The online opera guide to LE NOZZE DI FIGARO
That Da Ponte and Mozart were able to create a masterpiece out of this intricate comedy is a miracle. With “Le nozze di figaro” Mozart not only wrote wonderful situation comedy with stunning music, but also five immortal role portraits for the main characters.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Act IV
Lorenzo Da Ponte, based on the comedy La Folle Journée ou le Marriage de Figaro by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.
THE MAIN ROLES
Count Almaviva, nobleman and servant (bass) - Countess Almaviva, his wife (soprano) - Figaro, the Count's valet (bass) - Susanna, the Countess's chambermaid and Figaro's fiancée (soprano) - Cherubino, the Count's page (soprano) - Marzellina, the Countess's housekeeper (mezzo-soprano)
EMI with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Irmgard Seefried, George London and Erich Kunz conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Philharmonic. For an alternative, consider an opera film: DG with Mirella Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Maria Ewing conducted by Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra.
ROLES AND SYNOPSIS OF LE NOZZE DI FIGARO IN 4 MINUTES
Five years before the French Revolution
The fact that Mozart was able to bring this comedy on stage in 1786 is a miracle. “No other composer of that time would have come up with the crazy idea of setting Beaumarchais’ satirical and biting social comedy to music for Joseph II imperial court opera, the most politically explosive play of those years, the performance of which was also forbidden in Vienna. (Source: Attila Csampai, opera guide)
Da Ponte’s Libretto
The then court poet of the court opera Lorenzo Da Ponte had to promise the censorship to tone down certain passages, such as Figaro’s incendiary speech of the 5th act. Nevertheless, the plot was faithfully based on the original. The risk of using this piece was not only political, but also dramaturgical. Beaumarchais’ comedy was very long and very complicated, it remains Da Ponte’s merit to have brilliantly managed the condensation to a libretto suitable for opera. Among other things, he reduced the number of main characters from 16 to 11 and the number of acts from 5 to 4. Mozart adapted his compositional technique to this complexity. For example, the finale of the second act is the longest finale that Mozart ever wrote, with almost 1000 bars. It is almost a theater within a theater, lasting over 20 minutes and not a single boring second, both dramaturgically and musically. “Le nozze di Figaro” was Da Ponte’s first collaboration with Mozart. This is an opportunity to make a short excursion to Lorenzo Da Ponte and to write about his exciting life. Born into a Jewish family, he converted at an early age and became a practicing Catholic priest. He was, however, banned from Venice because of his unsteady lifestyle, and subsequently earned his living as a court librettist in Dresden. His next stop was Vienna with works for Salieri and other composers. In 1786, as an employee of the Court Opera, he wrote six librettos, one of which was “Le nozze di Figaro”. Together with Mozart he further developed the Italian comic opera with “Cosi fan tutte” and “Don Giovanni”. He lost his post in 1790 with the death of Joseph II, and since he was not allowed to return to Venice, he went on to London. There he got into financial difficulties and had to flee to New York in 1804, where he pursued various activities, such as tobacco and vegetable dealer, teacher of Italian and made it to a professorship at a renowned university. One of the highlights of his stay was a performance of “Don Giovanni” in 1825, which he had significantly promoted.
The female leading roles
The role models in this opera are characters that have inspired many great artists. Mozart’s knowledge of human nature created roles of flesh and blood. Mozart felt the most for the female characters. To the characters of Cherubino, Susanna and the Countess he composed the most emotional, and immortal passages of this masterpiece. First and foremost the Countess with the two magnificent arias “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” and Susanna with the aria “Deh, non vieni tardar” and the many beautiful duets. The roles of Cherubino, the Conte and Figaro were also characteristically drawn musically by Mozart and have been given their permanent place in the history of opera.
The ensemble scenes
This opera is a work of ensemble scenes. Da Ponte and Mozart greatly reduced the number of arias and gave the ensembles a broad stage. In addition to the great finales of the second and fourth acts, the two sextets are noteworthy and one of the most beautiful duets in opera history “Che soave zeffiretto”. Also striking is the accumulation of duets in this opera, which are consistently referred to as “duettino” – presumably because the servant Susanna is involved in all six of them. A love duet in the conventional sense is missing, however. In this way, the authors in 18th-century courtly Vienna avoided the servant couple Figaro / Susanna taking on the function of the first love couple in an improper manner.
The masterful orchestration
The orchestration of Figaro is accomplished: each number has been given its individual orchestral imprint, which is undoubtedly one of the most innovative aspects of this opera. First and foremost, the richness of the wind score must be emphasized, which is perfectly adapted to the prevailing dramaturgical situation, be it the military trumpets in Figaro’s “Non andrai”, the oboe and bassoons of the “Che soave zefiretto”, or the use of the horns in the aria of the (horned) Figaro of the first act, which we will encounter again in his aria of the fourth act. Mozart also varies the sound of the strings in the most exquisite manner, be it the lovely pizzicati in the Aria of the roses, muted strings in “Voi che sapete” or the scene for string orchestra only in Barbarina’s Aria.
History and premiere
Mozart began composing in October 1785 and finished the opera after six months. The premiere took place on May 1, 1786 in the Vienna Burgtheater in the presence of the Emperor. It is unclear how successful it was. The fact is that it was repeated only nine times, which could possibly be due to the political explosive power or to the sheer complexity of the production, which posed a tremendous challenge for the short rehearsals at the time. The work subsequently spread only sluggishly, but this changed abruptly with the triumphant Prague premiere, which earned him the commission to compose “Don Giovanni”.
Amadeus and Salieri
As a conclusion of the overview part you can see a excerpt of “Amadeus” by Milos Forman. It is the scene where Salieri watches the finale of “Nozze di Figaro” in the box of the Opera House and observes the King, whose reaction will be decisive in determining how the opera is received.
Amadeus – Forman
LE NOZZE DI FIGARO ACT I
A stirring overture
Synopsis: In the castle of Count Almaviva.
Seldom does an overture lead into the events as rousingly as the prelude to this opera. A lively overture, a brilliant theme and a sparkling final presto made the opening also a delicacy for the concert hall.
Ouvertüre – Scholz
Synopsis: Figaro and Susanna are servant and maid to the Count and Countess Almaviva and want to marry soon. Figaro is measuring their future bedroom, where they are near the Countess and Countess Almaviva.
A caso Madama la notte ti chiama – Taddei / Moffo
The controversial right to the first night
Synopsis: Susanna warns Figaro that the Count has hinted that he wants to reintroduce the right to the first night. This enrages Figaro. He announces the fight to his master and angrily leaves the room.
Whether this “Ius primae noctis” was actually widespread or corresponded more to legend than to reality is disputed. In any case, the subject ignited the emotions and was thus perfectly suited as a theme for a play. Mozart composed the music of the servant mockingly with a dainty, courtly minuet, whose text Figaro hisses hatefully.
Listen to the piece sung by Cesare Siepi a great Figaro with a voice “that can flow like honeycomb” (Fischer, Grosse Stimmen).
Se vuol ballare signor contino – Siepi / Kleiber
Synopsis: Susanna meets the housekeeper Marzellina. They argue about money that Figaro is said to have borrowed from Marzellina. And Marzellina wants it back in view of the planned wedding. But that would make the wedding impossible.
The quarrelsome duet of two women was an 18th century opera classic. Mozart brilliantly underlays the scene with the false sweetness of a flattering melody and with strings that leap for joy.
This scene is brilliantly interpreted musically and comedically by Diana Damrau and Jeanette Fischer from a television version of a production of La Scala.
Via resti servita, madama brillante – Damrau / Fischer
Cherubino’s sung monument to all women
Synopsis: Angered, Marzellina leaves the room. Now Cherubino, Almaviva’s page, enters Susanna’s room. The count had caught him in an amorous adventure and wants to punish him. Cherubino asks Susanna to put in a good word with the countess.
Cherubino, the Count’s page, sings with youthful feeling, impatience and uncertainty about his love for Susanna, the Countess and all women. Mozart has this magnificent, lyrical melody accompanied by tenderly muted strings.
We hear an urgent Cherubino by Cecilia Bartoli.
Non so piu cosa faccio – Bartoli
In the playlist you will also find a masterclass by Joyce di Donato on this aria by Cherubino. A wonderful recording that gives an insight into the role of Cherubino and this aria.
Non so piu cosa faccio (Masterclass mit Joyce di Donato)
The hiding game in Susanna’s room
Synopsis: There they hear the count enter, who wants to visit Susanna. Cherubino quickly hides and watches the count making advances to Susanna. But he doesn’t get far, because the music teacher Bartolo is on his way. Now Almaviva has to hide on his part in order not to be caught in this compromising situation. When he hears Bartolo telling of Cherubino’s ravings, he comes out of his hiding place in anger. After a short conversation he finds, to his amazement, Cherubino in his hiding place.
Cosa sento tosto andate
Figaro’s famous aria «Non più andrai farfallone amoroso»
Synopsis: But the count is bursting with rage and cannot punish Cherubino, because he overheard the count’s declaration of love to Susanna in hiding. In order to get rid of him, the count appoints his page as an officer, who must move in as quickly as possible. Figaro mockingly gives him good advice.
This famous aria is a politically delicate mockery of the noble Cherubino by the servant. In the first part we hear Figaro’s courtly (though musically very simple) mockery of Narcissus’ cherubino, who now has to exchange the fandango of the dance hall for the march of the military, which Mozart colorfully draws with the musical elements of the military in the second part.
Non piu andrai – Raimondi
LE NOZZE DI FIGARO ACT II
The lonely Countess
Synopsis: In the chambers of the Countess. The Countess suffers from the disloyalty of her husband and would rather die than live on unworthily.
In this aria, the Countess misses the times when the Count still loved her dearly. Without doubt, “Porgi amor” is one of the highlights of the opera and one of the most beautiful lyrical pieces written for soprano. The music is set in a major key, although the Countess’s mood is sad and contemplative, which perhaps even accounts for the charm of this piece. The aria begins in piano and culminates in the middle, with the heartbreaking death wish “o mi lascia almen morir”, which is repeated twice, accompanied by the clarinet’s supernaturally painful cantilena. “Porgi amor” is the Countess’s first performance. She is alone on stage and she has to sing the most beautiful aria of the opera right away, some singers have thus respect for this aria. Otherwise there are no great vocal difficulties, it is a simple cavatina and its duration is comparatively short. But as always with Mozart, the simple things are the most difficult.
In the playlist you will find three versions of this aria.
Listen to this aria first in a wonderful, melancholic, unbeatable interpretation by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Every word gets a beautiful tone color. The breathing is not perceptible and lets the music shine with beautiful long phrasings.
Porgi amor (1) – Schwarzkopf
Next in an expressive version by Maria Callas.
Porgi amor (2) – Callas
… and in a concert recording by Angela Gheorghiu.
Porgi amor (3) – Gheorgiu
Cherubino’s aria «Voi che sapete»
Synopsis: Figaro visits the countess to suggest a plan to teach the count a lesson. The count is to be invited to a rendez-vous with Susanna, but the disguised cherubino is to appear there. At the same time he is to receive an anonymous letter warning him that his wife has a rendez-vous that evening. The Countess hesitantly agrees and Figaro leaves the room to call Cherubino. Cherubino comes to try on Susanna’s clothes. First he is allowed to sing a song to the Countess
Cherubino is a trouser role for a young soprano. He is the Count’s page, and at an age when emotions are awakening. The song is another sung declaration of love by an adolescent to all women. Mozart composed this touching scene in a naive, childlike tone. The aria opens with a graceful melody accompanied by syncopated violins imitating a guitar played by Susanna. With time the music becomes more intense. Mozart modulates the melody in small steps and evokes a passionate, increasing mood, giving the person of Cherubino a supernatural glow.
Listen to one of the highlights of this opera in two versions.
It is worth listening to Lucia Popp’s Susanna from Solti’s magnificent 1981 recording, one of the best Susanna on record:
Voi che sapete (1) – Popp
Magically and hypnotically sung by Maria Ewing in the film adaptation of Ponnelle.
Voi che sapete (2) – Ewing
Synopsis: Now Cherubino is initiated into the intrigue and is ready to try on Susanna’s clothes.
Venite… inginocchinatevi – Popp / Solti
The epic finale of the second act
Handlung: Cherubino is in the room of the countess. When he is undressed and half-naked, there is a knock. It’s the Count! Cherubino has to hide to save the countess from the compromising situation. The count enters suspiciously. Why was the room locked? He searches the room and comes across a locked door to the next room. He suspects Cherubino inside and demands that he come out. But nothing happens.
Susanna, or via, sortite – Finley / Fleming
Synopsis: While he is getting a tool to break the door open, Susanna rushed into the room from behind and opened the window so that Cherubino could jump out. When the count wants to break the door open, it opens … and Susanna appears. The count is confused and asks his wife for forgiveness. Then they hear from Figaro that the gardener is angry because his flowers were crushed when someone jumped out of the room. When the count notices the open window in the next room, Figaro saves the situation by claiming that he jumped because he was in the room with Susanna. The situation seems saved. Now the gardener reports that the culprit had lost a piece of paper when he jumped. It is the conscription order of Cherubino. The count angrily holds it under Figaro’s nose, but he claims in his distress that Cherubino gave it to him. And now Marzellina joins in. She wants the count to prevent the marriage between Figaro and Susanna, because Figaro once promised the older woman the wedding in order to get money. With relish, the count temporarily forbids the wedding.
The finale of the second act has immense dimensions; it consists of almost 1,000 bars and is a work of art in itself. It begins with the duet of the Count and the Countess. Little by little, five people appear, each of whom changes the music until the confusion is complete. The music becomes particularly comic when Susanna steps out of the chamber with an innocent minuet, and the Count and Countess stare at her in amazement (4:40).
Listen and see this stunning act finale magnificently played and sung in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s opera film conducted by Karl Böhm.
Finale Akt II – Te Kanawa / Freni / Fischer-Dieskau / Prey
LE NOZZE DI FIGARO ACT III
The cunning of Susanna and the Countess
Synopsis: The Countess and Susanna want to lure the Count to a rendez-vous even without Cherubino. So the countess decides to go dressed as Susanna. Susanna now goes to the count to suggest a meeting.
The scene of the Count and Susanna begins in a minor key, because the Count is still out of tune. But soon the mood changes when Susanna announces the rendezvous: with (not very noble) big leaps of tone the count shows his all too human excitement and anticipation.
Crudel! Perche finora farmi languir cosi? – Kunz / Seefried
The count is out for revenge
Synopsis: The count has learned that he is to be betrayed by his servant and sings himself in rage.
Mozart portrays a Count haughty to the point of ridiculousness by merging the orchestra in unison with his voice and by letting this revenge-eargy end with proud coloraturas.
Mentre io sospiro – Raimondi
Synopsis: In the evening, the lawyer called in by Marzellina reports that Figaro is in fact the son of Marzellina, who was robbed of her newborn child. All problems with the debts are solved, nothing stands in the way of the wedding and it is scheduled for the next day. Marzellina and Bartolo decide to marry as well.
From this “Coup de théâtre” a beautiful sextet develops.
Riconosci in questo amplesso – Karajan
«Dove sono i bei momenti»
Synopsis: The Countess is in her chambers and remembers melancholically the happy days of her marriage.
After “Porgi amor” it is again a lament, sung with the aristocratic dignity of a countess.
You can hear the second great aria of the Countess in the interpretation by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She was also called “the countess of the century”. Next to the Marschallin in “Rosenkavalier” it was perhaps her most important role.
Dove sono (1) – Schwarzkopf
A second interpretation we hear from the New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa. Her voice (similar to Tebaldi, for example) is praised more for its beauty of tone than for its dramatic abilities. Let’s let Kesting speak: “Te Kanawa’s soprano is of a luminous, brilliant height. The registers are well connected. The legato is excellent… Like Schwarzkopf – or rather: copying the German singer – she sometimes draws the spectrum of individual vowels over the whole phrase, not to the advantage of word articulation… Despite all objections, to return to her Figaro Countess, there are many “bei momenti” in her singing, the two arias she sings under Solti with enchanting legato and miraculous tonal beauty.” Kiri te Kanawa became suddenly famous in 1971 with the role of the Countess. Listen to her in a wonderful live recording in “Dove sono”.
Dove sono (2) – Te Kanawa
Mozart reused the melody of the “Dove sono” in the “Agnus dei” of the Coronation Mass in C major KV 317. Figuratively speaking, the Countess feels like a victim of the Count. Those interested will find a recording of this passage from a performance in St. Peter’s with Kathleen Battle conducted by Herbert von Karajan.
Agnus dei – Battle/Karajan
«Che soave zeffiretto»: a great duet of Susanna and the Countess
Synopsis: At her desk, the Countess dictates to Susanna an invitation to the Count for an evening rendezvous.
“Che soave zeffiretto” is perhaps the most beautiful duet that Mozart ever wrote. The Countess and Susanna write a letter to the Count with an invitation to a rendezvous “in the pines of the little wood where a gentle evening breeze blows”. Mozart captured the mood of this gentle evening breeze in a wonderful way. In this tender duet the two voices are magically accompanied by the oboe and bassoon.
Listen to this duet in the wonderful interpretation by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Irmgard Seefried. Kesting comments on Seefried of this 1953 recording under Furtwängler: “If you want to feel something of the spiritual effect of her singing, you have to listen to the early recordings … in Schwarzkopf she has a partner who comes as close to perfection as possible.
Che soave zeffiretto (1) – Schwarzkopf / Seefried
A second version of the duet “Che soave zeffiretto” can be heard in the version by Gundula Janowitz and Edith Mathis, known from the film “Shawshank redemption”, where this recording is quoted.
Che soave zeffiretto (2) (Shawshank redemption) – Janowitz / Mathis
A nice third version with Cecilia Bartoli and Renee Fleming
Che soave zeffiretto (3) – Fleming / Bartoli
Synopsis: In a ceremony on the eve of the marriage, the Count hands Susanna over the bridal veil, while Susanna secretly hands him a little letter, which is closed with a pin. During the following dance, Figaro sees how the count stings himself on the needle when opening the letter and is amused that the lecherous count has once again received a love letter without knowing that it came from Susanna.
Ecco la marcia – Glyndebourne
LE NOZZE DI FIGARO ACT IV
Synopsis: The day of the wedding has dawned. Barbarina was supposed to return the pin to Susanna, but she lost it and is disbanded.
Mozart composed an exquisite piece for this performance by Barbarina, the only aria in a minor key.
L’ho perduta – Petitbon
«Aprite un po quegli occhi» and the censorship
Synopsis: Figaro met Barbarina and learned about the needle. Now he knows who wrote the letter and is furious that Susanna dares to cheat on him.
In this aria, Figaro describes women as masters of deception. Like his master before him, Figaro is also allowed to sing an anger aria. But Mozart does not want to take this man completely seriously either; the accompaniment of the strings and winds is composed too coquettishly.
Listen to “Aprite un po quegli occhi” in the interpretation by Cesare Siepi.
Aprite un po quegli occhi – Siepi
The aria of the roses – a wonderful declaration of love
Synopsis: In the castle of Count Almaviva. Susanna is happy. But Figaro is angry, because he thinks that she is looking forward to the rendez-vous with the count.
Susanna’s rose aria unfolds in a swaying rhythm, accompanied by the tender pizzicato of the strings and the lovely interjections of the woodwinds. It is a beautiful, lyrical declaration of love to her future husband Figaro, and the utopia of a world in which there are no more class distinctions. The aria is an important resting place of the opera. You will hear this aria in two wonderful interpretations.
Only a few have sung it as intimately as Lucia Popp.
Deh vieni non tardar (1) – Popp
You will hear another beautiful interpretation of Barbara Bonney. The Canadian became known as the singer of the title song of Steven Spielberg’s “AI, Artificial Intelligence”. Listen to her “Deh non vieni tardar”.
Deh vieni non tardar (2) – Bonney
Handlung: In the evening in the castle garden. Figaro wants to observe the meeting of the two. The Countess appears in Susanna’s disguise and not far away Susanna is in the Countess’s clothes. Cherubino appears surprisingly and approaches the supposed countess. He has fallen in love with her and tries impetuously to kiss her. Susanna clears him of his mistake. Figaro wants to take revenge on Susanna and courts the supposed countess. A slap in the face by Susanna brings him back to reality. Finally the supposed Susanna meets the count. The Count courts her fiercely. Ashamed, he must realize that he has his wife before him. The Count apologizes to his wife and reconciles her with a declaration of love. Now all arrive and agree that everyone has learned the lesson.
EMI with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Irmgard Seefried, George London and Erich Kunz under the direction of Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna State Opera and Vienna Philharmonic Choir.
An alternative is the opera film:
DG with Mirella Freni, Kiri Te Kanawa, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Maria Ewing under the direction of Karl Böhm and the Vienna State Opera Choir and Orchestra and the Vienna Philharmonic.
Peter Lutz, Opera-inside, the online opera guide to LE NOZZE DI FIGARO by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.