Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was at the top of the charts in 1785 as the internationally recognized genius of serious music when he glibly announced that he would like to try his hand at an Italian opera. He had toured Europe when he was 5, composed the enigmatic melody for "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" while still a kid and, by age 28, his symphonies, quartets, concertos and sonatas were being played around the world. He was all that -- da bom, kid rock. Mozart had asked Lorenzo Da Ponte, a playwright and lyricist, to write a show with him, using the most controversial play around at the time as the source. From a play about the injustice of power-by-birthright -- really a call to arms for the French Revolution -- Mozart and Da Ponte created a masterpiece of wonderment about love, romance and sex.
During the first rehearsal, Mozart stood on stage in his "crimson waistcoat and gold-laced cocked hat" conducting the orchestra while the cast sang. "The effect was electricity itself, for the whole of the performers on the stage, and those in the orchestra, as if animated by one feeling of delight." One of the original cast members, the 18th-century Irish tenor Michael Kelly, went on in his autobiography, "Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks. The little man acknowledged, by repeated obeisances, his thanks for the distinguished mark of enthusiastic applause bestowed upon him."
Following the opening-night performance, and the subsequent performances during the opening week, the executive producer, Emperor Joseph II, found it necessary to decree a royal edict strictly limiting the number of times an audience could demand an encore at the end of a song. Oh, yeah.
Mozart had tried his hand at the most popular art form of his day, and he had triumphed. Six years later, at age 36, he would be dead, buried in some mass grave in a paupers' cemetery, but the days of Figaro were Mozart's golden days in the sun. If music was God's gift to humankind, then Mozart was our gift in return.
Figaro is set in a royal castle in Spain. The title character loves Susanna, the Countess' maiden, and Susanna loves Figaro, the Count's personal servant, right back. Even though Figaro and the Count are very tight, Susanna is a kind of girl who makes the Count want to forget all about his promise to renounce that silly old custom of "the Count sleeping with all the virgins before they are married," a passing thought he manages to share with Susanna. Feeling a tad like a doughnut in a squad car, Susanna shares her feelings with the Countess, who then feels just a little betrayed by her husband the Count. Together, the Countess and Susanna write the Count a sort of love letter, wherein Susanna proposes a secret rendezvous in the garden at night to "discuss the Count's proposal." Unbeknownst to the Count, it will actually be the Countess disguised as Susanna. Cherubino, maybe the cutest, randiest 15-year-old character in literature so far, is chosen as the messenger for all of the love-note passing. Cherubino is a boy (played by a girl) who is in love with just about every girl he meets, and who proceeds to screw up Susanna and the Countess' plans for revenge on the Count through his near chronic inability to focus on much other than, um, romance.
All works out in the end. It's not so much the triumph of the common man over the tyranny of the aristocracy; it's more like the comforting inability of man to completely screw up that thing called love. But, ahh, the songs. Mozart was in love when he wrote Figaro. You can hear it, in the words, the melody, the meaning. Sigh. Mozart, at his peak, composed music for neither God nor man, but for the angels. And we get to listen.
Arizona Opera continues its season with Le Nozze di Figaro. Shows are in Italian, with English subtitles. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 18; 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 19; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 20; and 2 p.m. Sunday, November 21, at Symphony Hall, 225 East Adams. Tickets range from $14 to $56, and are available at the opera's box office. Call 602-266-7464 for reservations and details.