Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro in 1786

On the 1st of May, 1786, at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the audience, which included Emperor Joseph II of Austria, were treated to the premiere of what would come to be regarded as one of the world's greatest and most beloved of all operas, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. The premiere actually didn't go all that smoothly and was fraught with intrigue. Neither was it given as many performances, only nine in its first run, (with a tenth given at the Emperor's palace theater at his country estate in Laxenburg), as Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte had hoped for. However, despite it's rough beginnings, it still stands as the most performed opera in the entire opera repertoire. 

As the first of the three collaborations of the great team of Mozart and Da Ponte, Figaro stood out among the three as the most successful. While Don Giovanni is regarded by musicologists as probably the greatest opera in history, and Cosi Fan Tutte contains some of Mozart's most divinely inspired music, their Viennese premiere runs were even shorter than Figaro's and audience favor less enthusiastic. After the first two performances (both conducted by Mozart himself), in which the audiences demanded that all numbers be encored, the Emperor had to order an edict that only the ensemble pieces could be repeated, in order that the performances not last six hours.

The reviews were for the most part, outstanding. The newspaper, Weiner Realzeitung, printed a review on 11 July, 1786 that referred to the hired cabals and disruptions from some of the singers themselves in the first performance (probably paid by the Spanish composer, Martín y Soler, who was upset that his new opera, Una Cosa Rara hadn't been chosen as the season opener).

Mozart's music was generally admired by connoisseurs already at the first performance, if I except only those whose self-love and conceit will not allow them to find merit in anything not written by themselves.
The public, however ... did not really know on the first day where it stood. It heard many a bravo from unbiassed connoisseurs, but obstreperous louts in the uppermost storey exerted their hired lungs with all their might to deafen singers and audience alike with their St! and Pst; and consequently opinions were divided at the end of the piece.
Apart from that, it is true that the first performance was none of the best, owing to the difficulties of the composition.
But now, after several performances, one would be subscribing either to the cabal or to tastelessness if one were to maintain that Herr Mozart's music is anything but a masterpiece of art.
It contains so many beauties, and such a wealth of ideas, as can be drawn only from the source of innate genius.
The Hungarian poet, Ferenc Kazinczy, was present in one of the May performances and later recalled the impressions that Nancy Storace in the role of Susanna, as well as Mozart's score made on him.

Storace, the beautiful singer, enchanted eye, ear, and soul. – Mozart directed the orchestra, playing his fortepiano; the joy which this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such joy? 
To this day, the role of Susanna is regarded as the consummate soprano role and some of the world's greatest sopranos have begun their careers singing it. It was the first role in opera history to be completely constructed around a singer's personality, thus forming a tribute to the original Susanna, Nancy Storace.
When one sees Susanna, one sees Nancy Storace herself, and in a very real sense, Nancy is resurrected each time the opera is performed.

On this, the 228th anniversary of the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro, I hope that if you've never seen the opera that you will carve out some time to watch it. And if you have seen it ( and in my case performed in it as well as seen it more times than I can count), I hope that you will take the time to enjoy it once again, for every time it is seen its magic is only increased and Mozart and his beloved Susanna live again.

The 1994 Glyndebourne performance of Le Nozze di Figaro starring Alison Hagley as Susanna.