced the most enduring masterpiece of any first-time creative partnership. It happened when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte teamed up for The Marriage of Figaro. And the two were just getting started; they also wrote Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

We don't know much about how Mozart and da Ponte divided their efforts on Figaro. But it was Mozart who had to pitch the new work to its main patron, the emperor of Austria — and it was a tough sell. The opera, and the play by Pierre Beaumarchais that it's based on, explore territory that many found worrisome — the often contentious relationship between the classes. The play had been banned by authorities in France and Mozart's opera made the Austrian monarchy nervous. Both works clearly illuminate the limitations of rank and privilege, demonstrating that common sense can often trump wealth and power, and that genuine humility easily upstages unchecked arrogance.

Da Ponte's dialogue is subtle and meticulously layered — but at the same time witty and involving. Mozart's music is well-crafted and immensely sophisticated — but also tuneful and infectious.

Their opera, with all its artistic contrasts and complexities, reveals some simple, real-life truths: that harsh economic realities are no impediment to the instinctive richness of human intellect, and that stultifying social conventions will never dampen the spontaneity of human emotion. It also proves that first-time collaborators can sometimes come up with the stuff that dreams are made of.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us The Marriage of Figaro in a production from the Vienna State Opera. The stars are sopranos Dorothea Röschmann and Sylvia Schwartz as the Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna, and baritones Luca Pisaroni and Erwin Schrott as Figaro and the Count. Franz Welser-Möst conducts.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'The Marriage of Figaro'

The young Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, left), lets his lusty attitude get him into trouble. i i

The young Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, left), lets his lusty attitude get him into trouble. Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
The young Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, left), lets his lusty attitude get him into trouble.

The young Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, left), lets his lusty attitude get him into trouble.

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

Who's Who

Luca Pisaroni ................... Figaro
Sylvia Schwarz ............... Susanna
Dorothea Röschmann ..... Countess
Erwin Schrott ..................... Count
Anna Bonitatibus ........... Cherubino
Sorin Colban ..................... Bartolo
Donna Ellen .................. Marcellina
Daniela Fally .................. Barbarina
Benjamin Bruns .................. Basilio
Benedikt Kobel ..............Don Curzio
Marcus Pelz .................... Antonio

Vienna State Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Mozart's Figaro is one of the rare examples of a successful literary sequel. The original play by Beaumarchais was a follow-up to his previous hit, The Barber of Seville. The first audiences for Mozart's opera knew that play — and we still know it through the operatic version by Rossini. So for many people, this opera's characters are already quite familiar. But their circumstances have changed.

In The Barber of Seville, a young nobleman named Almaviva wins his lover Rosina away from her lecherous guardian Dr. Bartolo, with considerable help from the Count's friend, Figaro. As The Marriage of Figaro begins, it's three years later. The young lovers are now the Count and Countess Almaviva. Figaro is the Count's personal valet, and he's engaged to marry the Countess' maid, Susanna.

As ACT ONE opens, Figaro and Susanna are preparing for their wedding. They're slated to occupy a room between the private chambers of the Count and the Countess. Figaro thinks that will work out just fine. Susanna's not so sure. She tells Figaro that the Count has had his eye on her. In their new room, all he'll have to do is send Figaro off on an errand, and the Count will be right next door to press his advances. Figaro can't believe that his old friend the Count could be that underhanded. But Susanna convinces him, and Figaro begins to display the trademark cunning and confidence that were also evident in The Barber of Seville.

We then meet Figaro's old nemesis Dr. Bartolo and his housekeeper, the aging Marcellina. Figaro has borrowed money from Bartolo. To secure the loan he agreed to marry Marcellina if he couldn't pay it back. Now the debt is due, and Bartolo demands that Figaro live up to their bargain.

Next, Susanna is alone in her room when the young page Cherubino rushes in. He's in the throes of adolescence, and says he's desperately in love with the Countess. But he's also been caught with one of the servant girls and the Count is hot on his heels. When the Count shows up, Cherubino hides and eavesdrops on the Count's latest proposition for Susanna. When the Count finds him, he banishes Cherubino to the army.

Figaro then turns up with a group of peasants, who want to thank the duplicitous Count. He has recently declared that he's renouncing his "feudal right" to be with any woman in his charge on her wedding night. Figaro promptly suggests that he and Susanna should be married immediately.

The Count puts him off. He still has designs on Susanna and since he's given up the feudal right, he's better off while Susanna is still single. The act ends as Figaro teases the lovesick Cherubino about his impending military service.

Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, center), dressed as Susanna, prepares to deceive the Count. i i

Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, center), dressed as Susanna, prepares to deceive the Count. Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper
Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, center), dressed as Susanna, prepares to deceive the Count.

Cherubino (Anna Bonitatibus, center), dressed as Susanna, prepares to deceive the Count.

Michael Pohn/Wiener Staatsoper

In ACT TWO we meet the Countess, Rosina, for the first time. She has plainly concluded that her marriage is on the rocks. She knows all about her husband's various, adulterous schemes, and expresses her unhappiness as the act begins.

She's then joined in her rooms by Susanna and the young page Cherubino, whom the Count has banned from the premises. Together, the three hatch a plan. Cherubino will dress up as Susanna. Then the Count will be lured to a meeting with this phony Susanna by a letter actually written by Figaro, and the Count's duplicity will be exposed.

As the two women are dressing Cherubino for his role, Susanna leaves to find a ribbon. Then the Count knocks on the door. Cherubino can't afford to be discovered alone with the Countess — especially now that he's dressed in drag — so he ducks into a closet. But when the Count enters, Cherubino makes a racket by knocking something over.

The Count hears this, and demands to know who is hiding in that closet. The Countess tells him it's Susanna — but refuses to let him see for himself. He angrily leaves to fetch a crowbar, to pry open the locked closet door. The Countess follows to calm him down. Susanna then slips back into the room — and into the closet — as Cherubino leaps out a window into the garden.

When the Count and Countess return, both are amazed to see that it actually is Susanna in the closet. The Countess is relieved. The Count is embarrassed, and begs forgiveness for his suspicions.

A gardener then appears exclaiming that someone has just jumped out the window — and that seems like trouble. But Figaro comes to the rescue. He says he's the one who took the flying leap into the geraniums. He also takes advantage of the Count's confusion to renew his demand to marry Susanna. But Bartolo and Marcellina join in. When they produce evidence that Figaro has actually agreed to marry Marcellina, the Count gleefully cancels the wedding.

As ACT THREE begins, Susanna hatches her latest scheme. She pretends that she's finally willing to accept the Count's lascivious advances, and suggests a meeting in the palace garden later that night — supposedly her wedding night. The Count eagerly agrees. But when she leaves, he overhears her talking to Figaro. The Count realizes the two are planning some sort trap — but doesn't know how they're going to spring it.

Next, a lawyer shows up to rule on exactly who's wedding is about to take place. Just when it looks like Figaro is going to be stuck with Marcellina, he claims that he can't marry her because he may be nobleman, stolen from his parents at birth. And he reveals a distinctive birthmark on his arm. Seeing that, Marcellina nearly faints. It turns out that she is actually Figaro's mother, and that Dr. Bartolo is his father. Figaro can hardly marry his mother, so Susanna and Figaro can be married at last, much to the Count's chagrin.

Everyone leaves to prepare the ceremony and the Countess is left alone wondering what happened to her formerly happy marriage. Susanna joins her, and the two write a letter to the Count, inviting him to meet Susanna later in the garden. They send it off, sealed with a hairpin, which the Count is to return to confirm the meeting.

So, Figaro's wedding finally gets underway — and during the confusion of the act's final ensemble, the Count is handed the fateful letter from Susanna.

ACT FOUR begins at night in the garden, where the servant girl Barbarina is plaintively searching for something in the dark — a hairpin used to seal a letter she's delivering. Though she's barely a teenager, she's already been the object of the Count's attentions. Now she's acting as a surreptitious messenger between the Count and her older cousin Susanna, who's just been married. It seems Barbarina is coming of age, and her music suggests that it's not a happy experience.

As she searches for the pin, Figaro confronts her. When he discovers she's carrying a message from Susanna to the Count, he's devastated — convinced that Susanna is plotting to betray him. He's even more upset when he hears her nearby, singing about her "lover" — though she's really singing about Figaro himself.

Meanwhile, the Count is due any time for his assignation with Susanna. To fool him, the Countess and Susanna have agreed to exchange clothes for the evening. That way, when the Count goes into his seduction routine, he'll be romancing his own wife without knowing it.

Before long, Figaro figures the whole thing out and decides to play a joke of his own. He goes to Susanna, pretending he really does think she's the Countess, and turns on the romantic charm. This enrages Susanna, but not for long. She soon realizes what's happening, and they both have a good laugh about it.

Things come to a head when the Count steps in. First he tries to seduce his wife, thinking she's Susanna. Then, when he sees Figaro with a woman the Count thinks is the Countess, he self-righteously accuses her of infidelity. Susanna, still imitating the Countess, begs the Count for forgiveness, and he refuses.

At that, the Countess reveals herself, and the Count is finally humbled. This time, it's his turn to ask for pardon. Generously, the Countess embraces him, and the opera ends with both couples reconciled.

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