First-Time Perfection: Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'

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WOO-1406-figaroThe history of drama is full of brilliant collaborations, whether it's at the opera, in the theater or at the movies -- and while it might seem that a great creative team would take a while to gel, some of the most celebrated partnerships have flourished right from the start. 

In the mid-1980s, when director David Lynch needed music to evoke the unique atmosphere of his emerging, and already highly individual filmmaking style, he turned to composer Angelo Badalamenti. 

Their first movie was Blue Velvet, a trendsetting film that was both highly-acclaimed, and much discussed. Badalamenti's music, with its uneasy balance between tension and sentiment, seemed a perfect complement to Lynch's directorial sensibilties, which tend to veer between oddly amusing, and highly disturbing. After Blue Velvet, the two artists worked together for years to come, on movies including Wild at Heart, Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story -- not to mention the landmark TV series Twin Peaks and its companion feature film.

Now, you might assume that achieving more or less instant success with a first-time collaboration would be a rare event. But it has happened on other occasions: Steven Spielberg and John Williams with Jaws, as well as Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein with Oklahoma come to mind. And there's another example that dates back more than 200 years -- one that also combined comedy and sentiment with a distinct edge of foreboding, to create dramatic worlds that leave audiences wondering just how they should feel about what they've just experienced.

We have to go back to the 1700s for the first efforts of what might just be the greatest theatrical team ever, at least when it comes to pairing drama with music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Together, they wrote three operas that have been mainstays in the world's theaters ever since -- operas in which slapstick comedy mixes brilliantly with discord, treachery, and heartbreak. The last of the trio was Così fan tutte. Before that came Don Giovanni. And the two began their historic collaboration with the opera featured here, The Marriage of Figaro.

We don't know much about how Mozart and da Ponte divided their efforts on Figaro. But it was Mozart who had to pitch the new work to its main patron, the emperor of Austria -- and it was a tough sell. The opera, and the play by Pierre Beaumarchais that it's based on, explore territory that many found worrisome -- the often contentious relationships between classes.

The play had been banned by authorities in France and Mozart's opera made the Austrian monarchy nervous. Both works clearly illuminate the limitations of rank and privilege, demonstrating that common sense can often trump wealth and power, and that genuine humility easily upstages unchecked arrogance.

Da Ponte's dialogue is subtle and meticulously layered -- but at the same time witty and involving. Mozart's music is well-crafted and immensely sophisticated -- but also tuneful and infectious.

Their opera, with all its artistic contradictions and complexities, reveals some simple, real-life truths: that harsh economic realities are no impediment to the instinctive richness of human intellect, and that stultifying social conventions will never dampen the spontaneity of human emotion. It also proves that first-time collaborators can sometimes come up with the stuff that dreams are made of.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Marriage of Figaro from Switzerland's Grand Theatre of Geneva. The stars are sopranos Malin Byström and Nataliya Kovalova as the Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna, and baritones David Bizic and Aris Argiris as Figaro and the Count. Conductor Stefan Soltesz leads a production that also features the Suisse Romande Orchestra.


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