Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Debut of Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'

If you mention "The Marriage of Figaro" to most people my age or younger, the image that probably comes to mind is of Bugs Bunny conducting a performance of the opera in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

That is an entertaining memory for me — and, probably, for many members of my generation. I grew up watching — and loving — Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday mornings. Most Bugs Bunny fans would probably mention the cartoons that included Yosemite Sam or the Tasmanian Devil or that weird interplanetary character as their favorites, but I always liked the takeoffs on the operas, like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "The Barber of Seville."

I owe that to my parents, I suppose. They liked other kinds of music, too, as I have mentioned here before, but they both liked classical music. Most opera was probably not their preference — they tended to like symphonies and such as that — but sometimes the music or the composers they liked overlapped in opera.

As a child I was exposed to it all — and, as a result, I tended to recognize music that was used in cartoons (and, thus, get the humor of some inside jokes that even most adults didn't get).

(When I was in college, I recall that my German professor once tried to trip up the class by asking us classical music trivia questions. I frustrated her by correctly answering all of them — and, in the process, spoiling her punchlines.)

It was as a child that I learned to love the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose opera based on the play "The Marriage of Figaro" made its debut at Vienna's Burgtheater 230 years ago today. Nearly a quarter of a millennium later, it is still one of his most loved compositions — and that really is saying something.

In keeping with the custom of the time, the composer conducted the first two performances of the opera, then Mozart handed the baton to a 20–year–old Austrian conductor.

It was a glorious achievement, one that was featured in the movie "Amadeus," which is one of my all–time favorite movies. In the movie, Salieri, Mozart's rival composer who has long been suspected of being behind Mozart's untimely death, described how the opera bestowed "perfect absolution" on all who heard it.

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

But the success or failure of a composition in the 18th century depended less upon its quality than the responses of the prominent people who heard it. And, as Salieri observed, the emperor's yawn during the premiere 230 years ago today was believed to have been the reason why the opera closed after nine performances.

That seems to be something of an urban legend. The premiere appears to have been a success with a five–number encore. There were seven encores the night of the second performance.

The original story on which the opera was based was regarded as somewhat bawdy for the sensibilities of 18th–century people. Could that have been why it closed after nine performances? Well, the emperor, who had approved the libretto before Mozart began composing any of the music, doesn't appear to have been worried about the content, but he was concerned, it seems, about the length of the performances with all these encores so he issued a directive "that no piece for more than a single voice is to be repeated."

The new policy was in effect for the third performance and was probably behind the rumors that swirled around the opera after its nine–performance run.

"The Marriage of Figaro" was not performed in Vienna in 1787 or 1788, but a revival production ran there from 1789 to 1791. In the interim it enjoyed a successful run in Prague.