Before I made the trek to Opera San Jose yesterday, a friend tipped me off that a line from Dante Alighieri opens one of the scenes in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart‘s Marriage of Figaro (read about the production here). This perfectly cut diamond of an opera has sometimes been compared to the Italian poet’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy; both oscillate between the highest and the lowest that the human species has to offer – from the supercelestial to the depraved. But did Mozart crib a line from Dante? Where?
Larry Hancock, the learned and amiable general director of the San Jose Opera, was equally mystified when I asked him at the Q&A session following his pre-show presentation. He told me to keep my ears open.
Well, an easy thing to do at an opera from one angle – but in the San Jose Opera’s excellent production, it was also easy to lose track of scholarship in the beauty of the music and the magic of this very well-matched cast of singers. There wasn’t a weak link in the long chain. So I forgot all about Dante.
By Act II, I was swept up in the Countess’s great self-pity aria (there’s always one in a Mozart opera), Susannah’s banter, and the smitten Cherubino as he began to sing the song he wrote for his Countess, Voi che sapete che cosa è amor. The supertitles rolled on the screen – “Ladies, you who know the intellect of love…,” or words to that effect. The text suddenly seemed very un-Mozartlike, and a frisson ran through me. I raised my pointed finger to the overhead screen in slow recognition, and it froze there in mid-air, till my discomfited companion jerked my hand down again.
I had been expecting a line from The Divine Comedy. Instead, of course, this is one of the most famous passages of La Vita Nuova, the work in which Dante describes his love for Beatrice Portinari, and his anguish at her death – as well a meditation on love as a transcendent force in our lives and as a poetic theme. “Ladies who have the intelligence of love,/I wish to speak to you about my lady…” (Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore, i’ vo’ con voi de la mia donna dire…)
Not dead on, but close enough, and certainly an Italian audience would recognize the homage even faster than I did.
I found Larry in a hallway during the intermission. How did this Viennese composer come to utter the words of Dante? He probably didn’t, he said. He suggested I look instead to the famous librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, a dissolute priest banished from Venice who eventually took to the pen for his living. And aren’t we grateful he did? He was the most celebrated librettist of his time – and he certainly would have known his Dante well, even if he didn’t take the poet’s sterner admonitions to heart.
I highly recommend this Marriage of Figaro, which continues through November 29, so you can pay a visit over the Thanksgiving over the weekend.
It was my first time attending an opera in about a decade. What inspired me to accept an invitation several weeks ago, during a time of very intense deadlines? It was the first opera I had ever attended way back in 1978 London, at the English National Opera, so it strikes a deep chord in me. More importantly, however, I recalled that René Girard said, “The Marriage of Figaro is, for me, the most mystical of all music.” No doubt he was moved by its recurring themes of escalating vengeance, sublime forgiveness, and finally, peace and reconciliation.
On Opera San Jose’s Saturday night opening performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, French police stormed the Boulevard Beaumarchais of the 11th arrondissement in Paris, where but a few feet away, the Bataclan theater had become the site of unspeakable horrors. The boulevard, which leads directly to the Place de la Bastille, is named for the playwright on whose revolutionary work Mozart’s opera is based, one which prefigured the most famous storming in history. … In November 1963, Leonard Bernstein famously remarked after the assassination of President Kennedy: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”