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In Le Mariage de Figaro, Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais theatrically sowed some of the seeds of the French Revolution. When Mozart, collaborating for the first time with Lorenzo da Ponte as librettist, adapted it as an opera two years later, the play was still banned in Vienna, and the Revolution, which shook the whole of Europe, was approaching fast. How did they get away with their subversive musical comedy, the first great opera ever to have been based on a contemporary and audaciously relevant dramatic success? Was it because it was more a domestic comedy than a pre-revolutionary statement of sorts?
Mozart's opera was originally a play, La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, (The Wild Day, or The Marriage of Figaro) by Beaumarchais - its permanent succès de scandale status was assured as a result of rattling the French Ancien Régime so much, with its depiction of a crafty servant who outwits his caddish aristocratic master, that it was banned. All stagings of it were prohibited at the Comédie Française throughout the German Occupation.
Certainly, for a modern audience, it is easy to miss the controversy in what can all too often seem like a run of the mill bedroom farce, albeit a brainier one than most. Beaumarchais, the author of the play, was fearless in the pursuit of the recognition of his opinions. He was even imprisoned by order of Louis XVI and sent to St Lazare, a gaol for prostitutes and petty thieves and a leper hospital, instead of the Bastille which was reserved for respectable political opponents. Even though his friends raised an extortionate amount to bail him out, Beaumarchais stayed put despite the King's subsequent order for his immediate release. He refused to leave the prison until he was assured that every member of the Cabinet would attend Le Mariage de Figaro.
How hard was it to obtain permission to stage the opera? Da Ponte's Memoirs give one account, though whether we can believe some or any of it remains to be seen as with many biographies, Da Ponte's in particular is extremely biased and self-satisfactory:
'A few days previous, the Emperor had forbidden the company at the German theatre to perform that comedy, which was too licentiously written, he thought, for a self-respecting audience: how then propose it to him for an opera?
... [The Emperor] answered, "But this Mariage de Figaro - I have just forbidden the German troupe to use it."
"Yes, sire," I rejoined, "but I was writing an opera, and not a comedy. I had to omit many scenes and to cut others quite considerably. I have omitted or cut anything that might offend good taste or public decency at a performance over which the Sovereign Majesty might preside. The music, I may add, as far as I may judge of it, seems to me marvellously beautiful." "Good! If that be the case, I will rely on your good taste as to the music and on your wisdom as to the morality. Send the score to the copyist."' 
Glorified as it is, 'if Da Ponte is to be believed, it was more the play's moral than its political content that Joseph II found objectionable". Additionally, "two years later, in Prague, when an application to put on Beaumarchais' play was refused, it was stated that there was no objection to the piece being "performed as an Italian opera"'.  If we really are to believe Da Ponte, we can assume that Joseph II granted permission readily and easily. Similarly, Beaumarchais states in his preface to Le Mariage de Figaro that it was in fact Louis François, Prince of Conti, who requested that a sequel to The Barber of Seville be written.  Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between the two members of nobility; perhaps their ready permissions can be considered as an early indication of the French Revolution in its denouncement of the privileges of the nobility.
Tim Ashley presents one extreme side of the argument of Figaro either being pre-revolutionary or simply a domestic comedy:
'Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro is very much an opera for dark times. Though some have seen it primarily as a domestic comedy, its ultimate aims are political and the score is effectively a scream of rage against social injustice and the misuse of power. It was written just before the French Revolution, and it's perhaps significant that the benchmark recordings - by Fritz Busch and Erich Kleiber - date from the mid-20th century, when the shadows of political abuse once again loomed large over Europe.' 
One must note that Mozart did trawl through over a hundred librettos in search of the perfect one to present as his first Italian opera to the Viennese public. For such a deeply-conscious decision, people cannot stop speculating over whether his ultimate choice was driven by a sense of anti-aristocratism or because he was intent on finding a subject which would ensure the success of his first attempt at Italian opera to the public. Afterall, Mozart desperately wanted to be accepted into the small circle of commission-worthy Italian opera composers, most of whom were Italians like Salieri - Mozart being an Austrian, was immediately in a position where he would have had to work doubly hard to be accepted than if he were an Italian. The fact that he abandoned two potential operas, L'oca di Cairo (The Goose of Cairo) and Lo sposo deluso (The Deluded Bridegroom), points towards the latter possibility - the assurance of success. It seems unlikely that later on, he simply deemed his previous two choices of potential opera to be insufficiently anti-aristocratic. However Mozart's next choice of Italian opera, Don Giovanni, with its similar topics of sexuality, falsehood, aristocratic immorality and social class may support the former possibility - the portrayal of anti-aristocracy; both Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro were composed before the French Revolution.
More than making a political statement, Mozart's intentions of choosing Figaro lie elsewhere. His unwavering determination for success in the world of opera is one. In choosing Figaro, Mozart chose wisely. He knew that the play's French predecessor, The Barber of Seville, had already been a Viennese hit in Paisiello's Italian operatic version - the score of Figaro even hints at this work. Joseph II was no more against Figaro than he had been against Die Entführung, his only comment on it being: 'An extraordinary number of notes'. Cole's statement hits the nail on the head as to why Joseph II liked Figaro so much:
'Few would disagree that Mozart's recurring calls for clemency, forgiveness, liberty, and tolerance project Enlightenment thought on stage.' 
Afterall, Joseph was a strong believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment.
Paisiello's setting of Beaumarchais' Le Barbier de Séville delighted the public as much as it did Joseph. It was therefore natural for it to be followed by its sequel, a second Figaro opera.  Controversial though the play might be, with Benucci in the title role again, after his hit as Barber Figaro in Paisiello's setting, Figaro was set to be a success from the offset. Even Mozart surely realised that together with these factors, choosing Figaro was ingenious for ensuring the success of his first Italian opera output. As with Le Barbiere di Siviglia, Le Nozze di Figaro was derived from Beaumarchais. How could Mozart not know of the success Beaumarchais' setting of Le mariage de Figaro garnered?
' "The play, greatly applauded in the town, succeeded very ill at court" was a commonplace of contemporary criticism. It happened only on rare occasions that both groups reached an agreement, which, as a rule, was due to a misunderstanding on the part of the subscribers in the loges. The complete success of Le Mariage de Figaro illustrates the point...
"Many hours before the opening of the ticket office, I really believe that half the population of Paris was at the doors... Persons of the highest rank, even princes of the blood, besieged him with letters, imploring to be favoured with the author's tickets. â€¦ The first twenty performances of this play brought to the treasury of the Comédie-Française one hundred thousand francs; and the attraction continued unabated during seventy-five nights. People flocked from the provinces to see Figaro; and, in short, its success was unparalleled in the annals of the French stage" '. 
Though the play was banned in Vienna for being politically inflammatory, once set to music, Figaro became an acceptable comic servant, a descendant of commedia dell'arte's Harlequin, instead of a potential revolutionary challenging the authority of his despotic master, Count Almaviva.  Most notably, no vestiges are left of Figaro's rather lengthy fifth-act monologue, which is one of the defining moments of the Le Mariage de Figaro and wholly embodies the pre-revolutionary spirit of Beaumarchais.
Many mistakenly believe that Mozart's 'intensity, passion and personal involvement in the text' indicate his desire to maintain the political statements of the original play.  But if 'in opera, the dramatist is the composer', as Kerman states, then many people could well believe Mozart to be pre-revolutionary.  Mozart was unquestionably profoundly involved in the libretto's shaping. Cairns gives us evidence of this:
'[Being deeply involved in the shaping of the libretto] had become his practice and he was not going to abandon it, least of all now. As Leopold Mozart observed, "it [Figaro] will cost him a lot of running back and forth and arguing before he gets the libretto exactly as he wants it". 
His deep involvement with Varesco on L'Oca di Cairo is similarly evidenced in his surviving letters. Furthermore, in a letter of July 1783, Mozart writes of the second failed operatic attempt, Lo sposo deluso, and its unidentified librettist: 'I shall perhaps adopt [it] if he agrees to adjust and tailor it to my liking'.  If Mozart was such an advocate of revolution, surely the previous abandoned librettos would share the same sentiments of and allusions to anti-aristocracy as Figaro. Further still, there is no indication in Mozart's correspondences to his father (as they are the most illuminating in terms of Mozart's thoughts, ideals, etc. at the time) that he held the aristocracy in contempt. One may suggest that as a musician, he had to pander to the requests of the nobility and was, as such, a sort of lapdog. Mozart's involvement in Freemasonry and his letters reveal that he was happy to mingle amongst the aristocracy, putting on concerts for them and so on. Abert claims that:
'Mozart pays almost no attention to external trappings or surroundings. What intrigues him is the personality per se of the human being, not the external circumstances and relationships which produced it.' 
Noske completely dismisses Abert's view:
'Briefly it amounts to this: Mozart was not interested in politics but in human beings; since lack of interest in political affairs necessarily implies indifference to social questions, there can be no affinity between his operatic characters and contemporary society. This way of reasoning, already far from logical in itself, becomes completely incomprehensible if we think of Mozart's letters, which unequivocally indicate his lively interest in the social conditions of his time.' 
Abert may have gone a little far by saying that Mozart 'pays almost no attention' but I agree with him on the point that Mozart is enthralled by human beings and their interactions, which is why he is interested in 'the social conditions of his time' as Noske points out. Afterall, being interested in human beings and being interested in politics go hand in hand; politics is a man-made invention, and in the general society that we have built since the beginning of civilisation, social class has become an inevitable part of us. To be interested in people, as Mozart was, entails being interested in such things as social interactions, e.g. social class boundaries. Mozart's great observance of humans allows him to take characterisations in operas to a greater level than previously.
One can safely assume that Mozart is much more preoccupied with the music (of the opera), satisfactorily dramatising the characters to his clearly exacting standards, and pleasing the Viennese public. Mozart is well-known for saying that he 'like[d] an aria to fit a singer as perfectly as a well-made suit of clothes'.  But what better evidence do we have to support my argument that Mozart is more concerned with the music than what Mozart once wrote:
'In the opera the chief thing is the music... In an opera the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music;... there [in Italian comic opera] the music reigns supreme and when one listens to it all else is forgotten.' 
Cole sums it up nicely: 'as undeniably important as drama and spectacle are, for Mozart music was the crucial component of the operatic equation'. 
The complications of the play's social context are inextricably linked to its plotline yet there are other themes which play a bigger role in Mozart's setting of Figaro. Cairn looks at the music to find possible pre-revolutionary undercurrents:
'By giving a valet (and shortly afterwards a chambermaid) an accompanied recitative - the prerogative of high-born characters - and an aria scored for that well-born instrument the B flat clarinet, Mozart was sending a clear political message: the servant is as good as his master... in Figaro's "Se vuol ballare"... the subversive second-beat accents cutting across the rhythm of the minuet - an upper-class dance - are like a kick up the aristocratic backside. As the opera proceeds, the conventional musical distinction between the two is progressively eroded.' 
Mozart's music may well be 'sending a clear political message' but this is not the main point. Kerman states that 'in opera, the dramatist is the composer'.  If so, should we account Mozart for simply composing completely appropriate music to such a politically dangerous play? For such a plot, extricating all that is linked to social context would render the story pointless, defunct, and simply unrecognisable. Hence Mozart and Da Ponte have not done so, for it is things such as social class boundaries and the like which give the opera flavour, comedy and excitement. The point here is that what Mozart is really focusing on is the characterisation - it is this that makes Mozart's operas so popular and successful even today. Mozart has obviously had the most fun dramatising Susanna. Mozart seems almost to have run away with her characterisation or rather 'is at pains to establish her personality'. He is given the liberty to do this as Susanna is the 'only principal character not already familiar to the Viennese public from Le Barbiere di Siviglia, in which she doens't appear'.  She is one of the most memorable of the entire cast list of Mozart's opera characters. She is by far the cleverest out of all the characters in Figaro, cleverer even than Figaro himself. Levarie discusses this:
'Figaro's wit and mental scope are far more limited than Susanna's... he finds himself - usually because of his own simplicity - in one predicament after another, rescued only by Susanna's maneuvering... The trap laid for the Count snares and vexes Figaro as much as the intended victim... his role [becomes] entirely passive. Susanna and the Countess carry out their scheme without his help. It is Susanna who actively tries to overcome the obstacles to their wedding by paying his debt to Marcellina.'
The Count and the Countess are both given different aspects of their character to explore - they are not simply shallow people of nobility. By omitting the 'dangerous tendresse Beaumarchais' Countess feels for Cherubino ([which] lead[s], in the next play, La mère coupable, to her bearing his child)', Mozart heightens her morals and we come to find that the women, though the Countess in particular, have the highest morals in the opera. By the end, Le Nozze di Figaro is shown to be a depiction of two women's quests to save their marriages. Other themes such as female friendship (reminiscent of the brotherly ideals of Freemasons) and reconciliation rise out of the woodworks also.
If anything, Mozart's setting is more pro-feminism than pre-revolutionary. Noske offers an explanation:
'The external attitude to life during the second half of the eighteenth century has, in so far as the upper classes are concerned, an undeniably feminine colour... revealed in many social forms of expression, such as ... tone of conversation and epistolary style.. the eighteenth-century empirical way of thinking offers opportunities to the female for participation in intellectual life.'
Figaro and the Count are unequal in generosity and intelligence to Susanna and the Countess. The women are always more situationally aware than their 'complacent and preening menfolk'. On top of that, 'the women in their easy, confident friendship are certainly less caught up in class prejudice than the men'.  Even Marcellina's aria with its sentiments of women being 'wrongfully oppressed by men' point to feminism. 
Though Mozart's setting of Figaro dissolves the class boundaries in accordance with pre-revolutionary thinking, perhaps what he was aiming for was not the musical illustration of the upheaval of social order but the possibility of a kind of utopia in which everyone is equal despite class boundaries. The type of relationship that develops between the two female leads in Figaro, Susanna and the Countess, parallels that of the relationship between Figaro and the young Count in Le Barbiere. Yet however much the social distance between Susanna and the Countess closes in the duration of the opera (musically speaking), the class boundaries remain strong in the background. If they had dissolved completely, why would Susanna be writing down the letter the Countess dictates, which will bring about the errant Count's downfall? Surely the Countess would be writing it herself and Susanna would stand by, maybe offering advice here and there upon the composition of the letter.
Whilst Ashley views Figaro as 'a scream of rage against social injustice and the misuse of power',  I am more inclined to regard Figaro as either 'a radiant romantic comedy, with the two women's friendship at its heart',  or 'a signal, a convenient form of propaganda that furthered the goals of Josephine policy'.  But above all, Noske's conclusion sits well with me:
'However clearly social tensions are expressed in the opera, they should not lead us to the conclusion that the composer intended to expose the oppression of the lower classes by a ruthless aristocracy. 'Le nozze di Figaro' contains no message; it does not propagate reform of the social order, let alone a revolution. Everyone who uses his eyes and ears must admit that Mozart only registers the social climate, without taking sides. His Count is no monster, nor is Figaro the people's hero. All characters show their weaknesses, at which we tend to smile.' 
Figaro is a truly revolutionary work, not in the political sense, but with regard to Mozart's ability to find the means to embody the interplay of living people in order to portray his sympathetic but non-illusioned understanding of human beings and their qualities and flaws.