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Opera Review

The “Miracle” of Mozart On Display at HGO

April 2011

by Harley Schlanger


W.A. Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“The Marriage of Figaro”
Presented by Houston Grand Opera
April 15 - April 30, 2011

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
Conductor: James Gaffigan
Director: Harry Silverstein


There is only one thing negative I can say about the production of Mozart's “Marriage of Figaro” by Houston Grand Opera (HGO), and that is, that it had to end! 

(Well, there is also the matter of the high tuning, which is standard today for all opera venues, despite the damage it does both to the voices of the singers, and the musical-poetical intent of the composer and librettist – but that will be a subject for future reviews, as the Schiller Institute is renewing its campaign, to lower the tuning for opera and lied, to the “Verdi tuning,” where A is properly placed at 432 herz.)

It was Brahms who said of Mozart's “Figaro” that “it is a miracle...something so perfect, nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”  While one might quibble with Brahms, there is no question that this is one of the finest pieces ever composed.  From the brisk, driving lunge of the Overture, through the hopeful, almost reverential harmony of the Finale, this is an example of what is meant by “thorough composition,” in which there is an increasing density of “singularities,” of modulations, and yet nothing arbitrary is introduced musically.  There is, also, throughout, a beautiful balance between the words, of librettist Da Ponte, and Mozart's musical counterpoint.

The HGO production was excellent in its execution.  Conductor James Gaffigan had total command, able to bring out passages which spring to life, with an exhilarating force, as well as those more subtle and nuanced moments, to such an extent that, for most of the evening, the orchestra could be heard as additional singing voices.  Each of the performers sang with clarity and precision, as well as with the emotional depth required by their parts.  They functioned exceptionally well as soloists, and in the incredible ensembles Mozart composed, and all acted their parts well, something which is missing in some operatic performances (more on the individual performers below).

A Waning Revolutionary Period

W.A. Mozart
Emperor Joseph II

Mozart's masterpiece was composed at the end of an era of hope and great expectations in Europe, which had been ushered in with the successful rebellion of the American colonies against the British Empire.  When he arrived in Vienna in 1781, it was a time of great change.  Emperor Joseph II was now established as sole monarch, with the death of his mother, Maria Theresa, in 1780.  He had moved with significant reforms, in education; he had reduced the power of the Catholic Church; he issued an Edict of Toleration for the Jews; he modernized aspects of the economy, and centralized the power of the state. 

These latter reforms were of special importance for “Figaro,” as an element in his centralization was to weaken the power of local aristocratic families, including emancipating the peasantry, through the abolition of serfdom.  While Joseph himself was hardly a republican – his reforms were more those of an “enlightened monarch” – he was surrounded by others who wished to push him further. 

Mozart was drawn to Vienna in large part due to the musical climate there, but also to escape the power of the Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymous Colloredo, who considered the Mozart family to be his personal servants.  One of Mozart's biographers, Albert Einstein, wrote of him, that “There was not a trace of servility in Mozart.”  When he first arrived in Vienna, he had still not been formally freed from the service of Colloredo, and his letters to his father show his anger at the grip local nobility had on their subjects.  In one letter, he wrote, “I beg you, most beloved father, not to crawl too much,” and, in another, he chided his father, writing that “You really are too fearful.”   From his travels as a youth, Mozart had been introduced to the leading republican circles of Europe, in which there were many who wished to bring the spirit of the American Revolution to their continent.

It is not surprising that Mozart allied himself with the reformers in Joseph's court, including Joseph II, himself.

By 1785, the passion for reform on continental Europe was waning, as the challenge facing the reformers was how to maintain a monarchy, while giving more freedom to the urban population and the peasantry.  The British, under Lord Shelbourne, had successfully isolated the United States, and it was rumored, in some circles, that the “great American experiment” might fail.  Joseph had become fearful, following reports from his sister, Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France, of dangerous anti-monarchical currents there.  Though she was somewhat reform-minded herself, she had become the target of both a general unrest, and an oligarchical reaction.  A particularly nasty operation was launched against her, by a Venetian operative, Giuseppe Balsamo, a.k.a, Cagliostro, which became known as the “Queen's Necklace Affair.” 

Though the Queen was completely innocent of any wrong-doing, the Affair made her appear to be venal, and unconcerned with the suffering of her people, two factors used by the enemies of reform to whip up mobs against the monarchy, mobs which eventually took Marie Antoinette and her husband to the guillotine, in January 1793, and plunged France into chaos – insuring there would be no American-style revolution in France.  The prescience of these future events was already there, in the France of 1785, and Joseph feared for his sister and her husband.  

At the center of this upheaval was a play, “Le mariage de Figaro ou La folle journée”, by the Frenchman Pierre Augustine Caron Beaumarchais, who had been a vigorous supporter of the American Revolution.  A riot had ensued when it was first performed in Paris, leading to the decision of Joseph's court censors to ban it from being performed in Vienna.

The Courage of Mozart and Da Ponte

Lorenzo Da Ponte

Yet, even as the Emperor allowed the ban on the play to stand, he gave personal support to the decision by Mozart, and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, to write an opera, based on the play by Beaumarchais, and made sure that it would be performed in Vienna.  The opera, though generally considered to be less overtly “political” than the play, is actually highly political, as the play is more rhetorically didactic in its politics.  In the opera, Mozart's anti-aristocratic sentiment is given free play, in the imagination, of the audience, thanks to his incredible compositional skills.

The story, taken from the play, is basically that of an uprising of servants, against the brutal tradition of the “droit de seigneur,” the right of a local nobleman to deflower virgins who live on his estate, prior to their wedding night.  The leader of the uprising is Susanna, who organizes her betrothed, Figaro, to see the intent of the master, the Count Almaviva.  By the end, their conspiracy includes the Countess, and other members of the court, who gather in a grove near the castle, when the Count is exposed, in front of all, seducing his wife, who he thinks is Susanna!

Photo Credit: Felix Sanchez, Houston Grand Opera

Luca Pisaroni as The Count,Ellie Dehn as The Countess.


Photo Credit: Felix Sanchez, Houston Grand Opera

Patrick Carfizzi as Figaro, Adriana Kucerova as Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as The Count.

What makes this work is the beauty of the language of the libretto, and the exquisite music of Mozart.  As the story winds through conspiracies and counter-conspiracies, we see the human characteristics of virtually all of the characters.  The servants are revealed as real human beings, with ideas and emotions, as we see in Figaro's angry “Se vuol ballare, and Susanna's beautiful “Venite.”  We see the vulnerability and pain of the Countess, in her haunting “Porgi amor.”  And we see the Count as cunning and ruthless, and, finally, humiliated.

Throughout, Mozart freely mixes voices in duets, trios, sextets, and even the famous octet at the end of the Second Act.  The conspiracies and counter-conspiracies unfold in front of the audience in what is at times almost “buffo” comedy, but presented through such dazzling counterpoint, that the drama rises above the comedic, to the sublime.  In the end, the evil intent of the Count is thwarted, but there remains a vague unease when the curtain comes down, as it is unclear as to whether the Count would change, or jealously cling to what he believed was his birthright.

Singing and Acting “Between the Notes”

Imagine the effect this opera had on the nobility, who were plotting to undermine the reforms of Joseph II!  To see one of their own humiliated, by impudent servants, no less, to the amusement of the audience, must have been especially galling!  The opera opened in Vienna at the same time the trial of the Queen's Necklace Affair began in France.  It is no wonder that, given this confluence of events, a conspiracy existed among the anti-reform faction to not just limit the number of performances of “Figaro,” but to attempt to isolate Mozart, even as they drove the reformers from the court, and began a blackmail of Joseph II, in a plot orchestrated by Cagliostro's fellow Venetian operative, Casanova.

The Mozart-Da Ponte intervention in Hapsburg Vienna had a distinctly political intent, which was  defeated at that time.  The expectation that the Count, and the backers of the power of the nobility would strike back with a vengeance – which is why the ending must be performed with more than a hint of ambiguity, i.e., casting doubt on the idea that the Count would “reform” after being caught, as it were, with his pants down – did occur in the real world, as the reforms of Joseph were weakened, and post-Josephinian Austria became a bastion of reaction, operating on a British leash. **** 

The HGO production played this beautifully, as the four leading characters were superb.  This is especially true with the performance of Luca Pisaroni as the Count.  His Count was no burned out aristocrat, looking for a last fling, but was played with a quality of menace, of one seeking to hold onto powers which he could see slipping away.   This must be a consistent undercurrent, even during those scenes when the Count is a part of the broader comedy, as his plans collapse, and his goal seems to be eluding his grasp, as in the end of the Second Act.  Pisaroni performed brilliantly, energetically, bringing out the shift between moods of elation and frustration, as in the duettino with Susanna which opens the Third Act.

Photo Credit: Felix Sanchez, Houston Grand Opera

Patrick Carfizzi as Figaro, Adriana Kucerova as Susanna.


Photo Credit: Felix Sanchez, Houston Grand Opera

Luca Pisaroni as The Count, Adriana Kucerova as Susanna.

Patrick Carfizzi was a compelling Figaro, convincingly naïve in the opening, displaying serious indignation in the “Se vuol ballare,” and sustaining a buoyancy, with a bit of vulnerability, through to the end. 

Ellie Dehn's Countess was a moving portrayal, combining longing for a lost love with the bitterness of betrayal, with a deep and powerful richness to her voice.  It should be noted that, despite the tendency for an audience to be won over to her side out of sympathy for her, especially given the beautiful arias Mozart gave her, that she is still a Countess: among her laments are that she has been forced, by the Count, to have to conspire with the servants!  Dehn managed to navigate between the pathos of the Countess's sorrow over lost love, and her egoistic anger at this “demotion,” so that the audience could be lifted above a naïve sympathy, to a higher understanding of the complex nature of shifting relations between the classes at that time.

Adriana Kucerova portrayed Susanna with an endearing lively, spunky quality which, at times, elevated her character above the rest.  Her graceful movement accentuated a radiant voice, which lifted her from the role of a servant, to the equal of the Countess, no matter how much this may have pained the Countess.

More could be said of the wonderful performances of the other singers, and the chorus, but such would make this review longer than the opera.  Suffice it to say, that there were really no “bit roles.”  Further, it should be noted that the staging and overall direction is that of the late Goran Jarvefelt, whose simplicity lends an elegance, while never interfering with the action on stage.  It is an HGO tradition, and it was done perfectly well by Director Harry Silverstein, and I hope it continues to be used far into the future.



**** The significance of the Venetian role in the treacherous activities of Cagliostro against the monarchy in France, and Casanova's parallel role against Joseph II in Hapsburg Austria, is the subject of the paper by David Shavin, entitled  Mozart’s Entschlossenheit, or “Don Giovanni” vs. Venetian Ca-Ca.  What Shavin demonstrates in this piece is even more evidence of the extraordinary courage of Mozart and Da Ponte, who collaborated on “Don Giovanni,” to expose the corruption of the Venetian operations, as well as the overall corruption of the court and broader society, a year-and-a-half after “Figaro” had been successfully shut down in Vienna.