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A Servants' Rebellion

A Servants' Rebellion

The Evanston Symphony Orchestra will open our February concert with the Overture from Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro. It is one of the most recognizable classical tunes ever recorded, is exuberant and joyful, and is sure to delight.

The opera itself was adapted from a stage comedy by Pierre Beumarchais. The play was at first banned by the Emperor of the Habsburgs due to its frank treatment of class conflict. A couple  years later, Mozart's librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte managed to get official approval from the Emperor for an operatic version. But in order to do so, Da Ponte replaced Figaro’s climactic speech against inherited nobility with an equally angry aria against unfaithful wives. Apparently, anger at women was more acceptable than anger at the ruling class.

The opera premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 1, 1786, and went on to achieve great success. Mozart himself conducted the premiere while sitting at the keyboard, and it became an instant hit. The opera’s plot, revolving around servants outwitting their aristocratic masters, was socially revolutionary at the time, despite the edits that had to be made from the original play. The sparkling overture, which was written just two days before the Vienna premiere, is an exuberant beginning to Mozart’s brilliant opera.

This opera was a big break for Mozart. The Imperial Italian opera company paid him 450 florins for the work; this was three times his (low) yearly salary when he had worked as a court musician in Salzburg. Da Ponte was paid 200 florins.  

The Hungarian poet Ferenc Kazinczy was in the audience for a May performance and later remembered the powerful impression the work made on him: “The beautiful singer, enchanted eye, ear, and soul. Mozart conducted the orchestra, playing his fortepiano; but 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?"

Joseph Haydn appreciated the opera greatly, writing to a friend that he heard it in his dreams.

And while it received good reviews in Vienna, its popularity really took off when it moved to Prague. In fact, while Mozart was in Prague he wrote back to one of his friends, “Here nothing is talked about except Figaro; nothing is played, blown, sung, or whistled except Figaro. No opera draws the crowds like Figaro—it’s always Figaro.”