One common and justifiable objection to opera is its tendency to focus alarmingly on big emotions, violently expressed in black and white. Not so Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (properly translated as The Wedding of Figaro, incidentally, not The Marriage). Delicately etched in all shades of ordinary human foibles, it tells the story of two young couples, caught between their better and worse selves as they struggle with a tangle of lust, jealousy, remorse and resentment across a class divide. There is no villain, no triumph or disaster: instead the muddle unravels with mutual forgiveness and an acceptance of what Mozart’s contemporary the philosopher Immanuel Kant called “the crooked timber of humanity”. Its only lesson is that we must not expect too much of people.
The score, dating from 1786 when Mozart was not yet 30, is a miracle of grace, pace and wit – from the excitable overture onwards, you can almost sense the youthfully ambitious composer relishing the challenge of making music out of the characters and the situations in which they find themselves. Significantly, only half the numbers are for solo voices: this is not an opera for grandstanding, and the arias flow in and out of the drama, many of them as musing interior monologues rather than public statements.
What is perhaps most notable is the wealth of duets, trios and ensembles, in particular the masterfully constructed extended finale to Act 2 and the deliciously comic sextet in Act 3. So much lies in small details too – tiny passages such as the heart-stopping moment when the maid Susanna unexpectedly emerges from her mistress’s closet to the bemusement of the latter’s husband – and in a good performance the lively exchanges of the mercurial recitative can be every bit as richly expressive as the arias.
I’ve known and loved this inexhaustibly wonderful work of art for over half a century now, and even after countless hearings, it never fails to move and delight me. As the bleak winter nights draw in, I plan to pour myself with a large glass of wine and settle down to another viewing of David McVicar’s elegant production from Covent Garden, with a lovely cast including Erwin Schrott, Gerald Finley and Miah Persson, lovingly conducted by Antonio Pappano (a DVD on the Opus Arte label). I know it will make the world suddenly seem a kinder, warmer place.