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Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro & Così fan Tutte

Joseph Lange's unfinished portrait of his brother-in-law, W. A. Mozart

1,734 words

[Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is the revelation of]  the ideal social structure (an affirmation Edmund Burke). Le Nozze di Figaro is not merely an adaption of Beaumarchais’ play (which Napoleon later stated was the true start of the French Revolution, not the storming of the Bastille: a mere riot). Rather, Apollo infused da Ponte and Mozart, as He once had infused the Pythoness.

Figaro isn’t, in any way, a Jacobin. His grievance is not that the Count achieved his position simply “by suffering himself to be born” (as the original play has him state), but that he is not living in accord with his position: he is attempting to transgress the mandates imposed by noblesse oblige. He, Figaro, will put a stop to this and force the Count to behave in accord with his station.

This is in total agreement with the tenets of Edmund Burke: that a monarchy needs a hereditary nobility to assist the king and commons in maintaining a civilized state. One born to a (future) position of authority is to be educated with the goal of preparing him for the duties imposed by his rank. Burke’s constant admonition, “Novelty is not reform!” shows the Count to be committed to reform, by voluntarily renouncing the jus primae noctis: the feudal right of the Lord to have the first night with any bride among his serfs.[1]

In Le Nozze, the Count is the buffa figure: one way or another, he is frustrated at every turn. That he is truly a nobleman — a nobleman acting very foolish, but in every sense noble — is shown by the fact he doesn’t just boot Cherubino out of the castle (as Mozart had been kicked downstairs), rather he gives the scamp a captain’s commission in his regiment. In the 18th century, one was expected to buy a commission. Purchasing a captaincy was expensive, but the Count gives it to his sixteen-year-old [?] vexation, affirming the nobleman’s benevolence: one of the Great Oaks Burke deemed so vital.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3UCxd_KSVo

(Unfortunately the Count’s third-act aria, which does much to delineate frustration he is going through, yet still preserving his dignity, is cut from most productions.)

At the conclusion of the fourth act, his dignity, nobility, and sincerity are revealed when the Countess presents him with the ring he thought he’d given to Susanna. He suddenly realizes he’d been trying to seduce his own wife — making a perfect ass of himself. He goes down on bended knee to beg forgiveness, to atone for his foolishness and hard-heartedness. The music, which Apollo has flow through Mozart’s quill, is the distillation of contrition.

The tenor of the Count’s remorse serves as the music for the finale — a ten-part ensemble plus chorus, made to sound effortlessly composed (because it was effortlessly composed: Mozart was taking dictation) — has the curtain descend upon cadences of “Let Us Love One Another, Let us Forgive One Another.” Figaro was a total break with tradition. No opera ended the First Act with a solo aria, but Figaro does.

The true music-lovers, who were present at the initial dress rehearsal, knew this was an opera unlike any that had come before or would come again. For twenty minutes they crowded around the orchestra-pit ranting, “Bravo, Mozart! Bravo! Bravo!,” as the little auburn-haired, Alpine-headed man at the harpsichord, bowed and bowed. (Fortunately Mozart had Busati, the finest bass-baritone in Europe, for Figaro. His non più andrai had been delivered like a cannonade. The bigger the voice, the better will be the production.) The audience at the dress-rehearsal knew a new era in opera was upon them.

In contrast, the aristocratic audience on opening night, with Joseph II present, was more bewildered than impressed. What neither knew was that this “new era” was a conclusion. Opera, as a developing form, was being fulfilled. Here was its apogee, the work which sent Rossini into early retirement (earning him the nick-name, il Tedescino; and causing him to comment, “Why should I carry water to the well? I only wrote my Barbiere, so that Le Nozze would have a decent prelude.”)

Because of it, Brahms and Mahler categorically refused to compose an opera. (Although I must say that Mahler’s salvage-job on Drei Pintos indicates he was unduly intimidated.) Tchaikovsky considered it the consummate masterpiece. Writing from Hamburg, where the then unknown Mahler was conducting, he heaped praise on Mahler . . .  and as for Figaro: “Last night they performed it. I went. If they perform it tonight, I shall go again; and if they perform it tomorrow, I’ll be in the audience. Anyone who misses a performance of Le Nozze di Figaro knows nothing about either opera or music.”

It takes a special relationship with this work to realize that the Count is both buffa and heroic — as is also the case in Don Giovanni. It is when he goes on bended knee to beg Rosina’s forgiveness (and the music conveys this far more distinctly than the text) one realizes how honest, generous, and ethical he is. His servant had forced him to rediscover his nobility, and a nobleman must never be allowed to forget noblesse oblige.

Why does Apollo endorse Burke? Because a hereditary nobility is the surest check against the disaster of demagoguery, which was to convulse Europe a decade later. “A prince may stoop down to pick up a brush for a painter, but when the public stoops down, it is only to throw mud,” Oscar Wilde noted (and look at Wilde’s pathetic fate to see the validity of that observation). One who is born and educated in the proper deployment of authority, whose career of service to society is fixed at birth, and who understands both the need for reform and the mandates of noblesse oblige is the barrier against the Tyranny of the Majority and the Plutocracy, which precede the rise of Caesarism.

Of course, there must be a mechanism for removing one born to this position, who fails in his duties. The censure of his peers and sovereign? We do that now to some degree with judges, who must run against their own record; however, the United States — and not just the United States — is a Plutocracy, a grotesque caricature of what Jefferson envisioned. Ours is a system of only rights with no corresponding responsibilities: the antipode of [. . .] Le Nozzi di Figaro.

[. . .]

The message of Così fan Tutte (which tradition holds was based on an actual event and the plot suggested by none other than Emperor Joseph II) is simple and straight-forward: in place of the Pauline lunacy of “Be ye perfect!” is proffered the Apollinian verity of Be ye Real! The plot — mutatis mutandis — reminds one of a Hollywood social comedy from the 1930s, say, It Happened One Night. What is being spoofed are the overblown claims of idealism and romanticism. Don Tomaso and Despina dispel this romantic nonsense.

The overture has a Figaro quality to it, even as the plot is a muddle of deception and benign satire.[2] There’s nothing profound in Così (Mozart’s one unqualified success with the Viennese aristocrats), merely a reflection of a gracious age and culture drawing to a close — and the most exquisite trio ever composed for the human voice, tossed in with no dramatic significance whatsoever.

Buried under this rococo froth is the fact the sisters want to be mothers. That is the purpose of marriage. They want husbands who love them and will love their children, who will be around when they need them. Man is a vessel for fatherhood and woman for motherhood.[3] The sisters’ Beloveds are soldiers. They’re gone. Who knows if they’ll return? The new swains accord them total adoration. (Who can forget the serenade? It would melt any woman’s heart.)

After Come scoglio! (composed as a band-box for da Ponte’s mistress), the refused suitor takes “poison.” What greater manifestation of total devotion is possible? Despina and Tomaso, playing on the sisters’ emotions (as Frau Weber had played on Mozart’s), prove to much. They yield to the Here and Now.

What does Don Tomaso tell the utterly crushed suitors? They should marry the sisters at once! They had held out far longer — and proven far more difficult to manipulate — than any other two women he had ever encountered. The heartbroken officers should realize their betrothed were positively heroic!

The Ancients had considered infatuation a malady: “love sick.” Romantic love had been a creation of the Court of Eleanor of Aquitania. The nobility of the 18th century had quite a different attitude: marriage was far too important to allow emotion to interfere. The 14-year-old Archduchess Maria Antonia was packed into a carriage and taken to Paris to marry a youth she’d never seen: the future Louis XVI (who looked like a potato — with a matching personality). The important thing was that the next King of France should be half Bourbon and half Habsburg . . . but a revolution intervened.

[. . .]

The voice of Così is soft and its message simple: Be ye REAL! Don’t spurn love, if you perceive it as such — and carpe diem! What is important are the children you will bring forth. The rest is merely preparation.

Notes

1. Actually, this gross misapplication of feudal law, drawn from the right of the Lord to the “first fruits,” had all but vanished centuries before, except in the most remote areas. The Church had declared it sinful and contrary to Christianity. [. . .] The Count’s action (in both the play and opera) was anachronistic; however, it serves to show he took noblesse oblige seriously. Here was (supposedly) a wrong which had to be reformed, and he reformed it.

2. Franz Anton Mesmer — a close friend of the Mozarts (Bastien und Bastienne), who had become world famous from his work on “Animal Magnetism” — is spoofed by the disguised Despina and a giant magnet.

3. Look at Mozart: he was totally smitten by Constanza’s sister, but the diva preferred the “hunk” Josef Lange, who was not without talent: his unfinished portrait of his brother-in-law remains the most spiritually revealing portrait of Mozart ever done; and so the little man, goaded by his landlady, settled for the sister — over his father’s virulent disapproval. What Leopold failed to consider was that Wolfgang’s virginity was killing him!

Extract from “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Apollo’s Anamuensis?,” http://members.fortunecity.com/ursus_major/awmozart.htm#mm

 

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