The opera that Charlie and I attended at the *Metropolitan Opera was The Marriage of Figaro. This particular opera is always among the top 10 operas performed worldwide, but not one of my favorites, possibly because it’s a comedy. I prefer high drama in operas. But of course we enjoyed it immensely, and we knew a couple things about it before going, which always makes things more interesting. The original name of the opera is Le Nozze di Figaro, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed it in 1786. The way an opera is created is very interesting as it takes a partnership. Figaro is particularly interesting.
Mozart, the first partner, was born in Austria in 1756, the son of a Salzburg court musician and composer, who was his principal teacher. Little Wolfgang, nicknamed Wolfie, began making musical tours with his father when he was just a child. He wrote his first composition at age six, and his first opera at age 14. But touring as a child wasn’t an easy life. He was both a composer and a pianist, and performed before royalty and in important venues, but the payments were meager and often not on time. He spent a lot of time composing, but also a lot of time looking for steady work, just as composers nowadays have to do. He fell in love, fell out of love, was rejected by a woman he was in love with, and had a falling out with his father. All this falling happened while he was trying to make ends meet.
As an adult, Mozart finally settled in Vienna as a freelance performer and composer. He made good connections there: he met and made friends with Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Handel. He began to focus as a piano soloist and a writer of concertos. By that time he was married and making steady money as a court musician, and he began to do exactly what people do nowadays: he started to live beyond his means. However, another good thing happened: he met and made another friend, Joseph Haydn. Around the end of 1785, when Mozart was not quite 30, he met an extraordinary person, Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian opera librettist who was in his mid-30s. Da Ponte was to be the second partner.
This partner had been born into a Jewish family in Italy. He underwent a change when his father, a widower, converted the whole family to Roman Catholicism in order to marry a Catholic woman. Not only did the Jewish boy Emanuele have his name changed to Lorenzo, he was baptized by a bishop, began to study in a seminary and was eventually ordained as a priest. He moved to Venice when he was 24 and made a living by teaching Latin, Italian and French. But remember, he was a priest, although not a very traditional one. He took a mistress while serving as the priest of the church of San Luca, and had two children with her. He was charged with “public concubinage” and “abduction of a respectable woman” and tried in 1779 not only for these accusations, but also for living in a brothel, and being in charge of the entertainment for it. He was banished from Venice for 15 years as punishment.
He was only 30 at that time, and made his way to Austria. There he made his living as a writer, and attached himself to the important noblemen and cultural patrons of the city. He had always liked to write poetry, and that probably helped him get established. But in the beginning he had a hard time financially. However, he eventually applied for and obtained the post of librettist to the Italian Theatre in Vienna. It was there that he met Mozart.
The third partner was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a Frenchman who was in his mid-50s when he collaborated with the other two. He was the son of a watchmaker and as a young man, he learned his father’s profession so well that he was asked by King Louis XV to create a watch mounted on a ring for his mistress Madame de Pompadour. The watch he created was successful enough that his family got rich and he became a star in the court. But when he met Mozart, he was a playwright and had already had one of his plays, The Barber of Seville, converted into a successful opera. He was quite influential in the court of Louis XV as an inventor and as a music teacher. But he was an unabashed social climber and that got him into a lot of trouble. He married three times. His first wife died under mysterious circumstances only 10 months after their wedding. He married again, and the second Mme. de Beaumarchais also died mysteriously, but this time two years after their wedding. His third marriage was lasting, maybe because she was his live-in lover for 12 years before they actually got married.
But he got into all sorts of other trouble. He openly supported the American rebels during the American *War of Independence and he lobbied the French government on their behalf. He also organized a supply of arms for the rebels, but had a difficult time recovering his investment and ended up losing a lot of money. Historians say he was addicted to financial speculation. Then he participated in the early stages of the French Revolution and was arrested and imprisoned for these activities in 1792, during the revolution. Through the help of a former mistress, he was released and managed to escape to England, from there to Holland and finally to Germany, but his family was imprisoned and his properties were taken. He finally returned to France and tried to get his properties restored, but to no avail. He was left destitute and at age 67 he died of a stroke in Paris in 1799, the year the revolution ended. He is buried in Paris and Boulevard Beaumarchais in Paris is named after him. There is also a nice statue of him in Paris and he is remembered as a musician, diplomat, spy, publisher, horticulturist, arms dealer, watchmaker, financier, satirist, and revolutionary. But he is best known for his three Figaro plays. It is said that the character Figaro is semi-autobiographical.
To sum it all up, Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte adapted the play by Peirre Beaumarchais, Le Mariage de Figaro, to Mozart’s music, creating an opera. The three Figaro plays, Le Barbier de Seville, Le Mariage de Figaro and La Mère Coupable all include the characters Figaro and Count Almaviva. They show the change in social attitudes before, during, and after the French Revolution and when King Louis XVI read the manuscript of the first play, he refused to give permission for it to be performed. It was openly critical of the government and class separation, and therefore considered subversive. Queen Marie-Antoinette was against prohibiting the play, but the king stood fast. Beaumarchais gave private readings of the play for three years, trying to earn a living and trying to change the play enough so that the king would allow it to be performed. And the king did relent and lifted the ban after 3 years. Two years after that, it became an opera with Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s libretto.
The opera was actually created when Mozart took Beaumarchais’s play to Da Ponte, and he turned it into a libretto in only six weeks. Da Ponte rewrote it in Italian and removed the political references and other things that would have been objectionable to censors. For example, the original play contained a very strong speech about inherited nobility, and Da Ponte replaced it with an angry aria against unfaithful wives. After the Emperor approved the libretto, Mozart wrote the music. Basically, the opera is the story of a Spanish count that wants to take his wife’s personal servant, Susanna, to bed on her wedding night, as was supposedly his right as noble in medieval Europe. Susanna is about to marry Figaro, the head of the Count’s servant staff, and Susanna, Figaro and the Countess do everything in their power to prevent the count from bedding the servant and to embarrass the Count, all in 4 acts. Figaro is the character from Le Barbier of Séville but this one is darker than the first opera. In spite of censorship, there was a lot of emphasis to class struggle and some think it foreshadowed the French Revolution, which was to come 11 years later.
If you want to know about the business side, the Italian Opera Company paid Mozart 450 florins for his part, and that was three times the paltry salary he had been receiving as a court musician in Salzburg. Da Ponte was paid less than half – 200 florins. Following its successful Viennese premiere, Figaro became a major hit and such a triumph for Mozart that he won a commission to write Don Giovanni. He improved his finances for a time but soon fell into the ups and downs of a musical life, and died of an undefined illness in 1791 when he was only 35. Some say he was poisoned. He had a very small funeral that very few people attended, but memorial services and concerts were held in his honor in Vienna and Prague, and biographies began to be written almost immediately.
As for Da Ponte, he eventually married an English girl, but always remained a womanizer. Facing bankruptcy and prison, he escaped his European creditors emigrated to America to eventually settle in New York, where he served as the first professor of Italian at Columbia College (now Columbia University) and where he was instrumental in developing an audience for Italian opera. He became an American citizen when he was 79, and at age 84 he founded an opera house in New York City. It only lasted 2 seasons because he didn’t know how to manage the financial end of it, but it is credited with being the predecessor to the New York Metropolitan Opera and I would say that he was a much-valued immigrant. Da Ponte died in 1838 when he was 89 and there was a huge funeral for him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the most prestigious church in New York City. He is remembered for writing the libretti for 28 operas by 11 composers, including three of Mozart’s greatest operas, Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and Così fan Tutte. Le Nozze di Figaro, which premiered in Vienna 1786, premiered at The Met in 1894. The current version of Figaro has been modernized and is supposed to be set in the 1930s.
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