28 April 2014 at 3.00pm | Comment on this article
As with all the best farces, the events leading to the sextet ‘Riconosci in questo amplesso’ in Act III of Mozart's opera Le nozze di Figaro are incredibly complicated.
Servant Figaro has been pursued from the start of opera by the old housekeeper Marcellina, whom he has agreed to marry if he can't repay a longstanding debt. Marcellina has chosen the day of Figaro's wedding to his fiancée Susanna to stake her claim, encouraged by Figaro’s old enemy, Bartolo, and Figaro's master, Count Almaviva, who wants to claim Susanna as his mistress. Judge Don Curzio has been summoned to settle the matter. During the course of the trial, a discussion about Figaro’s lineage has unearthed an astonishing truth – that Figaro is in fact the long lost son of Marcellina and Bartolo.
In the hilariously implausible reunion that ensues, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte deploy their consummate skills to the full in a devilish display of musical and poetic wit.
The beginning of the sextet is infused with happiness as the reunited Marcellina, Figaro and Bartolo embrace. They each sing a simple, lyrical melodic phrase with gentle accompaniment in the second violins and violas and the occasional jubilant interjection from the first violins. This joyous opening is briefly interrupted by interweaving exclamations of surprise and confusion from the Count and Don Curzio, but the re-entry of Marcellina, Figaro and Bartolo with a soaring theme ‘Figlio amato! Parenti amati!’ ('Beloved son! Beloved parents!') recaptures our attention and drowns out their disgruntled prattling.
Susanna's arrival prompts a dainty appoggiatura figure in the violins and a move from the opening (tonic) key of F major to a less harmonically stable passage, hinting at unrest to come. Seeing Marcellina and Figaro embrace, Susanna mistakenly surmises that Figaro has agreed to marry Marcellina, and a sudden move to C minor expresses her fury. Figaro tries to intercede with the words ‘Senti, oh cara!’ ('Hear me, my dear!'), set to a rocking accompaniment in the violins that recalls the opening, but Susanna is unconvinced. ‘Senti questa’ ('Hear this'), she shoots back, followed by a slap – Da Ponte's text puns on the double meaning of ‘sentire’ as both 'to hear' and 'to feel'. A comical passage follows in which all sing in entangling melodic lines. Mozart evokes their confusion and mixed emotions – the Count sings an angry theme made up of marching dotted rhythms, adopted by Don Curzio and the distressed Susanna, while Marcellina, Bartolo and Figaro sing in soothing melodic lines in an attempt to smooth over the situation.
Finally, Marcellina explains things to Susanna. Da Ponte’s poetry here drops from 8-syllable lines down to 6-syllable lines. Such a shift could have triggered a new section of music, but Mozart instead brings back the opening theme in the tonic key. This not only marks a change in the action, but cunningly links this final section to the opening; the unrest generated by Susanna’s entrance has been dispelled, and we can return to more static reflections from the characters. The music stays in the tonic key until the end of the sextet, following the conventions of sonata form (a method of structuring a piece of music common in Mozart’s time) – which Mozart uses to reflect and enhance the drama. In spite of humorously melodramatic outbursts in F minor from the Count and Don Curzio, F major prevails, showing that their protests are in vain. The reunited family has a happy ending.