Mozart’s operas were a cultural force at the beginning of the modern era. He began work on The Marriage of Figaro in 1785. The first performance was May 1, 1786 in Vienna. Between the American and French Revolutions, Beaumarchais’ comedy about servants outsmarting their aristocratic masters was already creating controversy in Paris. Mozart’s operatic setting premiered against elaborate intrigues. Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte had to remove much of the social satire of Beaumarchais’ play in order to get it past the Viennese censors.
The music begins as Figaro measures the bedroom he and Susanna will occupy after their forthcoming marriage. To Figaro’s dismay the chamber is within easy earshot of their master’s bell, which Figaro suspects will provide opportunities for the Count Almaviva to summon Susanna anytime of day or night, particularly while Figaro has been detained by some other obligation in his duties as the count’s valet. The feudal right of a lord to sleep with a servant girl on her wedding night, the notorious droit du seigneur, has been abolished by decree of the Count, but innuendo is strong that he will reinstitute it in this case. Sexual conquest by aristocratic men of women beneath their cast is a theme that recurs in Mozart’s operas. Don Giovanni is, of course, a prototype of the philandering menace. Count Almaviva is well married, but projecting his own immoderate desire, he is jealous of the Countess in her relations with her page, Cherubino. The Countess is innocent, but the Count does have amorous intentions regarding Susanna. The story of this opera turns on what would today be grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit. It is some measure of progress that the kind of predatory attention that the Count pays Susanna is now illegal. In a time when servants were powerless against it, they resorted to wiles like those of Susanna.
As is evident, musical drama has, by this time, come a long way from liturgical metaphysics. Yet this comedy defies all attempts to turn it into a romp around the bedroom. Mozart’s most poignant music dramatizes the emotions of people contemplating the consequences of unfaithfulness. The aria Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro—Grant, love, some comfort—in which the Countess laments her husband's infidelity is moving beyond words, even while Marcellina, Bartolo, and Basilio conspire in slapstick antics, attempting to marry Figaro to Marcellina, who is, in fact, his mother. Again in Act 3, the Countess ponders the loss of happiness in the aria Dove sono i bei momenti—Where are they, the beautiful moments? The lengths to which Susanna goes to maneuver the Count into a predicament in which he realizes his folly creates the appearance of complicity in the Count’s designs. Figaro feels this as betrayal for advantages supposedly to be gained by her place in the Count’s affections. The parallel emotions of the Countess and Figaro are provocative in their portrayal of humanity that transcends social status. That this comedy could succeed as entertainment among the aristocracy three years before the French Revolution is an indication of the optimism of an era. The implication is that many people understood that nobility is more a matter of character than the status lavished on one by birth or refinement, a lesson civilized people seem to have to relearn at intervals. Mozart’s sympathies with the liberals then contending for limits on the powers of governing classes may be a function of his own dependency on patronage, despite the fact that he was doing very well by it.
The layers of significance in this opera, which is only one of Mozart’s numerous compositions for the theater and the church, depend on musical craftsmanship in a tradition spanning many centuries. It may have been possible to artistically render social commentary on so many important issues in a play without Mozart’s music, but it is Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro that has survived, not Beaumarchais’. Is the meaning in the music or in the text? This is a question that never goes away in disputes about art. Those who have never heard the Countess’s arias sung by a soprano who has spent her life learning classical technique tend to reply that the same meaning can be conveyed without her thirty years’ study. A deeper question is whether there are sublime themes that cannot be contemplated in absence of music like this. The theology of the ancient Nicene Creed set to music by Mozart in the eighteenth century and sung by a choir in the twenty first compounds the impact of millennia of enculturation in the historic faith. Artistry and tradition, especially when used to illuminate virtue, or its absence, can be the impetus to sudden illumination, in some cases revelation of transcendent reality.
Mozart is full of overtones on universal moral themes, some of them in astonishing contexts, as when the Roman Emperor Titus, who destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE, turns up incongruously as the compassionate monarch in an opera titled La Clemenza di Tito—The Clemency of Titus. There are also interesting vestiges of Biblical lore. A tragedy from the French lyric theater provides the story for Mozart’s Idomeneo. Idomeneo, King of Crete, was among the most celebrated heroes in the Punic Wars. After dealing the death blow to Troy, he is returning to his own territory by sea. The opera finds him near the port city of Sidon as his ship is overtaken by a storm. In terror for his life he vows to the god Neptune that if he and the crew survive, he will sacrifice whomever he first meets on landing. Readers of the Biblical story of Jephtha quickly recognize the hazard in this vow. The sea god grants Idomeneo’s plea, but it is his son, Idamante, who comes to meet him at the port. The heir to Idomeneo’s throne and beloved of Trojan princess Ilia is now a potential sacrifice to Neptune. In bitter remorse Idomeneo laments the deity’s claim on his son. The aria Fuor del Mar—Fury of the sea, declares his misery in music that tests the limits of the tenor's virtuosity: Stern God! Tell me, if my body was so close to shipwreck, for what cruel purpose was that wreck abated? Saved from the sea I have a raging sea more fearsome within.
On the recommendation of a confidant, the king decides to send Idamante to Argos rather than sacrificing him according to the vow, but soon after his departure a new storm arises. The ocean swells, and a monster emerges from the deep. This is but the beginning of suffering for people whose monarch has offended Neptune. The monster devours many inhabitants of Crete. The high priest of Neptune demands to see the king and tells him that he must render to Neptune that which is his. Idomeneo relents and concedes that his son will be surrendered. The priests and chorus make lamentation and plead for mercy. Finally, Idamante appears, willing to submit to his fate. Let the blow fall that will give relief in the present distress. I do not fear death, ye Gods, if your love bestows peace on my country and father. Ilia, Idamante’s betrothed, offers to take his place at the altar of sacrifice, but these displays of self abnegation move Neptune to compassion. His voice from the deep declares Idamante king and Ilia his queen. The sea god in this act seems more merciful than Jehovah in the similar plight of Jephtha.
This is a dramatic phrasing of a question those schooled in the Hebrew Bible still ponder. The God of the Bible commands holocausts against Canaanites and smites the children of Egyptians. These literary reflections of the ancient world seem alien to people heir to a civilization born of the amalgamation of Hebrew and Greek culture in Christianized Rome. Handel composed a setting of Jephtha’s story, and he couldn’t end it as the Bible does. In his improbable resolution, God intervenes using a deus ex machina, which isn’t convincing either. The conclusion of the matter in the book of Judges, after Jephtha’s daughter comes back from her lamentation in the mountains, is conveyed in the words: It came to pass at the end of two months that she returned unto her father who did with her according to his vow. This account is the kind of thing that makes people put the Bible back on the shelf, but the alternative, in Neptune’s irenic dismissal of the case against Idamante, is pagan. In the biblical metaphor of radical freedom God does not ask for Jephtha’s vow or compel him to keep it, but neither does God save him from a moral atrocity of his own making. Mozart’s affinity for an alternative ending alongside his opera of a completely fictional, compassionate Emperor Titus seems to confirm an image of Mozart as a prodigious youth evading the enormities of the real world.
The composer seems to have been a vulnerable soul. Peter Shaffer’s play, Amadeus, is as much a fiction as Mozart’s Emperor Titus, but it may have found some truth in its dramatization of Mozart’s psychological condition as that of a man plagued by guilt. The story attributes the hellish retribution on the philanderer Don Giovanni in the composer’s setting of the legend to Mozart’s feelings of terror about his own moral failings. It’s hard to imagine Mozart as, actually, depraved as the ravishing baritone who has no compunction about attempting to seduce a peasant girl on her wedding day. It's not especially surprising to find in this opera that Don Giovanni, whose catalogue of conquests includes hundreds of women all over Europe—1003 in Spain, it is said—remains desirable to women in spite of his vices. Leporello’s Catalogue Aria is humorous, but this story, in its entirety, is not very funny. In the opening scene Giovanni kills Donna Anna’s father in a midnight confrontation. From this beginning, the motivations of the women in the opera are confusing or confused. Anna's shrieking alerts the servants and her father that things are amiss, but before she calls for help, her first words are, in fact, You won’t escape; you will never get away from me. The ambiguity of these opening lines persists through the ensuing action. Anna makes Ottavio, her fiancé, swear vengeance on her father’s assassin, but, to the end, she is in thrall of Giovanni. After his demise, when the virtuous Ottavio wants her to follow through on their engagement, she puts him off for a year, saying she needs time to grieve her slain progenitor.
Another woman is also pursuing the unrepentant rogue. His next attempted seduction turns out to be Donna Elvira, an earlier conquest who is still on his trail. Giovanni escapes again, and Leporello tries to dissuade her from following him. This is the ostensible reason for the Catalogue Aria, a detail that tends to be overlooked in the interpretations rendered by most Leporellos. The valet’s dilemma is that of a man compelled to explain that his boss is an incorrigible cad. The fact that Don Giovanni is a nobleman is set in stark contrast by a scene in which he attempts to lead the peasant bride Zerlina astray. The groom is, of course, belligerent, and it is Leporello’s unsavory task to remove him. Giovanni in on the verge of success in the seduction, but Donna Elvira has not taken Leporello’s advice to go home. She snatches Zerlina from the clutches of the predatory "nobleman". Donna Anna and Ottavio come in at this moment, and Elvira returns to expose and renounce Giovanni. He deflects Elvira’s rants by claiming she is deranged. Donna Anna recognizes him in this ruse, but the wedding feast continues. Apparently Giovanni is paying for the festivities. He sings his famous Champaign Aria still with an eye on Zerlina. Leporello distracts the groom while Giovanni draws Zerlina out of the room, only this time she screams for help. Ottavio and the women corner the Don and he narrowly escapes impalement on Ottavio’s sword.
Ruthless as he is ravishing, Giovanni changes clothes with Leporello. He is not ashamed to put his valet at risk for his life in order to deceive his pursuers, while he amuses himself serenading Elvira’s maid. The aggrieved groom, Masetto, who is not amused at nearly being cuckolded on his wedding day, is leading a band of armed peasants in the attempt to capture or kill Giovanni. When the posse discovers the rake disguised as Leporello, Giovanni sends in them general direction of Leporello and then beats up Masetto. Leporello has a near miss with Giovanni’s other pursuers, Ottavio, Donna Anna, and Donna Elvira, but he unmasks and escapes.
Having evaded all of his natural enemies, Giovanni’s defiance encounters a supernatural adversary in the cemetery to which he and Leporello have fled. A stone memorial statue of Anna’s father begins to speak. The Commendatore’s voice terrifies Leporello while it intones a challenge addressed to the unrepentant Giovanni. The rake tells Leporello to invite the Commendatore to dinner, and, trembling, Leporello conveys the invitation. In the mean time, Anna is delaying and dismissing Ottavio’s pleas that they be wed. Elvira finds Giovanni and interrupts him while Leporello is serving him dinner. She makes another appeal to Giovanni to reform. He contemptuously refuses and sends her away. On the way out she encounters the Commendatore on his way to accept Giovanni’s invitation to dinner. The stone guest enters. Trying to remain unperturbed, Giovanni orders Leporello to set another place at the table. The guest is not amused. He says, Those who take the everlasting bread need no temporal sustenance. Other matters bring me hence.
Giovanni says, speak your message. The Commendatore has come to confer in a reasonable fashion with the rank offender. He asks if Giovanni will sit at table and consider the terms of his surrender. Giovanni says he’s no coward; he will confer. The Commendatore asks for a handshake on the agreement. Once Giovanni’s hand is in the stone fist of the Commendatore, he begins to sense a deathly chill. The guest commands him to repent. This is his last chance.
Pentiti, cangia vita, e l’ultimo momento
Pentiti, scelerato, pentiti, pentiti
Unrepentant and unrelenting, Giovanni rages even as he is dragged into the vortex. Voices torment him with threats of worse terrors waiting in the unending fire. Leporello is left to tell Giovanni’s pursuers that he is far away. There came a giant made of marble through the door and seized the master. Smoke and fire came from the ground and took him down.
Anna’s repeated delaying in her commitment marry Ottavio, even after the rogue’s demise confirms the ambiguity of the moral of this story. Anna says she will retreat to a convent to fast, pray, and ponder, and then, she promises, she will be Ottavio’s faithful wife. None of this inspires comedic release of the tension that has been building. Zerlina and Masetto are happily reunited. They join in the chorus warning that debauchery ends in destruction as has the inglorious Don Giovanni. Of course, directors in contemporary productions don’t know what to make of this morality play at the conclusion of the opera. Some years ago in Seattle the local company staged a production that parodied the ethos of a Catholic parochial school, complete with flashing neon cross, against the libertine. Some of this is arguably in the libretto; Don Giovanni’s music is robust in contrast to that of the virtuous Ottavio. Something is undeniably wrong with the world, and it is as evident in this opera as in the cinematic extravagances of the present era. Virtue is often not so interesting as vice.
Whether or not Shaffer’s guilt-ridden Amadeus is complete fiction, there is a morality play on another level than that apparent in this opera's retribution on the seducer. It’s a question about whether virtue is life negating. The idea, that it is, has had many advocates, among them Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and currently, Darwinists holding forth variously as scientists or economists. This opera’s examination of the question is not as inspirational as that of Plato and Aristotle who conceived virtue as the noblest and most satisfying of human accomplishments and an end in itself. The Hebrew Bible puts virtue on a plane with wisdom and indicates on many occasions that God’s worldly blessing are on the righteous. Other Biblical narratives concerning Job, Jesus, and St. Paul require the concession that suffering often accompanies virtue and that crowd pleasers are frequently in the company of a multitude on their way to destruction.
There is some evidence in filth-obsessed letters of Mozart that he suffered from Tourette Syndrome. Shaffer’s play makes the composer’s scatological jests the object of Salieri’s disdain for him. Despite the evident mirth in his music, Mozart was on his death bed at age thirty six. He worked on sections of his Requiem in the final weeks of his life. The work was finished by his pupil Süssmayr with some more recent emendations. Mozart’s Requiem, as it is now sung, balances the fury of the Dies Irae and Confutatis with the lyrical Recordare. It has been a consolation to many generations. After the atrocities at the World Trade Center in 2001, fifty thousand people filled a sports arena in Seattle to hear it again as a classic inquiry into the enigma of the world.