On this day...

On this day in 1786 the première of probably the greatest opera of all time - if not the greatest work of art in all mediums - Mozart's Marriage of Figaro took place. Directed by Mozart himself at the Burgtheater in Vienna, the opera was an instant success and a command performance for the Emperor Joseph II was given in his palace at Laxenburg a month later.

A long-standing opera-lover's favourite, the more I hear it and the more I think about it the more I'm drawn to the conclusion that it's probably the greatest work of art in any medium. It's almost impossible to compare paintings, plays, poetry and other literature with opera. But Figaro really does have it all.

I'm not going to go into great musicological detail; there are plenty out there better qualified than me to do that. But I am going to share one significant insight - an insight that had escaped me for several years. The Beaumarchais play that Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, used as inspiration had been banned. No, that's not the insight. The play - and opera - relentlessly send up the aristocracy and a decade before the French Revolution that was certainly enough to keep it from a European public hungry for change.

My problem was always the Count's inexplicable (to me) chasing of the soon-to-be-married (to Figaro, Count Almaviva's servant-in-chief) Susanna. None of the opera programmes I've read, none of the synopses I'd seen, no-one I'd spoken to about it had explained it in any other way than as Almaviva's attempt at infidelity. Simple. He fancies her and contrives to 'have' he before it's too late - before she's safely married to Figaro.

But it's not as simple as that. Not at all. And it's this layer of complexity that elevates the opera from the realms of entertainment to that of a revolutionary statement. For the Count - as Count (I think that's the spelling) - wants something generations of his forebears will have enjoyed in countless similar situations, something he regards as his right in spite of his own marriage vows and in despite of the vows Figaro and Susanna plan to take. He wants her virginity, his droit de seigneur, the jus primae noctis that befits his position as a member of the ruling classes.

And Figaro's having none of it. Nor is the Countess (no turning a blind eye for her) and nor - ultimately - is the Count. The Marriage of Figaro isn't (just) a love story - it's a complex challenge to the so-called rights of the aristocracy - but cleverly disguised so that (unlike the play) it was never likely to be banned.

Musically too, it's revolutionary. But you don't want to read about that now, do you? No. Have a listen instead. Here's Erwin Schrott as Figaro singing the aria Se vuol ballare about his plan to thwart the Count's evil plan...

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