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3. Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro (Overture and excerpts)

February 18, 2011

A few parts of Mozart’s Opera “The Marriage of Figaro”, which is one of Mozart’s 3 great operas (along with “The Magic Flute” and “Don Giovanni”), as well as being one of the greatest operas overall, and is among the most performed today:

Listen (and watch) here on youtube:
Mozart “Marriage of Figaro” Overture, and Act I duet “Cinque, dieci, venti…”
Mozart “Marriage of Figaro” Act I aria “Non so piu cosa son…”

Historical and political context: “The Marriage of Figaro”, in short, is about commoners exposing the plotting and scheming of a local aristocrat, and embarrassing him into straightening himself out, scoring a victory for the little guy. A stage comedy of the same story, written just 2 years earlier, was banned from performance for several years by Viennese aristocracy because it was considered to be “dangerous” – it had an overtly anti-nobility message. While it’s not unfamiliar to us today for music and arts to have a political stance, the weight of music at this time was greater – with no internet, no TV, no mass media, music, whether in the concert hall or opera house, was a primary way of gathering a lot of people and making an artistic and political statement, and people understood it. And it seems, they understood messages in the arts more clearly and directly that people do today. So Mozart was kind of taking a stand as well, and expressing it publicly.

Also, of very significant note, the premiere of this opera occurred in 1786, which was just three years before the French revolution of 1789, which was one of the bloodiest and most tumultuous revolutions in history. It was one in which 97% of the population (the commoners) overthrew the upper 3% (nobility). So we see the poignancy and relevance of such a story.

The first link begins with the opera’s overture, which is a short-ish orchestral opening piece to the rest of the opera. It sets the tone for what’s to come – a serious opera will have a more dramatic overture, or in this case, “The Marriage of Figaro” is categorized as a comic opera, and so we have a very light-hearted overture.

What to listen for: To put it in very un-scholarly terms, Mozart’s music is often just bubbling and bursting with personality. This is a light-hearted piece that really embodies joy, from start to end. This is one piece I would definitely take with me if I were going to be stranded on a desert island. But to get more specific – again, in Mozart, we see his graceful, lyrical, clean and clear writing; all constructed and executed to a crisp perfection. This overture certainly has more volume, dynamic contrast, and punch than the piano concerto, yet it never for a moment feels heavy or excessive. On the aspect of form, one thing to listen for is the classical ideal of “symmetry” expressed in this overture – most musical ideas in this piece occur twice. Sometimes the second time exactly the same as the first, but many times not – we see how Mozart takes an motif and varies it, develops it, adds something, or changes instruments or harmonies. Always balanced and logical, yet always creative and forward-thinking as well.

Not much to say about the scene following the overture, but it’s just a pleasant piece of music. It’s a duet between Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna, as they’re checking out their new home. Figaro starts out measuring stuff and counting in Italian – “Cinque, dieci, venti, trenta…” while Susanna is sitting and enjoying a veil she made for the wedding. A funny thing that happens at 5:25 is that Susanna is trying to get Figaro’s attention about veil, but Figaro (in proper classical form) does his counting thing a second time, juxtaposed over Susanna’s comments about her veil, and he’s so fixated in what he’s doing. At 5:56 he finally responds to Susanna, but has his head buried in a notebook. Couples’ humor from 200 years ago! It’s Mozart, but it’s also the production and choreography to decide exactly how each scene is interpreted.

The other link, which is not from the same production, is an aria (song within an opera) by another character Cherubino, who is a early-teenage boy (but the role written for an adult mezzo-soprano) who is just discovering all these weird feelings he’s having, as he’s hitting that age. This is my favorite performance of this aria that I’ve heard – some others I’ve heard were sung too slowly, or were too “adult-sounding,” or just sounded “beautiful and elegant” – Pamela Helen Stephen certainly does it beautifully, but she also adds this youthful wildness to it that I think is so appropriate for the character, who is a charged and unstable early-teenage boy, filled with nervous and impulsive energy. Yes, that wonderful age.

So that’s a taste of opera! I think we’ll move onto another composer soon, but…

Next: Wrap-up of Mozart, and further suggested listening

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One Comment
  1. im 16 and this is quite a peice of music:) i love all his music, even if they involves many runs. -lol-

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