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Opera is a word of Latin origin meaning 'the works'. It is a genre that combines visual, audio and intellectual qualities, therefore addressing more than one of human senses1. The plot known as the libretto is an essential part of the opera. It ensures the action on which music is composed. Opera was born in Italy sometime in the 15th century during the Renaissance. Initially the Italian language dominated the librettos. Later operas were played in other languages such German and French. Operas were divided in the serious ones (opera sera) and the comic ones (opera buffa). The latter were frequently used to entertain not only the aristocracy but the masses too and it was the venue used to make jokes of the aristocracy1.
Mozart was one of the great composers of all times, if not the greatest. It is well known the ease with which he wrote his music. In the film 'Amadeus' although not a historical one, this was mentioned as well as that he made few if any corrections to the original score2. Among the many his many works in his very short lifetime, Mozart wrote operas too. One of them was Le Nozze di Figaro. This opera was written following Mozart's release from the service of Archbishop of Salzburg. Until Le Nozze di Figaro Mozart's attempts at writing an opera had not had real success3.
Le Nozze di Figaro was first in Vienna with great success. It was a comic opera (opera buffa). The libretto was written in Italian by Lorenzo da Ponte. Both the theme and the librettist were selected by Mozart himself, who wrote the music. It was the first collaboration with da Ponte. It appears that da Ponte despite being an inexperienced libretto writer, managed to finish the libretto in six weeks.
The libretto was based on the French play, with political innuendos. It was written in 1784 by Pierre - Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais4.. This author had written the following trilogy comprising of Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville), Le Mariage de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and La Mere Coupable (The Guilty Mother). Beaumarchais was a spy for and a supplier of arms to the struggle of the Americans to gain independence from the British colonial rule. He was also a political activist and prisoner. On the other hand Lorenzo da Ponte was a friend of Casanova, a freethinker and became an American citizen later on in his life, in 18284. It should be remembered that when Mozart decided on the theme of his opera and to collaborate with da Ponte, the French Revolution with its major political and social effects was literally around the corner5. Beaumarchais' plays were banned in France. In Vienna, The Marriage of Figaro was banned too by Emperor Joseph II. It seems though that it was banned not because of the political message it conveyed but on grounds of licentiousness6, attribute to its sexual content. Joseph II was considered a rather tolerant and progressive monarch who tolerated free speech (to a relative degree by today's standards), and attempted to abolish some privileges of the aristocracy.
And yet Mozart decided on the controversial Beaumarchais' play and the equally controversial librettist. Also he decided his new opera to be in Italian. Were these done by chance? We should remember that Mozart living in Vienna towards the end of the 18th century had become a Freemason. This was done in 1784, when he became a member of the second most important lodge, the 'Zur Wohltatigeit'. Among the Masons the ideas of Enlightenment were discussed and spread3. He should also have become aware of the privileges of the ruling aristocracy but also the political message of Beaumarchais play.
Da Ponte managed exquisitely to hide the political message under the sexual content and the opera should be viewed as a metaphor for political discontent that posed a threat to privileges of the nobility throughout Europe.
Beaumarchais first play of his trilogy, The Barber of Seville had already been arranged into a libretto by Paisiello7.The Marriage of Figaro picks up the story from where it was left in The Barber of Seville. The plot takes place in the castle/palace of Count Almaviva. The Count has become weary of his wife and is sexually attracted to Suzanna. However, she and Figaro are planning to get married. Count Almaviva is planning to exercise the medieval in origin 'jus primae noctis' literally meaning 'the right of the first night', the right for the lord to spend the first night with the bride instead of the groom. The Count is therefore portrayed as a lustful, dishonest personality with low morals. This sexual content of the play should be seen as a metaphor i.e. the oppression of the ruling class on the servants, peasantry and the working class generally but also the oppression of the men on women. The plot has therefore potentially tragic facets. The sombre tone of the libretto is contrasted with the major keys used by Mozart. But also there were hidden messages in the music. These may be difficult to discover today but they were common knowledge of the audiences at the time. For instance, horns playing in parallel were suggestive of possible cuckoldry and Mozart used this and other musical symbolisations8. In Le Nozze di Figaro another feature commonly used in the comic opera (opera buffa) is extensively used i.e. the mistaken identity or the concealed one usually through changing of costumes3. It was within the genre of opera buffa to include situations were a commoner would disguise as an aristocrat or vice versa.
In Le Nozze di Figaro, the opening scene is of Figaro measuring the wedding bed. Figaro and Suzanna plan to marry. At that time Suzanna discloses the Count's sexual interest in her. There is legitimate concern that the Count may exercise his aristocratic right of spending the first night after the wedding with her instead of Figaro. Under these circumstances Suzanna and Figaro some up with a plot to trick and humiliate the Count by not only stopping his advances on Suzanna but to do this in the presence of his wife. The servants plan is for Cherubino, a page of very young age to be dressed in Suzanna's clothes, so the Count invited by Suzanna's letter to meet her in the garden, will be humiliated for making passes to an underage male. However, Cheubino is not available because he has been sent home in punishment because he got into trouble earlier that day. It is then the Count's wife who agrees to disguise as Suzanna to meet her husband. In the garden the Count is duly embarrassed when he discovers that he has in fact met his wife and not Suzanna. He has thus been exposed. He then apologises to his wife and declares his undying love for her. As it was frequently the case in operas of the time, the moral as well as the social order is restored at the end3.
However, the subversive content of Le Nozze di Figaro even disguised functions simultaneously on several levels. There is in the plot the fact that members of a lower class outwit a member of the aristocracy. In Europe of that time depicting such an event on stage was dangerous.
In a society in essence patriarchal, women were in effect the possessions of their masters or their husbands if they were married. In that era sexual double standards were clearly operating. Although it was expected of women to observe chastity and remain faithful the men enjoyed much more freedom and to have extra marital adventures was socially acceptable. Le Nozze di Figaro show the disempowered women beat the superior male sex that holds the power in society. This is achieved through clever thinking and deception and also by collaboration for the common goal. To us deception may seem something to be condemned. However, one has to appreciate the lack of the women's alternative action. Therefore deception becomes a legitimate means. In this way both Suzanna and the Countess gain. The former is safe from the Count's sexual advances and the latter gains the assurance that her husband remains faithful from then on.
Quite apart from the female gender actions an analogy can also be drawn. Just as the disempowered women in the opera plot collaborate and through clever cunning and actions manage to embarrass the Count by analogy the disempowered lower classes could band together to achieve the overthrowing of the tyrant ruling aristocratic classes. It is almost certain that this analogy would not go unnoticed in the audiences of the time. For this reason alone the opera should be considered subversive. Despite its success only 8 performances were allowed. It may be that its subversive message had become obvious. But this is just guesswork.
So, why Mozart decided to provide a musical dress for such a subversive play and present it in the form of an opera in Italian, when he had previously decided to have an opera in German (Die Entfuerung aus dem Serail). Again it will be guesswork as it is impossible when direct information is lacking to be certain regarding Mozart's decisions. He might had chosen the Italian Language for two reasons. Firstly for the opera to gain wider acceptance, as the Italian language was in vogue at the time. Secondly to embarrass the Emperor's Italian musical entourage by presenting an opera in their language for immediate and direct comparison. Despite of coming from a middle class family Mozart had first-hand experience of the ruling class. While in the service of Archbishop of Salzburg, he had to wear a uniform, like the rest of the servants and eat with them. This and other experiences from his life may have resulted in sympathy for underdog and would support anyone arguing for his rights, freedom of speech and human dignity5. Also his involvement with the Freemasons and the ideals of Enlightenment such as the idea of a civil society may have played a significant role3.
Although Mozart was a revolutionary in musical terms he was not a revolutionary in political terms. However, he was 'the child of his time, a product of the Enlightenment who was able to reflect perfectly in his art the general climate of the age in which he lived'5. Therefore he succeeded in combining in Le Nozze di Figaro a musical masterpiece with profound social messages.