By 1786, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was probably the most experienced and accomplished 30-year-old musician the world has ever seen, with dozens of now-canonical symphonies, concertos, sonatas, chamber works and masses already behind him. He also had 18 operas to his name, but none of those that would become his most famous. Over the final five years of his life (he died in 1791), Mozart would compose four operas that are among the most important and popular in the standard repertoire. This remarkably productive period of creative, critical and popular success for Mozart began with Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), which received its world premiere in Vienna, Austria, on May 1, 1786.
Figaro was the first collaboration between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, and for their source material they chose a controversial play by the French writer Beaumarchais: La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, the second part of a trilogy that began with Le Barbier de Séville (later the basis for the Rossini opera). Figaro the play was censored in Beaumarchais’s native France over concern about its “subversive” plotline, which depicts the efforts of a Spanish nobleman, Count Almaviva, to seduce Suzanne, a beautiful young servant of his wife, only to be thwarted and humiliated by his wife, the Countess Rosina, working in concert with the Count’s servant, Figaro, who is also Suzanne’s fiancée. To the French nobility of the time, Figaro was seen as condoning class conflict, but Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte managed to allay any concerns on the part of their patron, the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, by transforming the story into a light comedy. (Mozart’s successful pitch for Figaro is imagined in a comic scene in the film Amadeus (1984), in which the Emperor begins by saying to Mozart, “Figaro is a bad play. It stirs up hatred between the classes… My own dear sister Antoinette writes me that she is beginning to be frightened of her own people.”)
The combination of da Ponte’s libretto and Mozart’s score made Le nozze di Figaro an instant success and led to two further triumphant collaborations on Don Giovanni and Cosî fan tutte. There were five encores during the premiere performance of Figaro on this day in 1786, and seven during its second performance, prompting the emperor himself to impose a ban on encores during future performances, in order “to prevent the excessive duration of operas, without however prejudicing the fame often sought by opera singers from the repetition of vocal pieces.”