We are celebrating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s January 27th birthday with some appropriate music. Mozart wrote 23 operas, starting when he was 11 years old. 11 of them are still in the regular opera repertoire, and they comprise some of the greatest works in the operatic canon. We’re going to hear one of those works tonight, Le Nozze di Figaro – the Marriage of Figaro. This opera buffa (comic opera) was written in 1784, with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte that was based on a stage play by Pierre Beaumarchais. The stage play was quite controversial in its day (it was actually banned in Vienna), to the point where Mozart and Da Ponte edited some anti-Imperial speeches out and replaced them with arias that complained about unfaithful wives. Although Emperor Joseph II approved the opera (he approved the libretto before any music was written), he may not have if the editing had not occurred, and he was present at the premiere. His admonition concerning the length of performances and encores:
“To prevent the excessive duration of operas, without however prejudicing the fame often sought by opera singers from the repetition of vocal pieces, I deem the enclosed notice to the public (that no piece for more than a single voice is to be repeated) to be the most reasonable expedient. You will therefore cause some posters to this effect to be printed.” (quoted from Mozart: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch)
The emperor must have really liked the opera, as he requested a special performance at his palace theater the next month. The emperor was not alone. Joseph Haydn is said to have told a friend that he heard the opera in his dreams, and he attempted to produce the work in the Eszterhazy palace, but was prevented from doing so by his patron’s death.
The Wiener Realzeitung reviewed the opera on 17 July 1786. It noted the presence of hecklers that interfered with the performance, which are suggested to have possibly been paid. But the review was generally positive:
“Mozart’s music was generally admired by connoisseurs already at the first performance, if I except only those whose self-love and conceit will not allow them to find merit in anything not written by themselves.
The public, however … did not really know on the first day where it stood. It heard many a bravo from unbiassed connoisseurs, but obstreperous louts in the uppermost storey exerted their hired lungs with all their might to deafen singers and audience alike with their St! and Pst; and consequently opinions were divided at the end of the piece.
Apart from that, it is true that the first performance was none of the best, owing to the difficulties of the composition.
But now, after several performances, one would be subscribing either to the cabal or to tastelessness if one were to maintain that Herr Mozart’s music is anything but a masterpiece of art.
It contains so many beauties, and such a wealth of ideas, as can be drawn only from the source of innate genius.” (also quoted from Deutsch)
The overture is one of the more easily recognized pieces of classical music, but it is interesting to note that, unlike most overtures, the themes stated in the overture are not used anywhere else in the opera, except for two brief phrases that are used in Act 1. Another interesting technical note is that, except for one aria in Act 4, Le Nozze di Figaro was written entirely in major keys.
The opera achieved immediate and long-standing success, and is now ranked as the fifth most performed opera in the catalog.
Tonight’s recording is a 1994 recording (apparently recently reissued last year by Deutsche Grammophon, the original label), with the following cast:
- Lucio Gallo,
- Sylvia McNair,
- Cheryl Studer,
- Boje Skovhus – Danish baritone who has worked frequently in Vienna
- Cecelia Bartoli – considered a coloratura mezzo-soprano with an unusual timbre. She is one of the most highly regarded modern opera singers, and is well known for her Mozart and Rossini roles, as well as for her work in the baroque and early classical repertoire.
For our second opera of the evening, we heard a recording that I’ve been working to acquire for several weeks, Armida, by Mozart’s friend Joseph Haydn. In his time, Haydn was actually better known for his operas than for his other material, even though the reverse might be true today (he is considered the “father” of the symphony and the string quartet, and made important contributions to the piano trio and sonata forms). But opera was in fact a staple of the entertainment options preferred at the Esterházy court, and it served as Haydn’s ticket to success – indeed, an opera, Der Krumme Teufel, often translated as “The Limping Devil,” is one of Haydn’s early works, dating to his freelance days (the music is lost, although two librettos survive). While he wrote a total of 24 operas, he considered Armida to be one to be one of his best. He premiered it on Feb. 26, 1784, and it was quite successful in his time. However, it disappeared from the opera repertoire for a number of years (I suspect for the same reasons that the works of men like Lully, Gluck and Hasse were also seldom performed), before being revived in 1968 in Berlin. Happily, with the advent of the interest in early music performance and practices, works such as this have reemerged into the public consciousness.
To my knowledge, there are only two recordings of this opera: a 1993 recording with Jessye Norman in the title role, and that which we have here tonight. Tonight’s performance, like our previous opera, features Cecilia Bartoli (just worked out that way), with the following cast:
- Cecilia Bartoli
- Christoph Prégardien – German lyric tenor who has done much work with Mozart, recital and oratorio material.
- Patricia Petibon – French coloratura soprano who specializes in French Baroque music.
- Oliver Widmer – Swiss baritone who studied with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He married Cecilia Bartoli in 2011.
- Scot Weir – American lyric tenor who is noted for his performance in the Bach Evangelist roles (re: Bach’s two Passion works)
- Markus Schäfer – German tenor who specializes in music from the Baroque and earlier eras. He has also done lieder recitals.
The Concentus Musicus Wein is conducted by Nicolas Harnoncourt.