“Sull’aria”

The situation is straight out of farce. The Count is chasing after a maidservant who is engaged to another and wants none of him; and this maidservant gets together with the Countess to set the Count up as the fall guy in an elaborate scheme. The maidservant is to pretend to agree to meet the Count for an assignation that night, and … well, it’s all too complicated. I’ve been listening to Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro now for well over thirty or so years, and have even read the play by Beaumarchais on which this opera is based, but damned if I can remember the details of this over-elaborate farcical plot. So, to cut to the chase, here we have the Countess, dictating to the maidservant the letter she should write to the Count setting up this phoney assignation. Any composer would have given us a duet full of mischief and high jinks. But Mozart gives us this:

Kiri te Kanawa as the Countess and Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir John Pritchard, from the DVD of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro released by Arthaus Musik

This duet achieved some measure of popularity after it was featured in the film The Shawshank Redemption. There, we had heard Morgan Freeman’s sonorous tones speaking the words:  “I’d like to think [they] were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and it makes your heart ache because of it.” The irony of this has been pointed out often enough: they were not singing of anything beautiful at all – they were singing about their plans to entrap a somewhat unpleasant man who is neglecting his wife and sexually harassing another young woman who, given the social structure in which this drama is set, is in no poition to resist him openly. Far from being beautiful, it is all most unpleasant, and unsavoury.

But if there is irony here, it is because Mozart has consciously introduced it.  Why does he give us at this point something so beatiful that it makes your heart ache?

In opera, one should always trust the music, for, as has been pointed out (not least in response to one of my earlier posts), it is the music that creates the drama in opera. And if Mozart has chosen to create here a drama not of high spirits nor even of unpleasantness, but of heartache, we must ask ourselves why. And it is surely because, despite the unsavoury nature of the situation, despite the farcical aspects of the plot, it is heartbreaking. The maidservant Susanna is looking forward to a happiness she fears she might not have; and the Countess is looking back to a happiness she fears is now for ever lost.

                  We look before and after,
                       And pine for what is not:
                  Our sincerest laughter
                       With some pain is fraught;
            Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
                          – From “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
  
And so, Mozart gives us the sweetest of songs, and tells the saddest of thoughts. And it is a song of such unearthly beauty, that it does indeed make your heart ache.
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