Opera is impossible and always has been. The operatic ideal, an imagined union of all the human senses and all art forms—music, drama, dance, poetry, painting— is unattainable by its very nature. This impossibility is opera’s lifeblood: Most of the art form’s bizarre and beautiful fruits are the result of artists’ quest for this permanently elusive alchemy. But if any one work is capable of evading or surmounting this foundational impossibility, for me it’s Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (“The Marriage of Figaro”). Figaro would likely be my pick if I had to choose a single favorite work of art—and that includes books, movies, plays, and paintings as well as music.
In this three-hour transfiguration of Pierre Beaumarchais’ politically charged comedy, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte achieve an aerial view of the human soul, a portrait both of everything that’s irresistible and brilliant and sexy about human beings, and of the things that make us so infuriating to one another. The opera’s secret ingredient is love. Mozart loves his characters, even when they’re at their lowest, and so we end up loving them too. Figaro also has the unique ability to make me forget, whether I experience it as a conductor or a listener, that I’m hearing an opera at all. This is abnormal. In opera, artifice typically reigns supreme; usually this is part of its fun. When I perform or listen to Verdi or Wagner, I never forget that I’m experiencing a capital-O Opera, nor am I supposed to. The same is true, I think, of Mozart’s other operas: As I experience Don Giovanni or Die Zauberflöte, I never quite forget that I’ve been transported to a fantastical imaginary world.
But Figaro is a different beast. It is so close to reali ty that, in its uncannier moments, its artifice can’t be perceived. Its music seems somehow to bypass my ears and enter my heart and psyche unmediated. The sensation of being immersed in Figaro is no different, for me, from the feeling of gratitude for being alive.
I’m hardly alone in my baffled amazement. “It is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect,” Johannes Brahms once said of Figaro. “Nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.” And Figaro is the only opera I’ve ever conducted that, over the course of a given production, daily provokes some cast member to pause, shake their head, and say, “This is just the greatest fucking thing ever, isn’t it?”
In some ways, Figaro is responsible for my being a musician, and it’s certainly responsible for my work in opera. When I was 8 years old or so, I loved classical music but couldn’t stand opera, which I’d heard only bits of on Saturday-afternoon radio broadcasts. Operatic singing struck me as jarring and unpleasant. I was even a little embarrassed on the singers’ behalf: They seemed to have no idea how silly they sounded. For whatever reason, maybe because I was enthusiastic about Mozart and was playing some of his easier piano music at the time, my parents bought me a VHS tape of Figaro—Peter Hall’s production, recorded at Glyndebourne in 1973. I realize now that this production had a dream cast of leading ladies: a young Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, an even younger Frederica von Stade as Cherubino, the Romanian soprano Ileana CotrubaÈ™ as Susanna.
This video had a huge impact on me. It gave me the sense of suddenly having direct access to formerly unknown adult emotions. I felt a visceral connection to Mozart’s characters, a sympathy for them in my gut and my throat, in spite of their confusing grown-up problems. I didn’t grasp the nuances of Figaro’s plot, but something communicated itself to me nonetheless. In the opera’s ensemble scenes, Mozart has a way of layering his characters’ psychic states so that we experience the sum total of the spiritual energy in the room. In these scenes, no emotion or intention can be hidden; every secret feeling is brought to light. All the guilt and desire and insecurities and loathing and love accumulate and cause the musical air molecules to vibrate furiously.
I think what moved me, in these ensembles, was the sheer self-contradictory mass of them, the sense that I was in the presence of a complex, tightly wound ball of emotions whose strands I could never untangle. Precisely because Mozart leaves nothing out and shows each person in all their messy contradictoriness, it’s impossible to condemn his characters, no matter how awful they are to one another. The music is itself an act of forgiveness.
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