Beaumarchais's earlier play The Barber of Seville had already made a successful transition to opera in a version by Paisiello. Although Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro was at first banned in Vienna because of its licentiousness, Mozart's librettist managed to get official approval for an operatic version which eventually achieved great success.
The opera was the first of three collaborations between Mozart and Da Ponte; their later collaborations were Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. It was Mozart who originally selected Beaumarchais's play and brought it to Da Ponte, who turned it into a libretto in six weeks, rewriting it in poetic Italian and removing all of the original's political references. In particular, Da Ponte replaced Figaro's climactic speech against inherited nobility with an equally angry aria against unfaithful wives. Contrary to the popular myth, the libretto was approved by the Emperor,Joseph II, before any music was written by Mozart.
The Imperial Italian opera company paid Mozart 450 florins for the work; this was three times his (low) yearly salary when he had worked as a court musician in Salzburg. Da Ponte was paid 200 florins.
Figaropremiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on 1 May 1786, with a cast listed in the "Roles" section below. Mozart himselfDIRECTED the first two performances, conducting seated at the keyboard, the custom of the day. Later performances were conducted by Joseph Weigl. The first production was given eight further performances, all in 1786.
Although the total of nine performances was nothing like the frequency of performance of Mozart's later success, The Magic Flute, which for months was performed roughly every other day, the premiere is generally judged to have been a success. The applause of the audience on the first night resulted in five numbers being encored, seven on 8 May. Joseph II, who, in addition to his empire, was in charge of the Burgtheater, was concerned by the length of the performance andDIRECTED his aide Count Rosenberg as follows:
To prevent the excessive duration of operas, without however prejudicing the fame often sought by opera singers from the repetition of vocal pieces, I deem the enclosed notice to the public (that no piece for more than a single voice is to be repeated) to be the most reasonable expedient. You will therefore cause some posters to this effect to be printed.
The requested posters were printed up and posted in the Burgtheater in time for the third performance on 24 May.
The newspaper Wiener Realzeitung carried a review of the opera in its issue of 11 July 1786. It alludes to interference probably produced by paid hecklers, but praises the work warmly:
Mozart's music was generally admired by connoisseurs already at the first performance, if I except only those whose self-love and conceit will not allow them to find merit in anything not written by themselves.
The public, however ... did not really know on the first day where it stood. It heard many a bravo from unbiassed connoisseurs, but obstreperous louts in the uppermost storey exerted their hired lungs with all their might to deafen singers and audience alike with their St! and Pst; and consequently opinions were divided at the end of the piece.
Apart from that, it is true that the first performance was none of the best, owing to the difficulties of the composition.
But now, after several performances, one would be subscribing either to the cabal or to tastelessness if one were to maintain that Herr Mozart's music is anything but a masterpiece of art.
It contains so many beauties, and such a wealth of ideas, as can be drawn only from the source of innate genius.
The Hungarian poet Ferenc Kazinczy was in the audience for a May performance, and later remembered the powerful impression the work made on him:
[Nancy] Storace [see below], the beautiful singer, enchanted eye, ear, and soul. – MozartDIRECTED the orchestra, playing his fortepiano; the joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such joy?
Joseph Haydn appreciated the opera greatly, writing to a friend that he heard it in his dreams. In summer 1790 Haydn attempted to produce the work with his own company at Eszterháza, but was prevented from doing so by the death of his patron, Nikolaus Esterházy.
The Emperor requested a special performance at his palace theater in Laxenburg, which took place in June 1786.
The opera was produced in Prague starting in December 1786 by the Pasquale Bondini company. This production was a tremendous success; the newspaperPrager Oberpostamtszeitung called the work "a masterpiece", and said "no piece (for everyone here asserts) has ever caused such a sensation." Local music lovers paid for Mozart to visit Prague and hear the production; he listened on 17 January 1787, and conducted it himself on the 22nd. The success of the Prague production led to the commissioning of the next Mozart/Da Ponte opera, Don Giovanni, premiered in Prague in 1787; see Mozart and Prague.
The work was not performed in Vienna during 1787 or 1788, but starting in 1789 there was a revival production. For this occasion Mozart replaced both arias of Susanna with new compositions, better suited to the voice of Adriana Ferrarese del Bene who took the role. For Deh vieni he wrote Al desio di chi t'adora – "[come and fly] To the desire of [the one] who adores you" (K. 577) in July 1789, and for Venite, inginocchiatevi he wrote Un moto di gioia – "A joyous emotion", (K. 579), probably in mid-1790.
The voice types which appear in this table are those listed in the original libretto. In modern performance practice, Cherubino is usually assigned to amezzo-soprano (sometimes also Marcellina), Count Almaviva to a baritone, and Figaro to a bass-baritone.
Act II: Susanna, Figaro, Countess, Count, Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio
Act III: Chorus, Cherubino and Countess
The Marriage of Figaro continues the plot of The Barber of Seville several years later, and recounts a single "day of madness" (la folle journée) in the palace of Count Almaviva near Seville, Spain. Rosina is now the Countess; Dr. Bartolo is seeking revenge against Figaro for thwarting his plans to marry Rosina himself; and Count Almaviva has degenerated from the romantic youth of Barber into a scheming, bullying, skirt-chasing baritone. Having gratefully given Figaro a job as head of his servant-staff, he is now persistently trying to obtain the favors of Figaro's bride-to-be, Susanna. He keeps finding excuses to delay the civil part of the wedding of his two servants, which is arranged for this very day. Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess conspire to embarrass the Count and expose his scheming. He retaliates by trying to compel Figaro legally to marry a woman old enough to be his mother, but it turns out at the last minute that she really is his mother. Through Figaro's and Susanna's clever manipulations, the Count's love for his Countess is finallyRESTORED.
Place: Count Almaviva's estate, Aguas-Frescas, three leagues outside Seville, Spain.
A partly furnished room, with a chair in the centre.
Figaro happily measures the space where the bridal bed will fit while Susanna tries on her wedding bonnet in front of a mirror (in the present day, a more traditional French floral wreath or a modern veil are often substituted, often in combination with a bonnet, so as to accommodate what Susanna happily describes as her wedding cappellino). (Duet: Cinque, dieci, venti – "Five, ten, twenty"). Figaro is quite pleased with their new room; Susanna far less so (Duettino: Se a caso madama la notte ti chiama – "If the Countess should call you during the night"). She is bothered by its proximity to the Count's chambers: it seems he has been making advances toward her and plans on exercising his "droit du seigneur", the purported feudal right of a lord to bed a servant girl on her wedding night before her husband can sleep with her. The Count had the right abolished when he married Rosina, but he now wants to reinstate it. Figaro is livid and plans to outwit the Count (Cavatina: Se vuol ballare signor contino – "If you want to dance, sir count").
Figaro departs, and Dr. Bartolo arrives with Marcellina, his old housekeeper. Marcellina has hired Bartolo as legal counsel, since Figaro had once promised to marry her if he should default on a loan she had made to him, and she intends to enforce that promise. Bartolo, still irked at Figaro for having facilitated the union of the Count and Rosina (in The Barber of Seville), promises, in comical lawyer-speak, to help Marcellina (aria: La vendetta – "Vengeance").
Bartolo departs, Susanna returns, and Marcellina and SusannaSHARE an exchange of very politely delivered sarcastic insults (duet: Via resti servita, madama brillante – "After you, brilliant madam"). Susanna triumphs in the exchange by congratulating her rival on her impressive age. The older woman departs in a fury.
Act 1: Cherubino hides behind Susanna's chair as the Count arrives.
Cherubino then arrives and, after describing his emerging infatuation with all women, particularly with his "beautiful godmother" the Countess (aria: Non so più cosa son – "I don't know anymore what I am"), asks for Susanna's aid with the Count. It seems the Count is angry with Cherubino's amorous ways, having discovered him with the gardener's daughter, Barbarina, and plans to punish him. Cherubino wants Susanna to ask the Countess to intercede on his behalf. When the Count appears, Cherubino hides behind a chair, not wanting to be seen alone with Susanna. The Count uses the opportunity of finding Susanna alone to step up his demands for favours from her, including financial inducements to sell herself to him. As Basilio, the slimy music teacher, arrives, the Count, not wanting to be caught alone with Susanna, hides behind the chair. Cherubino leaves that hiding place just in time, and jumps onto the chair while Susanna scrambles to cover him with a dress.
When Basilio starts to gossip about Cherubino's obvious attraction to the Countess, the Count angrily leaps from his hiding place (terzetto: Cosa sento! – "What do I hear!"). He disparages the "absent" page's incessant flirting and describes how he caught him with Barbarina under the kitchen table. As he lifts the dress from the chair to illustrate how he lifted the tablecloth to expose Cherubino, he finds ... the self same Cherubino! The count is furious, but is reminded that the page overheard the Count's advances on Susanna, something that the Count wants to keep from the Countess. The young man is ultimately saved from punishment by the entrance of the peasants of the Count's estate, a preemptive attempt by Figaro to commit the Count to a formal gesture symbolizing his promise that Susanna would enter into the marriage unsullied. The Count evades Figaro's plan by postponing the gesture. The Count says that he forgives Cherubino, but he dispatches him to his own regiment in Seville for army duty, effective immediately. Figaro gives Cherubino mocking advice about his new, harsh, military life from which all luxury, and especially women, will be totally excluded (aria: Non più andrai – "No more gallivanting").
A handsome room with an alcove, a dressing room on the left, a door in the background (leading to the servants' quarters) and a window at the side.
The Countess laments her husband's infidelity (aria: Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro – "Grant, love, some comfort"). Susanna comes in to prepare the Countess for the day. She responds to the Countess's questions by telling her that the Count is not trying to "seduce" her; he is merely offering her a monetary contract in return for her affection. Figaro enters and explains his plan to distract the Count with anonymous letters warning him of adulterers. He has already sent one to the Count (via Basilio) that indicates that the Countess has a rendezvous of her own that evening. They hope that the Count will be too busy looking for imaginary adulterers to interfere with Figaro's and Susanna's wedding. Figaro additionally advises the Countess to keep Cherubino around. She should dress him up as a girl and lure the Count into an illicit rendezvous where he can be caught red-handed. Figaro leaves.
Cherubino arrives, sent in by Figaro and eager to co-operate. Susanna urges him to sing the song he wrote for the Countess (aria: Voi che sapete che cosa è amor – "You ladies who know what love is, is it what I'm suffering from?"). After the song, the Countess, seeing Cherubino's military commission, notices that the Count was in such a hurry that he forgot to seal it with his signetRING (which would be necessary to make it an official document). They proceed to attire Cherubino in women's clothes (aria of Susanna: Venite, inginocchiatevi – "Come, kneel down before me"), and Susanna goes out to fetch a ribbon. While the Countess and Cherubino are waiting for Susanna to come back, they suddenly hear the Count arriving. Cherubino hides in the closet. The Count demands to be allowed into the room and the Countess reluctantly unlocks the door. The Count enters and hears a noise from the closet. He tries to open it, but it is locked. The Countess tells him it is only Susanna, trying on her wedding dress. At this moment, Susanna re-enters unobserved, quickly realises what's going on, and hides behind a couch (Trio: Susanna, or via, sortite – "Susanna, come out!"). The Count shouts for her to identify herself by her voice, but the Countess orders her to be silent. Furious and suspicious, the Count leaves, with the Countess, in search of tools to force the closet door open. As they leave, he locks all the bedroom doors to prevent the intruder from escaping. Cherubino and Susanna emerge from their hiding places, and Cherubino escapes by jumping through theWINDOW into the garden. Susanna then takes his place in the closet, vowing to make the Count look foolish (duet: Aprite, presto, aprite – "Open the door, quickly!").
The Count and Countess return. The Countess, thinking herself trapped, desperately admits that Cherubino is hidden in the closet. The enraged Count draws his sword, promising to kill Cherubino on the spot, but when the door is opened, they both find to their astonishment only Susanna (Duet: Esci omai, garzon malnato – "Come out of there, you ill-born boy!"). The Count demands an explanation; the Countess tells him it is a practical joke, to test his trust in her. Shamed by his jealousy, the Count begs for forgiveness. When the Count presses about the anonymous letter, Susanna and the Countess reveal that the letter was written by Figaro, and then delivered through Basilio. Figaro then arrives and tries to start the wedding festivities, but the Count berates him with questions about the anonymous note. Just as the Count is starting to run out of questions, Antonio the gardener arrives, complaining that a man has jumped out of theWINDOW and broken his flowerpots of carnations. The Count immediately realizes that the jumping fugitive was Cherubino, but Figaro claims it was he himself who jumped out the window, and claims to have injured his foot while landing. Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess attempt to discredit Antonio as a chronic drunkard whose constant inebriation makes him unreliable and prone to fantasy, but Antonio brings forward a paper which, he says, was dropped by the escaping man. The Count orders Figaro to prove he was the jumper by identifying the paper (which is, in fact, Cherubino's appointment to the army). Figaro is at a loss, but Susanna and the Countess manage to signal the correct answers, and Figaro identifies the document. His victory is, however, short-lived: Marcellina, Bartolo, and Basilio enter, bringing charges against Figaro and demanding that he honor his contract to marry Marcellina. The Count happily postpones the wedding in order to investigate the charge.
A rich hall, with two thrones, prepared for the wedding ceremony.
The Count mulls over the confusing situation. At the urging of the Countess, Susanna enters and gives a false promise to meet the Count later that night in the garden (duet: Crudel! perchè finora – "Cruel girl, why did you make me wait so long"). As Susanna leaves, the Count overhears her telling Figaro that he has already won the case. Realizing that he is being tricked (recitative and aria: Hai già vinta la causa! ... Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro – "You've already won the case!" ... "Shall I, while sighing, see"), he resolves to make Figaro pay by forcing him to marry Marcellina.
Figaro's hearing follows, and the Count's judgment is that Figaro must marry Marcellina. Figaro argues that he cannot get married without his parents' permission, and that he does not know who his parents are, because he was stolen from them when he was a baby. The ensuing discussion reveals that Figaro is Rafaello, the long-lost illegitimate son of Bartolo and Marcellina. A touching scene of reconciliation occurs. During the celebrations, Susanna enters with a payment to release Figaro from his debt to Marcellina. Seeing Figaro and Marcellina in celebration together, Susanna mistakenly believes that Figaro now prefers Marcellina over her. She has a tantrum and slaps Figaro's face. Marcellina explains, and Susanna, realizing her mistake, joins the celebration. Bartolo, overcome with emotion, agrees to marry Marcellina that evening in a double wedding (sextet: Riconosci in questo amplesso – "Recognize in this embrace").
All leave, and the Countess, alone, ponders the loss of her happiness (aria: Dove sono i bei momenti – "Where are they, the beautiful moments"). Susanna enters and updates her regarding the plan to trap the Count. The Countess dictates a love letter for Susanna to send to the Count, which suggests that he meet her (Susanna) that night, "under the pines". The letter instructs the Count to return the pin which fastens the letter (duet: Sull'aria...che soave zeffiretto– "On the breeze... What a gentle little Zephyr").
A chorus of young peasants, among them Cherubino disguised as a girl, arrives to serenade the Countess. The Count arrives with Antonio and, discovering the page, is enraged. His anger is quickly dispelled by Barbarina (a peasant girl, Antonio's daughter), who publicly recalls that he had once offered to give her anything she wants, and asks for Cherubino's hand in marriage. Thoroughly embarrassed, the Count allows Cherubino to stay.
The act closes with the double wedding, during the course of which Susanna delivers her letter to the Count. Figaro watches the Count prick his finger on the pin, and laughs, unaware that the love-note is from Susanna herself. As the curtain drops, the two newlywed couples rejoice.
Following theDIRECTIONS in the letter, the Count has sent the pin back to Susanna, giving it to Barbarina. Unfortunately, Barbarina has lost it (aria: L'ho perduta, me meschina – "I have lost it, poor me"). Figaro and Marcellina see Barbarina, and Figaro asks her what she is doing. When he hears the pin is Susanna's, he is overcome with jealousy, especially as he recognises the pin to be the one that fastened the letter to the Count. Thinking that Susanna is meeting the Count behind his back, Figaro complains to his mother, and swears to be avenged on the Count and Susanna, and on all unfaithful wives. Marcellina urges caution, but Figaro will not listen. Figaro rushes off, and Marcellina resolves to inform Susanna of Figaro's intentions. Marcellina sings of how the wild beasts get along with each other, but rational humans can't (aria: Il capro e la capretta – "The billy-goat and the she-goat"). (This aria and Basilio's ensuing aria are usually omitted from performances due to their relative unimportance, both musically and dramatically; however, some recordings include them.)
Motivated by jealousy, Figaro tells Bartolo and Basilio to come to his aid when he gives the signal. Basilio comments on Figaro's foolishness and claims he was once as frivolous as Figaro was. He tells a tale of how he was given common sense by "Donna Flemma" ("Dame Prudence") and ever since he has been aware of the wiles of women (aria: In quegli anni – "In those years"). They exit, leaving Figaro alone. Figaro muses on the inconstancy of women (recitative and aria:Tutto è disposto ... Aprite un po' quegli occhi – "Everything is ready ... Open those eyes a little"). Susanna and the Countess arrive, each dressed in the other's clothes. Marcellina is with them, having informed Susanna of Figaro's suspicions and plans. After they discuss the plan, Marcellina and the Countess leave, and Susanna teases Figaro by singing a love song to her beloved within Figaro's hearing (aria: Deh vieni, non tardar – "Oh come, don't delay"). Figaro is hiding behind a bush and, thinking the song is for the Count, becomes increasingly jealous.
The Countess arrives in Susanna's dress. Cherubino shows up and starts teasing "Susanna" (really the Countess), endangering the plan. Fortunately, the Count gets rid of him by striking out in the dark. His punch actually ends up hitting Figaro, but the point is made and Cherubino runs off.
The Count now begins making earnest love to "Susanna" (really the Countess), and gives her a jewelledRING. They go offstage together, where the Countess dodges him, hiding in the dark. Onstage, meanwhile, the real Susanna enters, wearing the Countess' clothes. Figaro mistakes her for the Countess, and starts to tell her of the Count's intentions, but he suddenly recognizes his bride in disguise. He plays along with the joke by pretending to be in love with "my lady", and inviting her to make love right then and there. Susanna, fooled, loses her temper and slaps him many times. Figaro finally lets on that he has recognized Susanna's voice, and they make peace, resolving to conclude the comedy together (Pace, pace, mio dolce tesoro).
The Count, unable to find "Susanna", enters frustrated. Figaro gets his attention by loudly declaring his love for "the Countess" (really Susanna). The enraged Count calls for his people and for weapons: his servant is seducing his wife. Bartolo, Basilio and Antonio enter with torches as, one by one, the Count drags out Cherubino, Barbarina, Marcellina and the "Countess" from behind the pavilion.
All beg him to forgive Figaro and the "Countess", but he loudly refuses, repeating "no" at the top of his voice, until finally the real Countess re-enters and reveals her true identity. The Count, seeing the ring he had given her, realizes that the supposed Susanna he was trying to seduce was actually his wife. Ashamed and remorseful, he kneels and pleads for forgiveness himself (Contessa perdono! – "Countess, forgive me!"). The Countess, more kind than he (Più docile io sono – "I am more mild"), forgives her husband and all are contented. The opera ends in universal celebration.
Two arias from act 4 are often omitted: one in which Marcellina regrets that people (unlike animals) abuse their mates (Il capro e la capretta), and one in which Don Basilio tells how he saved himself from several dangers in his youth, by using the skin of an ass for shelter and camouflage (In quegli anni).
In spite of all the sorrow, anxiety, and anger the characters experience, only one number is in a minor key: Barbarina's brief aria L'ho perduta at the beginning of act 4, where she mourns the loss of the pin and worries about what her master will say when she fails to deliver it, is written in F minor. Other than this, the entire opera is set in major keys, except for the opening few bars of the duet between Susanna and the Count at the beginning of act 3 ("Crudel! perchè finora") which are in the key of A minor, and 43 bars in the finale of act 3 when the count pricks himself with the pin ("Eh, già solita usanza"), also in A minor.
Mozart uses the sound of two horns playing together to represent cuckoldry, in the act 4 aria "Aprite un po' quegli occhi". Verdi later used the same device in Ford's aria in Falstaff.
Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote a preface to the first published version of the libretto, in which he boldly claimed that he and Mozart had created a new form of music drama:
In spite ... of every effort ... to be brief, the opera will not be one of the shortest to have appeared on our stage, for which we hope sufficient excuse will be found in the variety of threads from which the action of this play [i.e. Beaumarchais's] is woven, the vastness and grandeur of the same, the multiplicity of the musical numbers that had to be made in order not to leave the actors too long unemployed, to diminish the vexation and monotony of long recitatives, and to express with varied colours the various emotions that occur, but above all in our desire to offer as it were a new kind of spectacle to a public of so refined a taste and understanding.
Johannes Brahms said "In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven."
Charles Rosen (in The Classical Style) proposes to take Da Ponte's words quite seriously, noting the "richness of the ensemble writing", which carries forward the action in a far more dramatic way than recitatives would. Rosen also suggests that the musical language of the classical style was adapted by Mozart to convey the drama: many sections of the opera musically resemble sonata form; by movement through a sequence of keys, they build up and resolve musical tension, providing a natural musical reflection of the drama. As Rosen writes:
The synthesis of accelerating complexity and symmetrical resolution which was at the heart of Mozart's style enabled him to find a musical equivalent for the great stage works which were his dramatic models. The Marriage of Figaro in Mozart's version is the dramatic equal, and in many respects the superior, of Beaumarchais's work.
This is demonstrated in the closing numbers of all four acts: as the drama escalates, Mozart eschews recitativi altogether and opts for increasingly sophisticated writing, bringing his characters on stage, revelling in a complex weave of solo and ensemble singing in multiple combinations, and climaxing in seven- and eight-voice tutti for acts 2 and 4.