This week I’ll be focusing on great works of art that began life as political commentary and I can’t think of a more appropriate piece than Mozart’s opera, Le nozze di Figaro. There are many who consider this to be the most perfect of operas, containing in equal measure entertainment, social commentary, and music of the highest order. While I’m not one for hyperbole, I’m not going to disagree!
It is based on a Pierre Beaumarchais play, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, which had been banned just two years prior in Vienna by the Austrian Censor. Emperor Franz Joseph said of the play that, “since the piece contains much that is objectionable, I therefore expect that the Censor shall either reject it altogether, or at any rate have such alterations made in it that he shall be responsible for the performance of this play and for the impression it may make.”
What was so objectionable? The American revolution had given agency to question absolute monarchical rule and the great thinkers of Europe, one of them being the polymath, Beaumarchais, began creating foment through the artistic expression. The story is, seemingly, quite harmless and simple: It tells the story of two servants, Figaro and Susanna, who in planning their marriage, foil the plans of their employer, the hapless and blustering philanderer, Count Almaviva, eventually teaching him a lesson in fidelity and humility. However, the was one of the first plays to ever tell a story through the lives of servants, let alone a story that makes the nobility look heartless and stupid.
Mozart brought the play to the attention of the librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, who turned into a Italian language libretto, the language of opera in Vienna at the time, in just six weeks. It was premiered on May Day, 1786, at the Burgtheater in Vienna and received a total of nine performances. It was considered a success and the reviews were generally positive. It is ironic that it became so popular that even the emperor requested a special performance in his private theater at his palace in Laxenburg.
Here are some of my favorite performances: