Comedy Amidst Tragedy: The History Behind Le nozze di Figaro

Written by AVA Administrative Associate Stephen J. Trygar

The Academy of Vocal Arts’ production of Mozart’s brilliant masterpiece Le nozze di Figaro is rapidly approaching! Join us as we open our 85th opera season with this operatic treasure that is sure to leave you humming its memorable tunes for days. Tickets for this performance are still available on AVA’s website or by calling (215) 735-1685.

In anticipation of this production, we want to provide you some historical context behind the opera’s accomplished and talented composer and librettist. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte were the perfect pair for bringing Pierre Beaumarchais’ theatrical jewel to opera. We hope to see you this November at our production of Le nozze di Figaro!

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer of the Classical Era, remains one of the most celebrated and revered composers in the classical music genre. Born to Leopold Mozart, a composer, music teacher, and violinist, and Anna Maria Mozart, née Pertl, he was the youngest of seven children; Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna (nicknamed “Nannerl”) were the only two that survived beyond infancy. His remarkably short and troubled life balanced out his successful career as a young performer and ultimately as a composer. At the age of seven, his family embarked on a three-and-a-half year tour through Germany, France, England, Holland, and Belgium, during which the adolescent Wolfgang and Nannerl would perform before Louis XV of France, George III of England, William V of Orange, and the budding writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Of the two children, Wolfgang caught the attention of his audiences which prompted his success as a composer.

Upon his return to his hometown of Salzburg, he was employed as a court musician by Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. While employed by Archbishop Colleredo, Mozart developed an enthusiasm for violin and piano concertos and later for opera. His dismissal from this position provoked a trip to various cities including Mannheim and Paris with his mother. Albeit his trip to Paris produced several works, Mozart’s stay there was cut short by the death of his mother. The success of his opera Idomeneo instated his reputation as an opera composer. He gained favor with Emperor Joseph II of Austria, but not without damaging relations with former employers along the way. In 1781, Mozart settled in Vienna as a freelance performer and composer, and he married Constanze Weber. It was in Vienna that his operatic ventures increased. Mozart triumphed during his early years in Vienna, collaborating with Lorenzo Da Ponte to complete the operas Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) and Don Giovanni. Mozart continued to compose masterpieces that equaled his preceding Viennese output; however, the war with Turkey stifled his income. His last two years brought on a final wave of operatic treasures, his third Da Ponte opera Così fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito, and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). A few short months after conducting the premiere of Die Zauberflöte and beginning work on his own Requiem, Mozart died of natural causes at the age of 35.

Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1836)

Lorenzo Da Ponte sported several hats throughout his professional career, and although his early career is laden with adversity, his move to the United States calmed his misfortune. Beginning his endeavors as a Roman Catholic priest, he transitioned into writing opera libretti and poetry, writing for 28 operas by 11 different composers. Da Ponte was born Emanuele Conegliano in Ceneda (now Vittorio Veneto), Italy. He was the eldest of three sons to Geronimo Conegliano, who, after the death of his wife, converted himself and his family from Judaism to Roman Catholicism. Having already changed his name, Da Ponte and his brothers began their studies at the Ceneda seminary. The death of the bishop there induced a move to the Portogruaro seminary where he took Minor Orders, became Professor of Literature, and was eventually ordained as a priest. It was here he began to dabble in writing poetry in Italian and Latin. Da Ponte’s move to Venice in 1773 would prove to be a mistake; his posts as a Catholic priest and as a teacher of Latin, Italian, and French failed to sustain him financially, and he would be banished from the city for fifteen years after being found guilty of several crimes.

Believing he was answering an invitation to a prospective position as a poet in the Dresden court, Da Ponte traveled there only then to be offered work at the theater translating libretti. His friend Caterino Mazzolà, the author of the aforementioned invitation, later introduced Da Ponte to the composer Antonio Salieri. Da Ponte’s new relationship with Salieri would pivot his bad luck towards good fortune. He would be appointed the librettist of the Italian Theatre in Vienna, found a patron in Mozart’s benefactor Raimund Wetzlar von Plankenstern, and gained traction as a freelance librettist. He wrote the libretti for three of Mozart’s most popular Italian operas, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte. The death of Emperor Joseph II in 1790 sparked a series of calamitous events for the now popular librettist. Firstly, he lost the patronage of Joseph II, and the new Emperor dismissed him from the Imperial Service. Da Ponte was still unable to return to Venice. He attempted a trip to Paris but was detoured to London due to the declining political condition in France. Finally, his time in London ended when debt and bankruptcy hit him.

Da Ponte fled from London to the United States in 1805, and he remained there until his death in 1836. His time in the U.S. was fortuitous, however no new opera libretti were produced after his arrival. After spending his first few years in New York City, he moved to Pennsylvania where he spent a considerable amount of time in both Sunbury and Philadelphia. He gave private Italian lessons while operating a millinery store on 2nd Street, Philadelphia and a delivery wagon that traveled between Philadelphia and Sunbury. His attempts at bringing Italian opera to the city failed, as English opera became popular within Philadelphia. He moved back to New York City where he founded the Italian Opera House built on the corner of Leonard and Church Streets. The opera house has since burned to the ground, but it remains the city’s predecessor to the New York Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera.

A Masterpiece in the Making
Le nozze di Figaro (1786)

Pierre Beaumarchais’ play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (“The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”), is the second of a trilogy in which the other constituents are The Barber of Seville and The Guilty Mother. Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro was initially banned by Louis XVI in Paris in 1784 and then later by Joseph II in Vienna for its representation of the aristocracy. The Marriage of Figaro‘s predecessor, The Barber of Seville had already made a successful transition to opera in a version with music by Giovanni Paisiello and a libretto by Guiseppe Petrosellini. Choosing The Marriage of Figaro as the topic for his next opera, Mozart proposed the idea to Da Ponte, who turned Beaumarchais’ French play into an Italian libretto in six weeks. Da Ponte combed through the play and removed any political references that would keep the opera from being realized, and he took it to Joseph II. The Emperor approved of the libretto, and Mozart begin working his magic.

Le nozze di Figaro was premiered on May 1, 1786 at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Mozart directed the first two performances himself seated at the keyboard. The opera’s nine performance run was brimming with admiration. The roaring applause from the audience at the premiere resulted in five numbers being encored, and a few days later, seven numbers met the same glorious fate. However, Joseph II was concerned about the length of the performances, and he forbade any encores that involved more than one voice. Figaro would not be active in Vienna until 1789, but it found its way to Prague a few months after its premiere in Vienna. The opera thrilled audiences at its London premiere in 1789 at Covent Garden Theater, and merely two years after Mozart’s tragic death, an English translation crossed the ocean to celebrate its U.S. premiere in Philadelphia.

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