Beginning October/November 1785

May 1, 1786 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, conducted by Mozart

Mozart decided to make Le nozze di Figaro into an opera for one main reason: Figaro was the sequel to an earlier, highly successful opera, which itself was based on a highly successful book. The opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, ovvero La precauzione inutile (The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution) by Giovanni Paisiello, was performed to huge crowds all across Europe, and at sixty performances became the most-performed opera in the history of the Vienna theater during the eighteenth century.

Il barbiere di Siviglia was an opera adaption of the well-known play by Pierre Beaumarchais, so it is no wonder that Beaumarchais’ 1778 sequel La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figáro (The Wild Day, or The Marriage of Figaro) seemed like very promising source material to Mozart. The popularity of the German translation published in 1785 only made the decision to adapt it that much easier.1

Figaro was the first collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who would also go on to write the librettos for Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. Although little written material concerning Figaro has survived from Mozart, Da Ponte does provide a firsthand account of the opera’s genesis:

In conversation with me one day… he asked me whether I could easily make an opera from a comedy by Beaumarchais—Le Mariage de Figaro. I liked the suggestion very much, and promised to write one. But there was a very great difficulty to overcome. A few days previous, the Emperor had forbidden the company at the German theatre to perform that comedy, which was too licentiously written, he thought, for a self-respecting audience: how then to propose it to him for an opera? Baron Wetzlar offered, with noble generosity, to pay me a handsome price for the words, and then, should we fail of production in Vienna, to have the opera presented in London, or in France. But I refused this offer and proposed writing the words and the music secretly and then awaiting a favourable opportunity to show them to the Directors [of the Opera], or to the Emperor himself, for which step I confidently volunteered to assume the responsibility… I set to work, accordingly, and as fast as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music. In six weeks everything was in order.2

When Da Ponte initially presented Figaro to the emperor, he was greeted with an incredulous reminder that the emperor himself had just forbidden any performances of the comedy. Da Ponte responded:

‘Yes Sire,’ I rejoined, ‘but I was writing an opera, and not a play. I had to omit many scenes and to cut others quite considerably. I have omitted or cut anything that might offend good taste or public decency at a performance over which the Sovereign Majesty might preside. The music, I may add, as far as I may judge of it, seems to me marvelously beautiful.’3

To this, the emperor simply replied, “Good! If that be the case, I will rely on your good taste as to the music and on your wisdom as to the morality. Send the score to the copyist.”4

The premiere was given on May 1, 1786, with Mozart conducting from the pianoforte. The initial reaction was divided at the premiere, but by the day after the third performance the emperor was forced to issue an order limiting the number of encores, even stating that no pieces for more than one voice were to be repeated.5

1 Cliff Eisen, et al., “Mozart,” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/40258pg3 (accessed April 3, 2011).

2 H.C. Robbins Landon, Mozart: The Golden Years (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2006), 155-56.

3 Ibid., 156.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 163.