Le Nozze di Figaro

It’s easy to feel up to one’s ears in politics, so well described by Eliot as “endless palaver.”

Better to think about Mozart and particularly the miracle that is Figaro. It nearly didn’t get composed at all, for Beaumarchais’ play on which it is based was banned. Mozart told Lorenzo da Ponte that he had no hope of getting the ban lifted, whereupon Da Ponte said, “Leave it to me.” As court poet, he had access to the emperor, a civilised man,  a music-lover and a devotee of Mozart. The emperor reminded Da Ponte that the play was banned, but the poet replied, “It won’t be seditious in our hands.”

And so it came to be written and at great speed – Da Ponte recording that often the verses he delivered to Mozart were returned fully composed the same day!

Mozart was overjoyed by Da Ponte’s words, for Da Ponte was no mere rhymer but a genuine poet with the poet’s facility in assonance, dissonance and above all rhythm. Any hack composer could have made something out of Da Ponte’s marvellous productions. In Mozart’s hands they became an indissoluble masterpiece.

In my view there is nothing in opera – not even Don Giovanni or Cosi  and certainly not the vulgar, strangulated hernia operas of the 19th century – that even comes near the greatness of Figaro which is a torrent of wit, melody and human sympathy. On the face of it, Figaro is a popular tale of a servant getting the better of his bumptious, bullying master – below stairs characters outwitting the toffs. No wonder the emperor was nervous about its appearance, a mere two years before the French Revolution and all the European gentry running scared that the whole continent would go the same way as France. No wonder also that aristocrats’ subscriptions to Mozart’s hugely popular piano concerts in Vienna fell away dramatically at this time.

Figaro is packed with glorious solo arias, but it is the ensemble singing which is truly remarkable: six or more players all interlocking their themes with the most astonishing verve, clarity and sureness of touch. The counterpoint of the various moods and motives are the currents of life itself. In these parts, Figaro hints at the same transcendence we find in St Matthew Passion. At this level of musical understanding – coupled with Mozart’s unmatched acquaintance with and sympathy for the ways of the human heart – there is no distinction to be made between religious and secular music.

All great music is religious.

Non piu andrai was Mozart’s favourite tune. He repeats it in the second act of Don Giovanni  and he would often, as a party piece, improvise sublime variations on it at the piano. The English soprano Nancy Storace was the first Susanna. By this time she had damaged her voice by attempting strenuous coloratura exercises as a young girl and Mozart chose her as much for her vivacious acting as for her singing. None of the characters is idealised; there is no caricature. All are flawed, often mischievous and occasionally malevolent. But there is not one who is unlovable.

So we have to conclude that Figaro is politics after all: but politics in the same sense that The Divine Comedy is politics.Like the St Matthew Passion, Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s Figaro is about forgiveness. There are times when this sublime confluence of love and beauty is too much to take.


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