Mozart Minute: Figaro's Backstage Drama
It's a scene fit for the opera stage: The curtain rises. The emperor sits on his throne while three young composers clutching scrolls of parchment inked with music notes take turns singing arias extolling the beauty, the drama – in short, the virtue of their new operas. The men volley recitatives. The emperor declares a victor. A chorus of his courtiers sings a final hymn to art. The curtain falls.
When this scene (or something like it) went down in Mozart's day, the powers-that-be were the Holy Roman Emperor. And the composers included two court favorites and a relative outsider who happened to be one of the greatest musical geniuses the world has ever known.
One of the era's most illustrious performers, the fabled Irish tenor Michael Kelly, wrote in his Reminiscences that on his 1785 visit to Vienna, he had the chance to witness what he called a "contest" among Vincenzo Righini, Antonio Salieri and Mozart to be the next to have an opera produced at Vienna's illustrious Burgtheater. Mozart's latest opera, The Marriage of Figaro, was competing against Salieri's The Grotto of Trophonius and Righini's latest work.
None of the composers was prepared to go down without a fight. "Each composer," Kelly wrote, "claimed the right of producing his opera first."
Kelly added that "the contest raised much discord" and noted that factions formed around each of the three composers who, agitated by the suspense of it all, showed themselves to be of quite distinct character.
"Mozart," Kelly wrote, "was as touchy as gunpowder, and swore he would put the score of his opera into the fire if it was not produced first; his claim was backed by a strong party: on the contrary, Righini was working like a mole in the dark to get precedence."
Then there was the inside candidate - Salieri. "The third candidate," Kelly wrote, "was Maestro di Cappella to the court, a clever shrewd man, possessed of what Bacon called, crooked wisdom, and his claims were backed by three of the principal performers, who formed a cabal not easily put down. Every one of the opera company took part in the contest. I alone was a stickler for Mozart."
Eventually, the emperor made a decision. Kelly wrote that "the mighty contest was put an end to by His Majesty issuing a mandate for Mozart’s 'Nozze di Figaro' to be instantly put into rehearsal."
Kelly created the role of Don Curzio when Mozart’s Figaro was premiered at the Burgtheater on May 1, 1786. The opera was a success from Day One, and remains one of Mozart's best-loved works.