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 reality 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 Cotrubaș 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.
Figaro affected me in less lofty ways, too. One thing I love about Mozart is the inextricability, in his music, of the spiritual and the sensual, and Figaro, in addition to constituting a thorough spiritual education, is also very sexy. The dangerous, painfully prolonged erotic games in the opera’s second act made me feel queasy when I returned to the piece a couple of years later, on the verge of adolescence. What on earth was I looking at? The androgynous Cherubino—the character is a teenage boy, but he’s sung by an adult mezzo-soprano—is stripped of his page-boy outfit by two women, Susanna and the Countess, so that they can dress him up as a woman. (Cherubino is in big trouble, and they’re trying to disguise him as a woman so he can avoid being sent to the army.)
It sure looks as if Cherubino and the Countess might end up having sex—or maybe the two of them and Susanna are on the verge of a threesome. I reasoned that the extreme erotic tension between these women was okay because Cherubino was “really” a boy—but then, I also tried to reason away my crush on von Stade’s Cherubino by insisting to myself that Cherubino was “really” a girl. What was reality here, anyway?
Whatever I was looking at, it was mighty queer. I had no idea music could embody such transcendently transgressive sensations, these fleeting surges of warmth, of uncontainable desire for … something. I’d just begun to experience such sensations myself, and they made me feel very guilty. What did it mean that Mozart, that most angelic-sounding of composers, also evidently felt such things?
Figaro’s score consists of miracle after miracle, but its final scene might be the most astonishing of all. I’ve turned to these few minutes of music many times in my life, in times of both difficulty and joy. Many before me have highlighted this sequence as one of the wonders of the operatic world: For the philosopher Theodor Adorno, Figaro’s finale was among those moments “for whose sake the entire … form might have been invented.” I wouldn’t dare to claim that I can explain what makes these few minutes so magical. But maybe I can offer some clues.
Figaro is riddled with numerous interleaving subplots, but to appreciate its finale, you need to understand only the main thrust of the narrative. Count Almaviva, a Spanish nobleman, has been lusting after Susanna, his wife’s chambermaid, who is about to be married to the Count’s manservant, Figaro. The Count has recently abolished the feudal droit du seigneur, the legendary right of the master of an estate to sleep with his female servants on their wedding night. He knows that this enlightened gesture has earned him significant social capital among his servants, but he wants to sleep with Susanna anyway. He figures he just has to be a little sneakier about it than prior generations were.
But the Count underestimates the strength of Susanna’s friendship with his wife: Susanna tells the Countess everything, and they join forces with Figaro to expose the Count’s hypocrisy. At her wedding dinner, Susanna slips the Count a note inviting him to a nighttime rendezvous in the garden. But when night falls, Susanna and the Countess trade outfits; unbeknownst to him, the Count ends up wooing his own wife. Across the garden, Figaro and Susanna, who is dressed as the Countess, pretend to be overcome by passion for each other. The Count overhears them—just as they intended—and believes that Figaro has seduced his wife. Enraged, he yells bloody murder; the whole population of the estate comes running. But just as the Count prepares to punish his wife’s wrongdoing, his actual wife steps out from behind him. He realizes that he has been tricked. Everyone stands dumbstruck, waiting to see how he’ll react.
It’s worth noting how fraught this moment would have seemed to a European audience in 1786. A nobleman has been outsmarted and publicly humiliated by his servants and his wife. Surely the Count’s father or grandfather would have fired Figaro and Susanna on the spot, or sent them off to prison, or worse. But the question of how a man was to respond to such a situation was a borderline issue at the time, not so different from the question of how certain companies were supposed to react when their CEOs were accused of sexual harassment in the fall of 2017. We all know what used to happen, and we all know what the right thing to do is—so what’ll it be?
The whole cast waits, breathless. All eyes are on the Count.
He falls to his knees. “Contessa, perdono,” he sings. “Countess, forgive me.”
Mozart sets these words to an ascending major sixth, starting from the dominant, D natural. It is a gesture of supplication, an aspiring upward from a point of abasement. The Count’s first Contessa, perdono concludes by relaxing a half step downward from the tonic, G, to F-sharp.
He pauses. He realizes that he doesn’t sound quite sorry enough.
He repeats himself: Perdono, perdono. This time, he stretches his first syllable upward across the interval of a seventh, a slightly wider reach, the sense of entreaty intensified. His last perdono finishes with a drawn-out ascending slide from A-sharp to B-natural. It is a pleading, childlike gesture, one that barely dares to hope. The Count sounds anything but authoritative. His “Forgive me” is not a command, as it easily could have been. This final perdono is almost a prayer.
The Countess pauses. When she begins to sing, her phrasing is almost identical to the Count’s; they are married, after all, and they speak in the same aristocratic cadences. But compare the placement of each of the Count’s pitches with each of the Countess’s. Whereas the Count starts on the dominant and yearns upward with a plaintive major sixth, the Countess begins on G, the tonic, and reaches beneficently up a perfect fifth. This gesture bespeaks a profound serenity and poise; she is entirely in control. “Più docile io sono,” she sings, “e dico di sì.” “I am gentler”—a moment before, when the Count thought he’d caught his wife in the act, he had loudly refused to forgive her—“and I will say yes.”
The first time the Countess sings the words e dico di sì, she doesn’t sound especially convincing. Mozart places the word sì on a gentle slide from D down to C, a gesture that might be taken as a weary sigh of resignation. She knows it doesn’t sound quite right. It’s not easy to forgive. Just as the Count realized, after his first perdono, that he needed to try again, the Countess realizes that her first “yes” wasn’t quite generous enough.
She repeats herself—e dico di sì—this time coming gently to rest on the tonic. No more hesitations, no drawn-out dissonances, just: yes.
The violins songfully outline a G-major chord with a descending motion that—how to put it?—is a blessing, light breaking through clouds. Each member of the cast gives voice to their hushed wonder at the reconciliation they have just witnessed. Now, they say, we will all be happy.
So why, the listener might wonder, are they singing the saddest music ever written? The double gesture of the Count’s humility and the Countess’s forgiveness causes an overwhelming release of energy: The cast is transformed into a huge pipe organ. But what is this energy that’s suddenly unleashed? Why is this moment so heartbreaking? What are they really saying?
Look closely at the words they sing. Ah, tutti contenti / Saremo così. An idiomatic English translation would be “Ah, we will all / Be happy like this.” But an awkward, word-for-word translation reveals something else: “Ah, all happy / We will be like this.” The separability of that last line—“We will be like this”—makes all the difference. Mozart sets this text as a slow, inexorable chorale, and he repeats the words again and again until repetition uncovers a meaning that’s in direct opposition to the literal one. Saremo, saremo così. “We will be, will be like this.”
They know. The whole cast knows that what they’ve witnessed is a beautiful illusion. They know the Count won’t change, and neither will the Countess, and nor will any of them. Life will stay complicated. They’ll still marry one person and fall in love with another; they’ll still get jealous, and misunderstand one another, and hurt one another without meaning to. And maybe, once or twice in a lifetime, they’ll be granted a moment of utter clarity. A sense that it’s all beautiful, even if it’s not beautiful for them. An aerial view of their own souls. For whatever that’s worth.
What could be left to say or do? Once this heart-scouring chorale has floated home to G major, the strings trace a descending line that gradually outlines a dominant seventh chord: G–E–C-sharp–A. I can’t describe this passage any other way than to say that, in the afterglow of the chorale, it feels like someone is choked up, and when the strings descend from G to a fleeting E minor, a tear finally breaks free and runs down their cheek. (In some productions, the Count and Countess embrace at this point.)
But this naked emotion lasts only an instant. That C-sharp has a gleam in its eye, a welcome hint of Mozartian mischief: It contains the possibility of modulation out of G major into D major, the key of the opera’s famously frenetic overture. Together with the high E that the flute plays above it, the C-sharp seems to be asking, “Are we finally ready to have some fun?”
Yes indeed. The music bursts open into a jubilant, hard-won allegro. After all these exhausting excavations of the human heart, everyone is ready to party. This moment is challenging for conductors, and the reason has everything to do with the characters’ psychological state. In fast quarter notes, the whole cast sings the words Corriam tutti: “Let’s all run” (that is, run to get drunk and forget themselves as soon as possible). Beneath them, the strings and bassoons play a giddy, light-speed line of running eighth notes that practically recapitulates their part from the overture.
The singers inevitably rush here. It’s a law of nature. In no performance, ever, have the singers not felt the urge to push forward at this moment. After all, their part is much easier than the orchestra’s, and both the music and the words (“let’s run let’s run let’s run!”) egg them on. The poor orchestra, meanwhile, is down in the pit breaking a sweat just trying to stay together. Even on some rather well-known studio recordings of the opera, singers and orchestra come egregiously unstuck here.
You know what? I think the singers are right. These characters are trying to outrun reality itself. Damn right that they should speed up. It’s the conductor’s job, and the orchestra’s, to keep up with them. The end of Figaro should go up in smoke. Having examined the heart’s every crevice, having exposed every weakness, every selfish or shameful desire, and still insisting that love conquers all, there’s nothing left for Mozart to do but light the fireworks.
This essay has been adapted from Matthew Aucoin’s new book, The Impossible Art: Adventures in Opera. It appears in the December 2021 print edition with the headline “The Miraculous Sound of Forgiveness.”
When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.