I'm currently preparing to revisit the role of Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro which is one of my absolute favourite roles to play. Because of that, I thought I'd write to you a little bit about this incredible opera which is Nozze, but then I thought "What can I possibly write that hasn't been already written before".
So, instead of going and on about how the Count is a lonely man (no excuses, though), and how about the servants outwit him, I thought I'd do some research into the composition process of this magnificent opera and share with you how Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte cleverly managed to escape the censor's disdain.
During his life, Mozart's opera development was influenced by the current political agenda. Mozart yearned to compose full scale operas and this direction would have provided him more support in Vienna. Although he was highly regarded for his musical gifts, he was often viewed by the Viennese as an outsider. Simply put, the Viennese audiences believed that Mozart's operas had not obtained equal status to Italian opera.
How did then the current political power have an effect on the development and popularity of Mozart's operas?
During Mozart's life, censorship was enforced by the ruling class and this genius found himself caught in the inevitable web. In 650 ruling years of the Hapsburg dynasty, the only female ruler was the Archduchess of Austria, Maria Theresa, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia (1717-1780). She busied herself with censorship issues that negatively impacted the arts. She exhibited a prudish attitude toward the theatre and for the subject matter found in plays, operas, books, and magazines. The Archduchess's restricted viewpoint caused Haydn's opera Der Krumme Teufel to be banned because of its political satire and its sexually compromising sections. A Bavarian magazine illustrating a good sense of humour poked fun at the dialect and characteristics of its own people, and as a result, Maria Theresa forbade the import of the magazine to her kingdom. She added: "I for one have no love whatever smacks of irony.... It is inconsistent with the love of one's neighbour. Why should people waste their time writing such stuff or reading it?" It is doubtful if the libretti for Mozart's operas The Marriage of Figaro, Cosi Fan Tutti, or Don Giovanni would have passed the censorship bureaus's inspection.
In 1765, Austria was introduced into a world of Enlightenment when Maria Theresa decided that her son Joseph II should act as her co-regent. Her son was much more liberal than the Archduchess, and as soon as Joseph II was able, he himself began to place restrictions on the censorship bureau. In the 1780s, following his mother's death, censorship was being curtailed. Many political pamphlets, satires, articles, and books appeared. Torture was abolished, executions were few, and the Church and the nobility lost its political and economic power. The peasantry and the literary people viewed Joseph II as their personal liberator from a feudalist kingdom.
Mozart and his opera were in the middle of the political upheaval. Because of Joseph II's urge for social change, music was deeply favoured and if it wasn’t for this, we might never have seen operas like Don Giovanni, Figaro, and Cosi.
Figaro was the first collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, and for their source material they chose a controversial play by the French writer Beaumarchais: La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, the second part of a trilogy that began with Le Barbier de Séville (later the basis for the Rossini opera).
Figaro the play was censored in Beaumarchais's native France over concerns about its "subversive" plotline, which depicts the efforts of a Spanish nobleman, Count Almaviva, to seduce Suzanne, a beautiful young servant of his wife, only to be thwarted and humiliated by his wife, the Countess Rosina, working in concert with the Count's servant, Figaro, who is also Suzanne's fiancée. To the French nobility of the time, Figaro was seen as condoning class conflict, but Mozart and, as such Lorenzo da Ponte managed to allay any concerns on the part of their patron, the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, by transforming the story into a light comedy.
With Nozze, we see a very peculiar type of censorship which is that of Self Censorship. Da Ponte, very aware of how scandalous the Beaumarchais play was considered by French authorities and knowing that Emperor Joseph II was only giving his first steps towards softening the incredibly severe censorship which reigned during his mother’s rule (Joseph did indeed forbid a performance of the play in January 1785, though he also permitted its publication in an unabridged German translation), wisely toned down the political passages of the play and, instead, focused on the human elements of the story.
The main theme of the opera became love and forgiveness, rather than revolution. The characters became more sympathetic and realistic; some of the aristocrats turned out to be charming and kind, others bumbling and stupid. The same was true of the servants.
One can read the politics of this opera in many ways, but one perfectly plausible reading is that Joseph saw the opera as a useful corrective to aristocratic abuses of privilege – abuses that he himself, from a position above the aristocracy, was also trying to curb.
To complement Da Ponte's words, Mozart wrote music that characterised Figaro and his friends to perfection. His music managed give depth and ‘humanity’ to the characters in ways that make the drama more psychological than political.
Another great example of how Mozart musically expressed some of the political ideals of the play is in the way how when the Countess and Susanna sing together, their vocal lines intertwine with each other, so musically, chambermaid and Lady have the same importance and also Susanna frequently sings higher than the countess.
One of the elements which Da Ponte wisely left out of the Opera was Figaro’s final monologue in the Beaumarchais play which is an explicit political statement, instead replacing it with Figaro’s “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi!”, an aria about adulterous wives with a very suggestive orchestration (horns aplenty whenever Figaro is talking about cheating wives…)
However, this is Beaumarchais politically charged final monologue for Figaro:
No, my lord Count, you shan't have her... you shall not have her! Just because you are a great nobleman, you think you are a great genius—Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century!
However, even without the explicitly political tirades, the Almaviva household can clearly be seen as a miniature model of a feudal society and the plot exploring the obligations and rights of people in unequal stations.
The main difference resides in the fact that Da Ponte and Mozart cleverly shifted the focus from the direct opposition of Figaro to the Count, but adding an incredible amount of importance to the Character of the Countess which becomes the human redeeming element of the story and the pivotal point around which all the actions of both servants and masters evolve throughout the story. This attenuates the importance of the Count’s plans being thwarted by a rebellious servant and, as said before, makes Le Nozze di Figaro a much more human story and therefore, less prone to be censored for explicit political content.
This is where Mozart andDa Pontes genius lies: the words of one and music of other because they convey such a deep human message, make us, the audience, unconsciously sympathise with the very same ideals that Beaumarchais was so criticised for.
I hope you've found this informative and that it has hopefully shed a bit more light not only on the opera itself, but also on the social and political circumstances where it was produced.
If you'd like to come and see me perform Count Almaviva, I'm singing it on the 10th of April at St. Mary in the Castle, in Hastings. All the ticketing information can be found here. I hope to see you there.