Program Notes | A Night at the Opera
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born 1756, Salzburg
Died 1791, Vienna
Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K.49
The Marriage of Figaro, based on the Beaumarchais play that had been banned for its theme of social injustice and its portrayal of servants outsmarting their masters, had its premiere in Vienna on May 1, 1786, and promptly began a successful run. In many respects, Figaro marked the high point of Mozart’s success during his lifetime. On a visit to Prague the following year to conduct the opera, Mozart reported that “here nothing is talked of but Figaro, nothing played but Figaro, nothing whistled or sung but Figaro, no opera so crowded as Figaro, nothing but Figaro.”
Mozart customarily composed the overtures to his operas last, and that was probably the case with The Marriage of Figaro. Mozart’s overtures were usually in sonata form, but he abandoned that form here, and for good reason. The Marriage of Figaro is witty, brilliant and wise, and it needs an overture that will quickly set its audience in such a frame of mind. This overture is very brief (barely four minutes) and Mozart drops the development section altogether. He simply presents his six sparkling themes, recapitulates them, and plunges into the opera. Evidence suggests that he had originally begun to compose a D-minor Andante as an interlude at the center of the overture, but saw that it would be out of place and crossed it out.
From the first instant when this music stirs to life, to its sudden explosions of energy, the overture is the perfect lead-in to the comic escapades that will follow. Faced with having to choose a performance marking for his players, Mozart dispensed with any description of the emotional character he wanted from a performance. He simply chose one word, and it is perfect: Presto.
—Program note by Eric Bromberger
Born 1803, Grenoble, France
Died 1869, Paris
Overture to Beatrice and Benedick
During the 1850s, Berlioz toured as a guest conductor of his own works, and his concerts in Baden-Baden were particularly successful. As a result, Edouard Bénazet, the owner of the casino and theater in Baden-Baden, commissioned an opera from Berlioz, and the composer turned to Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. Berlioz drew up his own libretto, keeping many lines from Shakespeare but also introducing characters and scenes of his own devising. The result was what Berlioz called “an opéra comique” in two acts.
He took the focus off the potentially tragic relationship between Claudio and Hero, choosing instead to enjoy the battle of the sexes as exemplified by Beatrice and Benedick: That couple may express their disdain for marriage in general and for each other in particular, but they end up married at the happy conclusion of Shakespeare’s play. First produced at Baden-Baden on August 9, 1862, Beatrice and Benedick enjoyed a successful premiere and was performed several times over the following seasons. Its success was one of the few pleasures of Berlioz’s unhappy final years–he died just a few years later, in 1869.
Beatrice and Benedick is seldom staged today because its vast amount of spoken dialogue makes it difficult for opera companies. But Berlioz’s lively overture lives on in the concert hall. It bursts to life on its skittering, playful main theme, which is tossed easily between strings and woodwinds. Berlioz reins in this energy for the solemn second theme-group, marked Andante un poco sostenuto. He simply alternates his themes, embellishes them as they go, and finally drives matters to a grand close on a ringing G-major chord for the whole orchestra. It is a fitting introduction to the tale of love gone wrong (and love gone right) that will follow.