“The Marriage of Figaro” program notes by David Cranmer

La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro



In the 21st century we are accustomed to the notion of a repertoire of operatic works drawn from the past, of recognised interest and merit, that have come to constitute a ‘canon’. Were we to go back to 18th-century Italy, we would find a very different picture. There was no repertoire or canon as such. Operas were composed and performed, one after another. Some would be successes. This would mean that they would then be copied (by hand) and performed in other theatres in other Italian cities and possibly in other European cities that had Italian theatres, such as London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Munich, Vienna, Prague, St. Petersburg, and so on. Others were fiascos and never heard again. More rarely a work would be heard in just a few theatres before being consigned to oblivion. Success or failure depended on many factors beside the actual quality of the work. Much depended on the singers, their capabilities and how far they themselves believed in and championed the works they performed. Equally often, however, it depended on that great unforeseeable: the whim of the audience and claques, paid or not to cheer or make a commotion. But even successful operas would, as a rule, have only a relatively brief period of popularity, lasting ten or perhaps twenty years (rarely more) before disappearing to make way for new waves of popular works.

Costume rendering for Figaro by Haley Lieberman.
Costume rendering for Figaro by Haley Lieberman.

It is also a characteristic of the ‘canon’ repertoire that we have gradually grown used to over the past two hundred years that it does not admit within its midst more than one opera on the same theme. Thus operas that were popular at one time have had to give way to others, as in the case of Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, replaced in public affection by Rossini’s, and Rossini’s Otello by Verdi’s. Similarly, despite the recognised qualities and success of Leoncavallo’s La bohème, it gradually lost ground to Puccini’s.

Sadly, the ‘other’ Barber, or Otello or Bohème are too often seen now as curiosities rather than the works of considerable dramatic and musical merit that they are in their own right. And yet it would be quite wrong to criticise this curiosity, since it is precisely this that leads to revivals of neglected operas, hidden by the shadows of the great pillars of the ‘canon’: by way of example, the many Don Giovanni operas, of which Giuseppe Gazzaniga’s once popular version, in particular, has received justified attention, and the Fidelio operas – Mayr’s L’amor conjugale and Paer’s Leonora, which have both been revived in recent decades. It is in this spirit of allowing the ‘other’ to speak that we may now enjoy the Marriage of Figaro by the Portuguese composer Marcos Portugal, first performed in Venice on Boxing Day, 1799.


The original play and its first operatic adaptation

The career of the dramatist, musician, pamphleteer, spy, arms dealer – and profound believer in true justice – Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-99) was by any standards remarkable. Having achieved considerable success with his comedy Le barbier de Séville, premiered in Paris in February 1775, he rapidly conceived a sequel, as we know from the partial outline of the plot that he included in the first official printed edition of Le barbier. This sequel, La folle journée ou Le mariage de Figaro (The follies of a day or The Marriage of Figaro, as the title was first translated into English) was probably finished as early as 1778 and was already accepted for staging at the Comédie Française in Paris in 1781. However, owing to its ‘political’ content, it took six applications as well as lobbying from court sources for it finally to receive approval from the censors and King Louis XVI.

The fact that it had for so long been banned guaranteed that when the play did eventually come to be premiered, on 27 April 1784, a succès de scandale was guaranteed. The success it had, however, went far beyond this, for in the weeks that followed it had an uninterrupted run of 68 performances. It was quickly printed in pirated editions and quickly spread abroad. It was performed in English in London at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, on 21 February 1785, less than a year after the original production. A production was also planned in Vienna that same month, but, once again because of the ‘political’ content, the Emperor Joseph II refused to authorise its staging without substantial cuts and the project was abandoned. Curiously, he allowed it to be printed without alteration later the same year.

What then, was this dangerous content that so worried the French and Austrian monarchs? Indeed, it is not difficult to understand. Even reading the play in a 21st-century democracy, we are impressed by its daring in relation to injustices and immorality of various kinds. Its virulent satire with regard to the functioning of the courts, for example, which occupies much of Act III, reminds us of the corruption and caprice that were endemic in the judiciary of the playwright’s time, something from which he had personally suffered. However, it must certainly have been some of the speeches of Figaro (the author’s mouthpiece) that caused greatest concern. At one point, for example, he makes a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of politicians – it makes us laugh still today, because politicians have not changed.

Coming but a few years before the French Revolution, as it did, we, looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, cannot but be struck by Figaro’s long soliloquy in the final act, particularly what he has to say about the Count’s attempts to seduce Susanna:

[…] No, Count, you shan’t have her…, no, you shan’t. Since you are a great lord, you think you’re a great genius! … nobility, fortune, position; all this makes you proud. What did you do to earn so much? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, and nothing more! Otherwise, a man just like any other.

It is not that Beaumarchais wished to change the world order – if we can accept what he tells us in his extensive preface to the first edition. He simply wished to be critical of abuses wherever they might be. The players of this drama do not seek to deceive the Count as such; they are forced to use this as a strategy to put an end to his own deceit. And although he has, necessarily, to be humbled, there is no hint of any contempt for him, only a gladness that morality and justice have prevailed.

The idea of turning Beaumarchais’ play into an opera seems to have come from the then Viennese court poet, the Abbé Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838). His choice of subject matter and source would have been motivated not only by Beaumarchais’ play in itself, whose literary and dramatic qualities are exceptional and whose notoriety gave it further advantages, but also by the recent success of Il barbiere di Siviglia, in the version by Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816). This opera, composed for the Russian court at St. Petersburg in 1782, had received its Viennese premiere under the composer’s direction the following year. It was one of the most successful operas of its time continuing to receive performances throughout Europe till at least the second decade of the 19th century (when it was eclipsed by Rossini’s opera) and in Vienna it had been greeted with the same enthusiasm as elsewhere.

Da Ponte tells us in his Memoirs of how he gained the Emperor’s authorisation to adapt the text, the condition being, unsurprisingly, that he expurgate it of its ‘dangerous’ tendencies. This he did, primarily by reducing Act III (the court scene) to the minimum necessary for the sense of the plot and by cutting all of Figaro’s more controversial statements. The composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), is also believed to have had a considerable hand in certain aspects of the libretto (as he usually did), in particular the tendency to introduce characters in relation to one another, through duets and bigger ensembles rather than through solo cavatinas and arias. Librettist and composer were also a particularly well-suited partnership (though neither apparently recognised this) in their preference for concision and intensity of feeling.

Le nozze di Figaro was first performed on 1st May 1786. It survived the attempts by a claque of Paisiello supporters to create uproar and by the third performance, its success was guaranteed. Nevertheless, it only received nine performances and it only returned to the Viennese stage in 1789, when the composer made a number of revisions. Although the opera spread to other cities in the German-speaking world, it remained virtually unknown outside until after 1810. In particular, it was, to all intents and purposes, unknown in Italy.


The composer Marcos Portugal

Like a number of other composers, Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) was a far more successful composer in his own lifetime than Mozart was. Indeed, his international fame during the last decade of the eighteenth century and first of the nineteenth was greater than that of any Portuguese composer before or since.

He had received his training (as singer, organist and composer) from the age of nine at the Patriarchal Seminary in Lisbon, like virtually all musicians in the Portuguese capital. By the time he was twenty he had already come to royal attention, in particular to that of Prince João, who, in due course, owing to the death of his elder brother, was to become Prince Regent and later King João VI of Portugal. The composer was to remain in the latter’s service for some 40 years. At some point in the mid 1780s, Marcos Portugal was appointed music director of the new Teatro do Salitre. It was here that he began his career as a composer of dramatic music, providing musical numbers for the one-act spoken comic entremezes (intermezzi) and writing three full-length Portuguese operas.

In September 1792, under royal patronage, the composer set sail for Italy. During the following eight years

Costume rendering for Cherubino by Haley Lieberman.
Costume rendering for Cherubino by Haley Lieberman.

(apart from a brief visit to Lisbon in 1795), he rapidly gained acclaim as an opera composer in various Italian cities. His first success, in the Spring of 1793, was Le confusioni della somiglianza, o siano I due gobbi, an opera buffa premiered at the Teatro Pallacorda, Florence. Although two of his serious operas, Il ritorno di Serse (Florence, Teatro Pallacorda, 1797) and Fernando nel Messico (Venice, Teatro San Benedetto, 1798), were well received, it was above all at the Teatro San Moisè, Venice, in the comic genres, that he scored his greatest triumphs: Lo spazzacamino principe (farsa, 1794), La donna di genio volubile (dramma giocoso, 1796), Le donne cambiate (farsa, 1797) and La maschera fortunata (farsa, 1798).

In 1800 Marcos Portugal returned to Lisbon, where he was immediately appointed maestro of the Teatro de São Carlos. Here, up to Carnival 1807, he wrote 12 opere serie, mostly for Angelica Catalani as prima donna, and the opera buffa, L’oro non compra amore, for Elisabetta Gafforini. By 1807 he was also increasingly in demand for sacred works, to which he thereafter largely devoted himself.

In November that year the French invaded Portugal, occupying Lisbon for just over 9 months. The royal family, prepared for such an eventuality, had left for Brazil a matter of hours before their arrival, transferring the Portuguese capital to Rio de Janeiro. Marcos Portugal was in due course summoned, reaching Rio in June 1811. Here he took up the posts of teacher to the royal princes and princesses, and official royal composer. Although the royal family returned to Portugal in 1821, he remained in Brazil, becoming a Brazilian citizen following independence the next year. He died in Rio de Janeiro in 1830.


The opera La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro

We have no information on the genesis of this other Marriage of Figaro apart from what we can surmise from the surviving manuscript scores and the printed libretto edition for the premiere. The latter informs us, among other things, that the librettist was Gaetano Rossi, based on Beaumarchais’ play, that the composer was Marcos Portugal and that it was first performed at the Teatro San Benedetto, Venice, in the Carnival season of 1800, though the edition was printed in 1799. This last point means that the opening night must been at the very beginning of the season, since the Carnival season normally began on 26th December, going on to Shrove Tuesday of the following year.

Gaetano Rossi (1774-1855) was a young poet, who had been writing opera libretti for just a few years, mostly for Venetian theatres, and particularly for the Bavarian composer Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845). In the course of his long career he was to write more than 120 libretti, including Tancredi (Venice, 1813) and Semiramide (Venice, 1823) for Rossini, Il crociato in Egitto (Venice, 1824) for Meyerbeer, Il giuramento (Milan 1837) for Mercadante and Linda di Chamonix (Vienna, 1842) for Donizetti. He was competent, without being exceptional, more experimental than conservative, though working firmly within the conventions of his time.

Rossi’s libretto has much in common with Da Ponte’s, to which he must have had access. This is altogether unsurprising. It was entirely usual for libretti to circulate independently of the corresponding music. Since they were normally printed, there were many copies and they would be obtained by other theatres, precisely to provide their own librettists with a point of departure for versions of their own. This was not plagiarism as we understand it, but simply part of the normal process and practice of the time. Although Rossi’s wording follows Da Ponte’s quite closely in some places, his chief debt is in the way he by and large follows Da Ponte’s decisions as to what to cut of Beaumarchais’ play, differing substantially only by reinstating certain scenes towards the end of the opera. Thus many of the arias that are familiar to us from Da Ponte and Mozart have their equivalents for the same character in the same place in Rossi’s text. This is perhaps most striking in the case of the great sextet in which Susanna learns that Marcellina and Bartolo are Figaro’s mother and father. We also find that the Countess has a cavatina “Dove siete, o bei momenti”, not in the position of “Dove sono i bei momenti” in Mozart’s opera, something Da Ponte had added to Beaumarchais’ text, but brought forward to the position of “Porgi amor”, another addition by Da Ponte. Rossi could only have done this if he had had Da Ponte’s libretto available as a model.


However, there are important changes too to the libretto. The reinstatement of certain sections of Beaumarchais’ original has already been mentioned. More immediately noticeable, however, is the difference in the number of acts. The Da Ponte/Mozart version is in four acts, almost certainly out of homage to Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, which also, most exceptionally, had four. The norm in Italy at this time had been shifting. Up to about 1780 for full-length comic operas three acts were usual, but the third act had been shrinking

Costume rendering for Susanna by Haley Lieberman.
Costume rendering for Susanna by Haley Lieberman.

to the point that increasingly it was cut altogether. Thus, by the early 1780s a two-act model was rapidly becoming usual. Rossi, unsurprisingly, did not hesitate to recast Da Ponte’s four-act text in two acts, with Da Ponte’s Act II finale serving as the basis for his own Act I finale. In general terms, Rossi created a ‘smoother’, less terse and less intense text, creating the verbal structure that would enable the composer to write music that would appeal to an Italian, rather than Viennese audience.

La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro was the last comic opera that Marcos Portugal composed in Italy. While on the one hand, it follows the usual conventions of the opera buffa of its time – the generally rigid division of recitative and aria (or duet or other ensemble) and the careful tailoring of the vocal parts to suit the voices of the available singers – it also demonstrates how his own style had developed in the few years he was in Italy. There are a number of features which have moved far away from the models of Paisiello and Cimarosa (1749-1801) that he had inherited and which we would nowadays associate more with Rossini, whose operatic career began only ten years later. His use of obbligato wind instruments is, frankly, astonishing, most notably (though by no means exclusively) the pair of oboes and the pair of cors anglais in Susanna’s two great arias. Yet the histories of opera would have it that Mayr was responsible for the introduction of wind obbligati, in his operas of the following decade. The stupefaction ensemble in the Act II finale, as one by one the characters reveal themselves, between modulations that can only be described as magical, is by no means unique among Marcos Portugal’s output. Yet these ensembles occur almost two decades before those in Rossini’s Barbiere and La Cenerentola.

There are also certain musical points that have to be made in relation to the comparison we must inevitably make with Mozart’s opera. First and most important, if we except features that are attributable to a libretto taking Da Ponte’s text as a starting point and conventional types of setting that Mozart followed just like any other composer, Marcos Portugal’s treatment is rather different. Given, as we have seen, that Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro was, to all intents and purposes, unknown in Italy, it would be most surprising if Portugal had had access to the score. Even if he had, it would not have provided a good model for the expectations of an Italian audience. Mozart’s arias are too concise and are limited in the opportunities they provide singers to show off their voices. Mozart’s accompaniments are far too ‘busy’ – there is far too much counterpoint. As the Emperor Joseph is reported to have said, there were too many notes. Portugal’s approach is altogether lighter. For him, the principal aim of the accompaniment was to create an ambience and to provide a support for the voices. It was above all the voices that had to convey sentiment. It was also the voices available to him that would have determined many of his compositional choices.

When Mozart composed Le nozze di Figaro, he had two first class sopranos, Nancy Storace and Luisa Laschi, available to him and this would have weighed heavily in the relative importance given to the roles of Susanna and the Countess, respectively (and explains why Da Ponte added aria texts for the Countess that were not drawn from Beaumarchais). Marcos Portugal, on the other hand, had one particularly good soprano in Teresa Strinasacchi, for whom he wrote the role of Susanna, and only a weaker singer (though competent for secondary roles), Rosa Canzoni, for the Countess. Thus in his opera Susanna’s part makes demands of the singer on a completely different scale from those of the other female roles, coming to a peak in the sextet and her Act II aria. As for the men, whereas Mozart had two fine baritones in Stefano Mandini and Francesco Benucci, as the Count and Figaro, respectively, but no outstanding tenor (the Irishman Michael Kelly was fine for the secondary roles, Basilio and Don Curzio, but not of the same calibre as the baritones), Marcos Portugal was blessed with one of the leading tenors of his generation, Domenico Mombelli, who was cast as the Count. The composer already knew Mombelli’s voice from Fernando nel Messico – the title role was written for him – and they were to work together for several years in Lisbon, following Portugal’s return to his homeland. With his tenor used up as the Count, Basilio (and Don Gusmano, the equivalent of Don Curzio) thus became a baritone (Giovanni Battista Brocchi). Portugal’s Figaro was Luigi Raffanelli and his Cherubino Giulia Ronchetti. The smaller roles, with no solo arias, were played by Lucia Poleti (Marcellina), Carlo Giura (Bartolo), Domenico de Angelis (Antonio) and Maria Marcolini (Cecchina = Barbarina).

We do not know the details of how La pazza giornata was received, but we do know that it had 7 performances. This means that it was certainly not a flop, even if it was not an overwhelming triumph. On the other hand, there were no known revivals until it was taken up by the Bampton Classical Opera in England, in 2010, and successfully repeated by the same group at the Buxton Festival in 2012. And yet the music, as we would expect of a successful composer, is never less than competent and is often inspired. Its neglect is probably due to the combination of various circumstances: the need for three outstanding principals (Figaro, Susanna and the Count), the fact that Marcos Portugal left Italy little over a year later, and, of course, at a later stage (from the 2nd decade of the 19th century), the triumph of Mozart’s canonical opera.


The sources and the present edition

Costume rendering for Count Almaviva by Haley Lieberman.
Costume rendering for Count Almaviva by Haley Lieberman.

La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro survives in two manuscript scores, both of them copies (the autograph original is lost), one belonging to the Paris Conservatoire, now preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the other at the Conservatorio Luigi Cherubini, Florence. Substantial excerpts are also to be found at the Austrian National Library, Vienna. There are at least two surviving copies of the printed libretto: at the Conservatorio di Santa Cecilia, Rome (in the Carvalhaes collection) and at the library of the Conservatorio Gioachino Rossini, Bologna.

The critical edition used for the present production took as its principal musical source the copy at Florence, for the simple reason that, apart from one recitative in Act II, it is complete. It is, however, a problematic source in that it contains many errors. On the basis of internal evidence, this score was copied by a German speaker, probably Austrian – Venice was under Austrian occupation at this time. He was also either less experienced or simply somewhat careless. The Paris copy, on the other hand, is much more accurate and was clearly copied by an Italian, but it is incomplete. It lacks the overture, comes to an abrupt halt near the end of the Act I finale and resumes only at the recitative preceding Figaro’s Act II aria. It has been used, therefore, for the clarification of doubtful readings in the Florence copy and the correction of errors. It is fortunate too that it resumes where it does in Act II, since the recitative preceding Figaro’s Act II aria is missing at Florence. It has therefore been supplied from the Paris copy. The printed libretto has been used to clarify readings of the word text and to supply all the stage directions, which, as was the custom, are not to be found in the scores.

The opera was transcribed by a group of young Portuguese and Brazilian musicians and musicologists, coordinated by the present writer, working to the editing norms of the Marcos Portugal project. This is one of the projects of the Centro de Estudos da Sociologia e Estética Musical (CESEM) at the Universidade Nova, Lisbon, Portugal, and was funded by the Portuguese Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (FCT).


-David Cranmer


cranmerDavid Cranmer (score editor) is an English musicologist resident in Portugal since 1981 who teaches at the Musicology Department of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. His principal research interests involve opera and theatre music in Portugal and Brazil in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Among others, he has directed research projects on the Teatro de São Carlos, Lisbon, and on the Portuguese composer Marcos Portugal. He is researcher responsible for Caravelas – Study group for the history of Luso-Brazilian music, which currently has about 100 members from Brazil, Portugal, Spain, the UK, Switzerland, Italy and the USA. As well as publishing books of his own and in co-authorship, he is editor of Mozart, Marcos Portugal e o seu tempo (Lisboa: Edições Colibri/CESEM, 2010) and Marcos Portugal: uma reavaliação (Lisboa: Edições Colibri/CESEM, 2012).