Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Austria, 1756–91)
Libretto Lorenzo da Ponte (Italy, 1749–1838)
Based on Le Mariage de Figaro, 1778 play by Pierre Beaumarchais (France, 1732–99)
Premiere Burgtheater Vienna, 1 May 1786
Setting Manor house outside Seville, late 1700s
Plot in brief Wily Figaro and his fiancée Susanna outwit their employer, the predatory Count, in the farcical goings-on over one day in a Spanish country house; the Countess forgives her husband and all ends happily.
Characters Count Almaviva scheming, lecherous young nobleman Countess Rosina Almaviva critical but loving young wife Susanna Countess's smart maid and best-friend Figaro Count's jack-the-lad valet Cherubino young page in first flush of puberty Marcellina old housekeeper Bartolo old court doctor Basilio Count's slimy spin doctor Curzio old judge and pal of Count Barbarina peasant girl, cousin of Susanna Antonio her father; yokel gardener
Mozart and da Ponte: Una cosa
A glance at any top-ten list of the most frequently performed operas shows several successful composer-librettist teams: Verdi-Piave (La traviata, Rigoletto); Puccini-Illica/Giacosa (Tosca, La Bohème, Madam Butterfly); and, perhaps the most notable of them all, Mozart-da Ponte (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte).
Among his 55 librettos, da Ponte wrote the one for Martin y Soler’s 1786 Una cosa rara (‘Something special’). It was a huge success in its day compared to Mozart’s more modest triumphs (50 performances for Cosa rara at the Burgtheater from 1784–91, versus 38 for Figaro at the same time).
Indeed, Mozart jokingly quotes snatches from both in Don Giovanni as the musicians strike up to entertain the party – and it’s clear that Leporello, like audiences of the time, prefers Cosa rara.
The test of time has of course shown the opposite. Figaro, Giovanni and Così are three of the most popular operas in the repertoire. Why? What was the ‘something special’ that Mozart and da Ponte, by universal modern agreement, got so right – but which wasn’t clear either to them or to contemporary audiences?
The long and eventful life of Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838) reads like a picaresque novel. Seven years Mozart’s senior, he outlived him by almost forty. He was born Emanuele Conegliano to a poor Jewish family, but became a Catholic priest – and yet lived a wild youth of gambling and love in Venice. Hounded out, he settled in Joseph II’s Vienna to become an opera librettist of considerable success – despite having had no formal education until he was a teenager; he managed to become librettist to the Emperor without ever having written one before. Fluctuations in his fortunes drove him to Regency London, and finally – with his multilingual English common-law wife – to the vibrant new world of America, where he failed as a shopkeeper but ended up a respected academic and teacher of Italian literature.
Four times da Ponte arrived penniless in a strange culture. Each time, by sheer determination, talent, generosity and charm, he made a new life for himself. He seems to have been vain and gullible, and had a knack of making enemies – especially in his Venice days, thanks to his free-and-easy lifestyle and politically incendiary poems; and his autobiography is considered good entertainment rather than accurate history.
It seems unlikely that Mozart and da Ponte were close friends. Mentions of each other in their letters and writings suggest a respectful, and somewhat wary, professional relationship. But da Ponte’s remarkable class-roaming life had given him a wide experience of society dynamics and human frailties. He knew all too well what it was like to be swindled, pursued, discriminated against, cheated in love, and plain unlucky. He could have been any character in an opera buffa of the time – self-important noble, smooth-talking ladykiller, amorous old self-deluder, or cunning but cowardly gutter opportunist.
This insight resulted in an unusually strong depth and edge to his Mozart librettos, combining serious and comic. The composer was able to respond with music rich in the same qualities. Mozart aspired to write Italian opera, the most cosmopolitan and popular of contemporary genres. On the one hand there was opera seria: lofty, refined tales of royals and gods in formal recitative/ABA-aria format, typically enjoyed by the upper classes. On the other was the more bankable, lively and down-to-earth opera buffa, setting situations more recognisable as everyday life, with light-hearted swipes at the class wars and the battle of the sexes. Opera buffa was generally liked by the bourgeoisie, but thought less classy – essentially, as musical farce.
Part of the problem, Mozart thought, was the “miserable librettos”; da Ponte similarly deplored them for having “no plots, no characters, no movement, no grace of language or style!”. By 1785 Mozart and da Ponte were working together. Both put great store on flexibility, ability to adjust their work to the other’s requirements, and tailoring both words and music to individual performers. They embarked on a buffo setting of Beaumarchais’s controversial play Le mariage de Figaro, whose proto-revolutionary satire and anti-establishment sentiments had earned it a ban through the Habsburg Empire.
Da Ponte claimed to have persuaded the enlightened Emperor to allow its operatic adaptation. The adaptation loses much of the political material that would have outraged the ancien régime (denouncing hereditary power or censorship, for example), but also – through sheer problems of scale, compressing a long stage play into the pocket-sized synopsis needed for opera – loses gentler elements (lampooning solicitors, for instance) that were fair theatrical game in 1780s Vienna, and many illuminating sidelights on the characters.
Compared to earlier opera buffa librettos, Figaro was longer, clearer yet more complex, livelier and more consistent. What marks it out from operas of the time especially is the use of ensembles. Only 14 of the 28 numbers are for solo voice (in Cosa rara the figure is 19 out of 30). The dynamism of the ensembles brought a new dramatic and psychological depth, especially compared to the static recit-aria soliloquising of opera seria. Fully-rounded characters developed in a range of evolving situations.
Mozart was well able to exploit this – his ability to dramatically interweave musical motifs is evident in, for example, the finale of his Jupiter Symphony of 1788. The magnificent long finale of Figaro shows clearly how composer and librettist worked together: da Ponte converted the steady climax of Beaumarchais’s play into a series of dramatic steps with periods of repose and reflection, precisely what Mozart needed musically to make a Classically balanced stretch of music which still developed the action.
With its psychological depth and inter-character complexity, Figaro has maintained a steady place in the repertoire. However, it was only mildly well-regarded in da Ponte’s lifetime. The opera enjoyed limited success in in its first season of 1786, until it was eclipsed by Cosa rara. Viennese audiences preferred the direct appeal of Salieri, Martin y Soler and Paisiello (who nevertheless had their failures, too) to Mozart’s relatively complex, ‘learned’ music.
Perhaps the succès de scandale of Beaumarchais’s play, which had taken Paris by storm two years earlier, resulted in Figaro being viewed only as a novelty; it had a better reception on its subsequent revival. But Figaro’s solid success in Prague in 1787 led to something else being commissioned from the pair – a something else called Don Giovanni. Così fan tutte followed in 1790, its title coming from a throwaway remark by the cynical Don Basilio in Act I of Figaro.
Mozart and da Ponte made no radical reforms; they broke no boundaries or taboos. They did essentially what others were doing, but better: better characterisation, better music, better dramatic possibilities. The enduring success of their three operas, including the brilliant Figaro, has come not from one brilliant Big Idea; but countless brilliant little ones.
© Rob Ainsley 2009