Length: c. 180 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, harpsichord, strings, chorus, and soloists
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances (complete)
It was not until he was 14 years old that Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) actually became Lorenzo Da Ponte, in a purely nominal sense. Previously he had been Emanuele Conegliano, the oldest son of a Jewish tanner in Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto, then a small town in the Republic of Venice). But in 1763 his father converted to Christianity, had his three sons baptized, and took a second wife, giving his sons an 18-year-old stepmother. As was customary, the new converts took the surname of their sponsor, Bishop Lorenzo Da Ponte, and the oldest son also adopted his first name. The new Lorenzo Da Ponte was soon in seminary training and was ordained in 1773.
Da Ponte taught in seminaries himself, but in December 1779 he was exiled from Venice after taking rash political sides and becoming involved in a marital scandal. He found refuge in Dresden with a friend, the poet and librettist Caterino Mazzolà, who put him to work translating plays and librettos. Mazzolà recommended Da Ponte to Antonio Salieri, then one of the leading opera composers, and in late 1781 Da Ponte travelled to Vienna to meet Salieri. Da Ponte’s personal charm and knowledge of languages helped ingratiate him to Salieri and to the emperor, Joseph II. When Joseph dropped German opera in favor of Italian opera buffa in 1783, Da Ponte was named poet for the court theater, translating and reworking old librettos as needed.
That was how Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart first knew Da Ponte. In May 1783, Mozart wrote from Vienna to his father in Salzburg: “We have a certain Abate da Ponte here as a text poet; he has an incredible number of revisions to do at the theater – he also has to do per obligo a whole new libretto for Salieri – which he won’t be able to finish for two months. He promised to write me something new after that; but who knows whether he will keep his word – or even wants to! You know, these Italian gentlemen, they are very nice to your face – enough, we know all about them! – and if he is in league with Salieri, I’ll never get a text from him – and I would love to show here what I can really do with an Italian opera.”
Da Ponte eventually did write a libretto for Mozart, although he made the composer wait two years. When he came through, however, it was with a masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). Da Ponte changed details in different editions of his memoirs, published decades later, but his main narrative of the work’s creation – that it was Mozart who brought the idea to him, that they worked together and had both libretto and short score of the opera drafted in six weeks (in October and November 1785), and that it required some political finessing to get Joseph II to authorize performance – is at least partially corroborated by other sources.
What Mozart brought to Da Ponte was the wildly popular, hugely controversial five-act play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, the sequel to Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de Séville. Endlessly frustrated as he was by noble employers and patrons who regarded musicians as simply specialized servants, Mozart was undoubtedly drawn to the politically subversive aspects of the play. But he was also keenly aware of the great success that Giovanni Paisiello had had with Il barbiere di Siviglia, which was premiered in St. Petersburg in 1782 and arrived in Vienna the following year. (Rossini’s much more famous version premiered in 1816.) Mozart took many musical cues from Paisiello’s opera and clearly expected his audience to know the backstory of the characters.
Emperor Joseph II and his censors allowed the publication of the play, but not its performance. Da Ponte made the case for his libretto, noting that it had to be much shortened (it was still one of the longest comic operas of the time) and promised that the cutting and condensation would include pruning much of the political satire. He followed through on this in many details. Figaro’s long, politically inflammatory monologue in Act V of the play, for example, became the Act IV aria “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,” Figaro’s richly sexist warning about the fidelity of women. (Mozart ended the aria with hunting calls for the horns, horns being the traditional symbol of cuckolds.)
Da Ponte knew his man, and his manipulation of the Emperor (he even managed to get Joseph II to a dress rehearsal in order to preserve the short ballet in the opera) proved successful. The premiere took place May 1, 1786, in the Burgtheater, with Mozart leading from the keyboard. They had a stellar cast, and the audience reception was so tumultuous that the emperor had to decree that only solos could be encored, simply to keep the running time down. It had, however, only nine performances in this initial run, as it gave way to Vicente Martín y Soler’s Una cosa rara (also on a libretto by Da Ponte). Pasquale Bondini’s opera company in Prague picked it up and gave enormously popular performances there in December 1786 and January 1787. The opera also had a successful Vienna revival in 1789 (26 performances), and numerous other productions in Germany and Italy during Mozart’s lifetime. (In the summer of 1790, Haydn started to produce the opera at Esterháza, but abandoned the project after the death of Nicholas Esterházy, his princely patron.)
The first part of Beaumarchais’ title, La folle journée, means “The Crazy Day,” and the fast and furiously funny action does in fact take place over a single day, in Aguasfrescas, the country house of Count and Countess Almaviva outside Seville. Mozart begins with a dazzling overture, well known as a concert piece, which does not include references to any of the main numbers of the opera.
Act I takes place in a room that the Count has promised to Figaro after his impending marriage. In Il barbiere di Siviglia, the Count won his bride Rosina with the help of Figaro, now his valet. Although he has forsworn his droit du seigneur, the feudal right of a lord to the first night with every bride among his peasantry, the Count is persistently pursuing his wife’s maid, Susanna, who is supposed to marry Figaro this day. The Countess Rosina had been the ward of Dr. Bartolo, who wanted to marry her himself. To avenge himself on Figaro for preventing this, Bartolo is now supporting Marcellina, his old housekeeper, in her project to force Figaro to marry her in payment for an outstanding debt. The Count’s adolescent page Cherubino (a trousers role for a mezzo-soprano) confides in Susanna and is then caught in a farcical scene hiding from the Count, who in turn tries to hide in the same place, when the music teacher Basilio interrupts his renewed advances on Susanna. Comic consternation ensues, in perfect sonata form, until Figaro charges in with fellow servants and peasants, praising the Count for abolishing the droit du seigneur. The Count evades Figaro’s efforts to get him to perform the marriage immediately and deals with Cherubino by sending him off to Seville for military service in the Count’s regiment.
Act II takes place in the Countess’ room, where she laments the Count’s infidelity. Susanna tells her of the Count’s proposals and Figaro reveals ideas for a complicated plot to compromise the Count, which include having Cherubino dress up as Susanna. The Count interrupts them while Cherubino is alone in the room with the Countess. Cherubino hides in a closet, the Countess says that it is Susanna who is hiding, and the suspicious Count takes his wife with him to get tools to force the closet open. Susanna, who had been behind a screen, helps Cherubino out a window and takes his place in the closet, where she is found to the amazement of both Count and Countess. Figaro arrives and again attempts to get the Count to perform the wedding, but the Count confronts him with an anonymous note, which was another element in Figaro’s plotting. Improvising frantically, Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess baffle the Count, who nonetheless finds a new reason to delay the wedding when Marcellina, Bartolo, and Basilio enter with legal charges against Figaro.
Act III is set in the large room where the wedding is to take place. The plotting continues as the Countess and Susanna agree to switch cloaks and entrap the Count with his wife in Susanna’s place. The Count’s suspicions are roused, however, and he decides to resolve the situation by making Figaro marry Marcellina with a hastily convened trial in the room. Curzio, the magistrate, agrees that Figaro must marry Marcellina, but Figaro protests that he cannot without his parents’ permission, which cannot be obtained since he was stolen as an infant and does not know who they are. It comes out that those parents are Marcellina and Bartolo, who – after further confusion – decide to make it a double wedding. All leave the trial and the room happy, except the Countess, who again wonders what hope is there for her marriage. Susanna enters and they continue their plan to trap the Count, with a love letter and a brooch that the Count is to return. A group of young peasants arrive to serenade the Countess, and among them is the disguised Cherubino. The Count discovers him, but again his anger is tempered by revelations about his own behavior, this time from Barbarina. The double wedding concludes the act. During the dancing, Susanna gives the Count the love letter and brooch.
Act IV takes place that night in the garden. The fumbled return of the brooch to Susanna via Barbarina leads Figaro to suspect that Susanna is herself meeting the Count in earnest. After Marcellina alerts her to Figaro’s jealousy, Susanna mischievously inflames him further in her disguise as the Countess, leading to Figaro’s “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” diatribe, mentioned above. According to their plan, the Countess is dressed as Susanna. Cherubino, the Count, and Figaro are all confused, in the dark literally and figuratively. The Count, wooing Susanna (actually the disguised Countess), gives her a ring and they exit. Figaro finally recognizes that it is Susanna dressed as the Countess, and tries to get back at Susanna by pretending to make love to her as the Countess; he gets slapped repeatedly for his troubles. Having lost the disguised Susanna/Countess, the frustrated Count enters to find Figaro loudly declaring his love to the disguised Countess/Susanna. The Count calls for witnesses and help, and all beg him to forgive the supposedly adulterous lovers. He self-righteously refuses, only to have the Countess enter, revealing her disguise and the ring he had given her as Susanna. Finally truly ashamed and humbled, the Count pleads himself for forgiveness, which the Countess lovingly grants. The crazy day ends with reconciliation and celebration.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.