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

WOO-1238-Figaro-300The 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, many of the most celebrated partnerships have flourished right from the start.

In the mid-1860s, when director Sergio Leone needed music to evoke the unique atmosphere of his groundbreaking films now known as "Spaghetti Westerns" -- and to accompany his recurring hero, played by Clint Eastwood -- he turned to composer Ennio Morricone.

Their first movie was A Fistful of Dollars. That unexpected hit led to a whole string of successes, including the rather operatically tilted blockbuster Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, which in English became the iconic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Morricone and Leone went on to become one of the greatest composer/director teams in film history, ranking with Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchcock, and John Williams and Steven Spielberg.

Now, you might assume that achieving more or less instant success with a first-time collaboration would be a rare event. But there are other examples of creative teams whose talents seemed right for each other from the very beginning.

In the early 1940s, on Broadway, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein got together for the first time -- and wrote Oklahoma!. While they later turned out South Pacific and Carousel, that first effort has proven hard to top.

Still, it's an 18th-century operatic collaboration whose initial efforts may have produced the most enduring masterpiece of any first-time creative partnership. It happened when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte teamed up for The Marriage of Figaro. And the two were just getting started; they followed up with Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

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 relationship between the 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 contrasts 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 London's Royal Albert Hall and the 2012 Proms Concerts. The stars are sopranos Sally Matthews and Lydia Teuscher as the Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna, and baritones Vito Priante and Audun Iversen as Figaro and the Count. Conductor Robin Ticciati leads a performance that also features the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.