It was probably a risk that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte took right from their first collaboration, but in any case a completely unusual approach in the Vienna of the later 18th century: To begin a new opera project without having been commissioned for it beforehand, without any assured prospect of a performance or even remuneration. In Mozart's case, the situation was aggravated by the fact that, although he had an excellent reputation as an instrumental composer at the relevant authorities - not least at the imperial court - he was considered to have little experience in the field of theater. In addition, the composer's choice of subject matter, Beaumarchais's comedy Le Mariage de Figaro, cast additional doubt on the realization of the planned opera on a public stage - Joseph II had shortly before forbidden the performance of the play, which was charged with revolutionary dynamite, on the grounds that »the play contains much that is offensive«. With a great deal of diplomatic skill and the indication that he had not created a pure translation of the French original, but a new version of the material purified of all questionable content, Da Ponte succeeded, however, in dispelling the emperor's reservations, even convincing him of the project and finally persuading him to personally order the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro at the Hofburg Theater on May 1, 1786.
In fact, it was not so much the politics of the day or even revolutionary ideas for the reorganization of society that concerned the composer and the librettist, but rather fundamental questions of human interaction. The efforts of the humiliated Countess to win back the love of her unfaithful husband, Susanna's and Figaro's efforts to defend their relationship against the Count's amorous reenactments, and the sexual awakening of the pubescent Cherubino form the central plot lines, the intersection of which gives rise to the confusions and situations that offered Mozart the opportunity to delve deeply into the soul life of the characters and to illuminate gender relations. Mozart succeeded in this not least by upgrading the music to a complete dramatic functional vehicle: every word, every sentence, every emotional movement was given its concrete compositional form in the musical text. Contrary to the common cliché, however, Mozart did not write down the individual numbers in one go, but experimented and struggled again and again to find the ideal realization, eliminating approaches already found and searching for new solutions, as can be seen from the autograph. Already in the overture, for example, Mozart rejected an originally planned slow, 16-bar D minor section in favor of the continuous atmospheric anticipation of the »great day,« as the subtitle of the play, which is also retained in the opera, reads. And with the third-act fandango, already used by Gluck and based on an Andalusian folk melody, even the Spanish ambience of the plot is made audible. The final completion of the score, including the orchestration, took half a year, which in view of Mozart's usual working tempo and the production conditions of the opera business of the time must be considered quite extraordinary.
But also in purely formal terms, Mozart and Da Ponte deviated from the tradition of opera buffa in that they upgraded the ensembles at the expense of the arias and achieved a balance between the two forms. An interesting detail in this context: although the opera bears the name Die Hochzeit des Figaro, it is ultimately not so much the title character as his bride Susanna who is at the center of the action, and this is also evident in her strong musical presence. She is, for example, the only one who takes part in all the duets.
The initial great triumph of Le nozze di Figaro (the audience demanded so many repetitions of individual numbers that the emperor had to intervene to regulate them) soon died down in Vienna for the time being, but the performances in Prague, which were successful a short time later, at least resulted in a commission for the composition of Don Giovanni. The work achieved its final status as one of the most popular operas on the international repertoire at the beginning of the 20th century, not least thanks to Gustav Mahler's tireless efforts in Europe, but also in New York. At the Vienna State Opera today, Le nozze di Figaro is by far the most frequently performed piece in the entire repertoire.
The upcoming new production continues the Mozart-Da Ponte cycle begun last year under the direction of Music Director Philippe Jordan and in Barrie Kosky's staging.