Beaumarchais’ play “The Marriage of Figaro” or “The Follies of a Day” was banned in Vienna as being impertinent and subversive. It was felt to be an exposé of the libertine excesses of a ruling aristocracy by the “serving classes”.
The Italian poet and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte had recently arrived in Vienna to take up his appointment as Court Poet to the newly-crowned Emperor Joseph II. Mozart was already in the city, a member of Archbishop Colerado’s entourage, and approached da Ponte for a libretto. Surprisingly, da Ponte received the Emperor’s permission to proceed with one based on the Beaumarchais play. It was, however, heavily censored to omit the most offensive references to Monarch and Aristocracy.
Figaro is a quick-witted servant to Count Almaviva. His bride-to-be, Susanna – loving and sensible – is maid to the Countess. The Count, to the chagrin of the Countess, is behaving far too unwisely in his bid to seduce Susanna. The appearance in the action of the lovesick Cherubino must not be overlooked, nor the other half-dozen characters playing their part.
The 4th act sorts out the convoluted relationships, following a plethora of disparaging comments, overheard remarks mistakenly interpreted, disguises and mistaken identities. A double wedding ensues, between Figaro and Susanna and Marcellina (sometime housekeeper to the Count) and Dr. Bartolo, and the Count renounces his feudal rights.
This witty, colourful, tuneful opera has come down to us through the years in virtually its original condition. Although it was not an outstanding success in the Vienna of 1786, Mozart took it to Prague, and since then it has never really been absent from the operatic repertoire.
The Overture contains no themes from the opera, but as a Presto it presages the pace of 24 hours in the hectic lives of the characters.
It is scored for two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, strings and timpani. It opens with rapid hushed octaves. Then, suddenly, the full orchestra bursts forth. Strings dash to and fro, with chordal interruptions from wind and brass. Flutes and oboes have their moments, and bassoons “chuckle” along. Mozart interposes lyrical moments and then, by dint of reviewing his themes, brings the piece to a joyful conclusion.