A guide to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro
All you need to know about Mozart's 1786 opera, The Marriage of Figaro, and why many consider it to be the best opera of all time
Who wrote the Marriage of Figaro and when?
The Marriage of Figaro, written in 1786, was the first of three collaborations between the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte; their later two were Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.
What is the storyline of the Marriage of Figaro?
Based on the 1784 stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro, the opera is about two servants - Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna - who put their wits together to thwart their philandering employer Count Almaviva and teach him a lesson in fidelity.
The action begins with Figaro and Susanna fitting out the new room given to them by their master, the Count. Susanna explains that the Count's motivation behind the generous gift is it keep her nearby: he intends to seduce her, reinstating the abolished 'Droit du seigneur' that allowed a lord to bed a servant girl on her wedding night.
Enraged, Figaro vows to foil his plans, and, together with Susanna, the long-suffering Countess and the randy page boy Cherubino, they come up with a clever plan. The result, unfolding over just one day, is a lot of cross-dressing, hiding, mistaken identity and chaotic hilarity.
What is the music like?
From the fizzing overture to Cherubino’s serenade ‘Tell me what love is’ (‘Voi che sapete’), The Marriage of Figaro is jam-packed with smash-hit tunes, many of which rank amongst the most famous and the most hummable in the history of classical music. The orchestration is inventive, the ensemble writing is highly sophisticated and there is a lot of imaginative scene-painting. But, for me, what really defines Mozart's writing is the depth of feeling that he communicates through the most understated of means, as in the finale, where the Count pleads with his wife for forgiveness: it's so melodically simple, and yet so moving.
Why was the Marriage of Figaro banned?
Written in the years leading up to the French Revolution, The Marriage of Figaro horrified aristocrats with its focus on class tensions and the limitations of rank and privilege. That's why the original Beaumarchais play on which Mozart based his work was banned by the ruling authorities in France. And it's why Emperor Joseph II was cautious about allowing Mozart's opera to be performed in Vienna. In order to gain his approval, Da Ponte had to rid the play of its most inflammatory political references, famously replacing Figaro's climactic rant about inherited nobility with a similarly impassioned aria about unfaithful wives. His alterations were accepted, and the opera was premiered at the the Burgtheater in Vienna on 1 May 1786, with Mozart himself conducting.
Was the Marriage of Figaro a success?
Yes, although it was somewhat eclipsed by the popularity of another work: Martín y Soler’s Una cosa rara (also set to a libretto by Da Ponte). It was really after Figaro's Prague premiere, a few months later, that the opera's popularity soared. 'The joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it,' wrote the Hungarian poet Ferenc Kazinczy while Haydn wrote that he heard the opera in his dreams. Composers throughout the next few centuries continued to look upon Figaro as the pinnacle of operatic achievement, with Brahms amongst the most vocal enthusiasts: 'Each number in Figaro is a miracle,' he said, 'it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect.' It is still widely regarded to be the best opera of all time.
But what makes the Marriage of Figaro so special?
With its clever libretto, its sophisticated music, its multi-layered characterisation and its universal themes of love, transgression, infidelity, rejection and forgiveness, The Marriage of Figaro reaches a level of humanity that eludes many tragedies. And that's despite being a comedy.
Recommended recordings of The Marriage of Figaro
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.