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Masters of the Stage: Mozart, Da Ponte and Le nozze di Figaro

The detailed match of music and drama makes Mozart’s comic opera one of the finest of the genre

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

6 May 2014 at 1.05pm | Comment on this article

Le nozze di Figaro was composed in 1786, and was Mozart's first collaboration with the master librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. So how did composer and poet work together to write one of the most dramatically accomplished of all operas? We explore the partnership in two articles for The Royal Opera’s programme book.

Jessica Waldoff writes in ‘The Composer and the Stage’: ‘It is a commonplace of both the opera house and of Mozart biography that Mozart was a master dramatist. What is not as well known is the degree to which he concerned himself explicitly with dramatic concerns such as plot and staging. This is revealed in various letters of the late 1770s and early 80s. Most important, as he suggests in a letter of 1781, is the overall plan upon which the entire structure of the opera – including its music – depends: “The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make sound suggestions, meets an able poet, that true phoenix.”’

The success of the collaboration between Mozart and his ‘able poet’ Da Ponte is very much in evidence in Figaro. Waldoff refers to the aria ‘La vendetta’ to show how Mozart’s score wittily reveals the subtext of Da Ponte’s libretto:

‘Da Ponte has provided an absurd text, which Mozart sends up in a variety of ways. First Bartolo attempts high style (dotted rhythms and strong arrivals on downbeats), but the effect is undercut by his insistence on repeating himself and a rather awkward sense of phrasing. The orchestra, complete with trumpets and drums, punctuates his exclamations with great emphasis, but the musical portrait – including a long descent into patter – suggests that Bartolo is no match for Figaro.’

More than this, Da Ponte’s ingenious poetry influences Mozart’s music, as Tim Carter explains in our second piece, an examination of the Act III Sextet:

Alto, alto, signor Conte, mille doppie son quì pronte, a pagar vengo per Figaroed a porlo in libertà. (Stop, stop, my lord Count, I have a thousand doubloons here, I come to pay for Figaro and to free him.)

‘The third-line verso sdrucciolo (with the accent on the antepenultimate syllable: “Fi-ga-ro”) prompted Mozart to produce an achingly beautiful phrase, while the final verso tronco (the accent on the last syllable) provides a poetic and therefore a musical cadence.

By working together in this way, composer and librettist combined words and music in an intricate and dynamic relationship. The result is a beautiful, witty and incisive opera – a razor-sharp commentary on social inequality in which political issues of the day were cleverly addressed in the text and elaborated upon in the score.’

The full articles by Jessica Waldoff and Tim Carter are in the programme book that accompanies Le nozze di Figaro. It is available in the theatre at performance times and from the ROH Shop. 

Le nozze di Figaro runs from 2–15 May 2014. Tickets are still available.

By Rachel Thomas (Former Content Producer (Ballet))

6 May 2014 at 1.05pm

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by David McVicar, direction, Le nozze di Figaro, libretto, Lorenzo da Ponte, Production, stage

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