Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Where is Mozart in LE NOZZE DI FIGARO?

It’s a Romantic conceit, and patently false, that great artists can only ever talk or write/compose/paint/etc. about themselves. With some—-Richard Wagner comes to mind-—it’s true, the artist’s extreme narcissism makes it helpful to know a bit about the creator if you want to understand the creation. But with others, that’s not the case. Shakespeare is probably the poster-boy for the artist who conspicuously DOESN’T write about himself all the time. It may very well be this self-effacing tendency of his that has encouraged many people, over the years, to believe that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Ben Jonson, King James, Pocohantas, or various other candidates.

Right: The real Shakespeare?

What about Mozart, where does he fit in? Does he project himself into his operas the way Giuseppe Verdi becomes all his great Verdi baritone roles, or fall in love with his characters the way Giacomo Puccini clearly fell in love with Mimì, Tosca, Cio-cio-san, etc.? Hard to say; I think most of us perceive, as did Peter Shaffer in (the play) Amadeus, that Mozart is Tamino, the Orpheus-like player of the Magic Flute. But Tamino is an ingenue without much personality, and studying him doesn’t really tell us what Mozart was like. (Nor, despite my great admiration for it, does Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, play or movie!) And the most interesting characters in Mozart’s three da Ponte operas may very well be projections of Da Ponte, who truly loved to write about himself—-just check out his memoirs.

A great place to look for Mozart’s fingerprints are those moments when his music adds something to the opera that may not have occurred to da Ponte as he wrote the text. Mozart makes a big deal, for instance, out of Figaro’s powers of illustration when he’s telling Antonio and the Count a (fictional) story about how and why he jumped out of the Countess’s window. Da Ponte gave Mozart five lines for Figaro to tell this story, and they tumble along at a quick pace in the Italian:
Aspettando quel caro visetto...
Tippe tappe, un sussurro fuor d'uso...
Voi gridaste...lo scritto biglietto...
Saltai giù dal terrore confuso...
E stravolto m'ho un nervo del pie'!

I was waiting for [Susanna’s] dear face...
Knocking at the door, murmuring outside...
You were screaming...I remembered the letter...
I jumped down, confused and terrified...
And I twisted a nerve in my foot!
Mozart sets the first three lines to quick, tumbling music, probably just what Da Ponte was expecting; but then he asserts his own artistic presence as composer. He cuts Figaro’s rhythm in half and takes away the harmony (the orchestra just doubles Figaro after line 4); and Figaro illustrates his jumping with a melody that jumps downwards, and his pain with a tortured chromatic descent on line 5.

(Alfred Poell; Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

There, that little moment is a distinctly Mozartean contribution to the opera, one which probably delighted da Ponte as much as it has generations of opera-goers. (You ALWAYS get a laugh at that line, in the theater.) What does it tell us about Mozart, other than that he had a great sense of humor? I think Mozart goes out of his way to show Figaro acting out the story, musically, because I believe it’s that exaggerated, extroverted, larger-than-life personality that attracted Mozart to Figaro in the first place. (Whether or not Mozart himself had such a personality is another question...)

Mozart again adds to da Ponte to make his own point in the little duet for the Count and Susanna that opens Act 3. Susanna has just asked the Count to meet her in the garden at midnight; but only as part of a ruse, she doesn’t really intend to meet him. The Count is a little suspicious, and asks her to reassure him:
CONTE: Dunque, in giardin verrai?
SUSANNA: Se piace a voi, verrò.
CONTE: E non mi mancherai?
SUSANNA: No, non vi mancherò.

C: So I’ll see you in the garden?
S: If you like, I will come.
C: You won’t fail me?
S: No, I won’t fail you.
But listen to how Mozart sets this little passage (brilliantly!): first, the Count offers Susanna a gentle little folk-tune melody, which she promptly sings back to him. (First rule of flirting in a Mozart opera: singing another character’s tune to them is like ordering what your date orders in a restaurant, demonstrating that you can follow their lead and trust their decision.) They repeat the exchange, with lines 3&4, and then Mozart adds text that wasn’t in da Ponte’s libretto: “You’ll come?” “Yes!” “You won’t fail?” “No!” “You’ll come?” “No.” “’No’?” “Yes, yes, if you like, I’ll come!” The Count’s insistent questions confuse Susanna, and she almost gives away her true intentions.

(Cesare Siepi, Hilde Gueden; Decca “Legends” 466-369-2)

Why did Mozart add this little detail to the opera? Again, it may be simply great theatrical genius, because it always delights an audience to see Susanna—who is, after all, the smartest and most manipulative character in the show—almost screw up bigtime. Good singing actors can take this scene in different directions, but it’s the closest we come, in the opera, to the great threat that’s hanging over the entire plot, a romantic encounter between Susanna and the Count. The fact that Mozart decided to extend the scene makes me think that he wanted to spend a little more time in this dangerous, deliciously fraught moment, with the would-be lover desperately seeking reassurance that his fantasy is about to come true and the master manipulator discovering the limits of her power to manipulate. Which of them was Mozart? Probably both.


  1. I like these examples of Mozart's revealing himself by amplifying on Da Ponte's libretto. Are there any moments in Nozze when Mozart actually seems to disagree with Da Ponte and gets the music to indicate an emotional state different from that indicated in the words? There are a number of such moments in Cosi Fan Tutte, most notably in the final scene, when Da Ponte seems to think everything is jolly and fine, but Mozart breaks our hearts. I can't think of anything equivalent in Nozze, though.

    Thanks again for your fascinating and erudite posts, Jonathan. You do a brilliant job of illustrating your points with musical and video clips.

  2. I know what you mean about COSI, and even at times DON GIOVANNI. But no, with FIGARO most of the time the irony (and there's lots of it) seems to be something they planned jointly.

    Another little Mozart comment which I didn't point out the other day is the horn calls at the end of "Aprite un po' quegli'occhi", Mozart's horns teasing Figaro (who thinks he's a cuckold) as he keeps trying to cadence the end of the aria and they keep turning up little arpeggios. Probably Mozart thought that up and Da Ponte got a good chuckle out of it.