FL 2 3131

Mozart: Soprano Arias from The Marriage of Figaro; Exsultate, jubilate

Release date October 12, 1999
Album code FL 2 3131
Periods Classical

Album information

The splendour of the voice and the sensitivity to emotional expression. This aptly describes Mozart’s music for soprano while also governing the layout of the programme of this recording, brilliantly performed by Lyne Fortin.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) always tailored his vocal music to suit the performer for whom it was intended as well as to bring out the affect of a text. It is indeed to the credit of great singers that they have been able to render these works of genius as though they had been composed expressly for them. In the best of cases, one could actually speak of a “re-creation,” where the music is heard as if in its pristine form, but in a new, personal light.

Motet Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165

This is the challenge so brilliantly met in the magnificent motet Exsultate, jubilate, which lends itself here as a fitting curtain raiser—a work which is foremost a celebration of the voice. In the autumn of 1772, Wolfgang and his father, Leopold, undertook their third and final voyage to Italy, in order to present in Milan the young prodigy’s latest opera, Lucio Silla, which met with good success. In January 1773, just a few days before his seventeenth birthday, Mozart composed his Exsultate, jubilate for the opera’s primo uomo, the castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, who was also a composer and harpsichordist. The work presents itself as a short and brilliant concerto in three movements for solo voice.

Brimming with joy, the first movement is followed by a short recitative leading into an exquisite aria that highlights the expressive qualities of the voice. The famous “Alleluia” ends the piece with a dazzling display of the kind of vocal deftness one has come to expect from a star soprano, whether male or female. To splendour and bedazzlement, we add now all the finesse and perceptiveness of which was capable Mozart at the height of his powers.

The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492

On May 1, 1786, Vienna witnessed the première of Le nozze di Figaro, arguably the finest and most ingenious opera buffa of all times, even transcending the genre. Its libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte after Beaumarchais’ comedy La Folle journée ou le Mariage de Figaro (1784).

The play had caused a scandal in France for its unflattering portrayal of the aristocracy, and Emperor Joseph II for some time had banned it from performance in its German translation. This enlightened despot, however, authorized the play’s publication and seems to have encouraged Da Ponte to proceed with its transformation into an opera libretto, upon the latter’s assurances that it would be expurgated of all elements of social criticism. It would be safe to assume that opera audiences at the time were familiar with the plot of Beaumarchais’ play. Hence, with the complicity of music that delineated not only the characters’ states of mind but also their social standing, nothing was lost in the transposition of the work, neither its comical elements, nor its bite.

Apart from the accumulation in the work of imbroglios whose aim it is not only to draw laughter, but especially to depict the insubordination of the servant-class towards unjust masters, Mozart’s music brings to light and attains unparalleled levels of expression in the sections where the Countess Almaviva (wife to the Count) and Susanna (her chambermaid and Figaro’s faincée) lend support to each other on account of their feminine condition. In addition, Cherubino (a page in the Count’s service), played by a woman, is a character who supplies ample substance for Mozart to exploit all the poetic charm of this ardent buck.

This selection of soprano arias taken from The Marriage of Figaro, presented in the order in which they appear in the opera, opens with Cherubino’s first aria, Non so più cosa son (I no longer know what I am). Here, the young page opens up to Susanna of the amorous commotion that grips him. “Every woman makes me change colour,” he says, “makes me tremble.”

Alternating between exaltation and contemplation, the aria is accompanied by an instrumental combination that Mozart reserves for moments of emotional rapture, the blended colours of clarinets, horns and bassoon. The clarinets again lend their languorous tones to the first piece of the second act, the Countess’s cavatina Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (O love, bring some relief). Here, the noble lady is alone, imploring upon herself the consolation of a love she believes is lost, that of the Count. It is a portrait in miniature, where features are etched with infinite detail and delicacy.

Follows Cherubino’s delightful arietta Voi che sapete che cosa è amor (You ladies who know what love is). It is a piece Cherubino composed in honour of the Countess, which he sings to her and to Susanna, who accompanies him on the guitar. Again, he speaks of how love troubles him, but now expresses himself on a different emotional level. To quote the musicologist Michel Noiray, “Mozart’s great skill was to lend to Cherubino’s canzona all the appearances of ‘naiveté’ […] without ever giving in to mawkishness or the commonplace. In this regard, Voi che sapete can be considered as quintessential Mozart, with its deceptive blend of apparent grace and concealed subtlety.” The aria Venite… inginocciatevi… (Come… kneel down…) is undoubtedly the opera’s most piquant moment.

In this her first aria, Susanna, in league with the Countess, dresses up Cherubino in woman’s clothing in order to ensnare the Count. She accompanies these rather intimate gestures with spicy comments and various advice while Cherubino discretely ogles the Countess. Several details in the music wittily underline the alluring nature of the scene, as, for example, the violins’ repeated notes followed by a grupetto. With the recitative and aria from Act Three E Susanna non vien!—Dove sono i bei momenti (Susanna’s not come!—Where are those happy moments), comedy is put aside for a while to make way for introspection, where rage, resolve and resignation battle in the Countess’s breast. In the magnificent accompanied recitative, she expresses her shame at having to stoop to dissembling in order to win back her husband’s love. In the aria that follows, she half-heartedly musters up the courage to face the ordeal to come, accepting it as the only means to heal her broken heart. Here, the voice splendidly and generously blooms in some of the work’s most elevated music.

Another sublime moment for the voice—or voices, should we say—the duettino Sull’aria… “Che soave zeffiretto” (To the zephyr… “How sweet the breeze”) shades and echoes both the vocal colours and the aspirations of the two allied women, Susanna and the Countess, opposed by class distinction but united in their womanhood. In turn, they (Lyne Fortin times two) read from the letter that will serve to bait the Count.

The recitative and aria from Act Four Giunse alfin il momento—Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella (At last comes the moment—Come, do not delay, oh bliss) is the last piece on this recording that is taken from the first version of Figaro. This moving number is the supreme example of subtly expressed emotions. Susanna, disguised as the Countess Almaviva and half concealed by the darkness of the pine grove, sings with some ambiguity of the happiness that awaits her by the man she loves (who, according to the scheme, should be the Count), knowing all the while that Figaro is listening consumed with jealousy.

Her feelings are pure, but her purpose is guileful. This game of love and chance inspired Mozart to compose some of his most arresting music, whose expression wavers between innocence and cunning, though it is spun out in a continuous web of invention. The curtain falls only to rise again, as is customary. The soprano gratifies us with two arias Mozart wrote for the new Susanna, “la Ferrarese,” in the revival of Figaro in August 1789: Un moto di gioia, K. 579, which replaced Venite… inginocchiatevi…, and Al desio di chi t’adora, K. 577, which replaced Deh vieni.

© Jacques-André Houle

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