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First-Time Perfection: Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro'

The scheming Count Almaviva (Erwin Schrott, left) and Basilio the music master (Benjamin Bruns) prop up a swooning Susanna (Slyvia Schwartz), the object of the Count's nefarious affections. (Wiener Staatsoper)

The history of drama is full of brilliant collaborations, whether it's at the opera, in the theater or at the movies — and while it might seem that a great creative team would take a while to gel, many of the most celebrated partnerships have flourished right from the start.

In 1978, when Stephen Spielberg needed music to evoke impending doom, in Jaws, he turned to composer John Williams. They had plenty of other hits after that one — witness Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List and so many others — but it was the killer shark with its ominous musical theme that got it all started.

In the early 1940s, on Broadway, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein got together for the first time — and wrote Oklahoma!. While they later turned out South Pacific and Carousel, that first effort has proven hard to top.

Still, it's an 18th-century operatic collaboration whose initial efforts may have produced the most enduring masterpiece of any first-time creative partnership. It happened when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte teamed up for The Marriage of Figaro. And the two were just getting started; they also wrote Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

We don't know much about how Mozart and da Ponte divided their efforts on Figaro. But it was Mozart who had to pitch the new work to its main patron, the emperor of Austria — and it was a tough sell. The opera, and the play by Pierre Beaumarchais that it's based on, explore territory that many found worrisome — the often contentious relationship between the classes. The play had been banned by authorities in France and Mozart's opera made the Austrian monarchy nervous. Both works clearly illuminate the limitations of rank and privilege, demonstrating that common sense can often trump wealth and power, and that genuine humility easily upstages unchecked arrogance.

Da Ponte's dialogue is subtle and meticulously layered — but at the same time witty and involving. Mozart's music is well-crafted and immensely sophisticated — but also tuneful and infectious.

Their opera, with all its artistic contrasts and complexities, reveals some simple, real-life truths: that harsh economic realities are no impediment to the instinctive richness of human intellect, and that stultifying social conventions will never dampen the spontaneity of human emotion. It also proves that first-time collaborators can sometimes come up with the stuff that dreams are made of.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings us The Marriage of Figaro in a production from the Vienna State Opera. The stars are sopranos Dorothea Röschmann and Sylvia Schwartz as the Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna, and baritones Luca Pisaroni and Erwin Schrott as Figaro and the Count. Franz Welser-Möst conducts.

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