14 September 2015 at 12.04pm | 1 Comment
Mozart believed that although opera buffa was intrinsically comic it should feature serious characters and themes. Countess Almaviva is perhaps the most serious and complex character in Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). She has a sense of humour and joins in Figaro and Susanna’s schemes with enthusiasm, but also gives voice to some of the opera’s most profound emotions – particularly in ‘Dove sono’.
The Countess sings this aria in Act III, by which point Mozart’s ‘crazy day’ is threatening to collapse into chaos. The Countess, Figaro and Susanna’s schemes to shame the Count and reunite him with his wife have so far only resulted in the Count accusing his wife of infidelity and becoming suspicious of Figaro. Moreover, Figaro and Susanna are distracted by Marcellina’s threats to force Figaro to marry her. Alone, and unaware that this particular problem has been resolved, the Countess waits anxiously for news from Susanna.
The aria is preceded by extended accompanied recitative, which depicts the Countess’s fluctuating emotions. The opening phrases are melancholy, but the tempo soon quickens as the Countess frets about the audacity of Susanna’s plot, and her husband’s tendency to fly into jealous rages. She expresses first sorrow then agitation (highlighted by shifting orchestral harmonies), but righteous anger is the dominant emotion for the recitative – despite a moment of sorrow as she recalls her husband’s past tenderness. In the closing phrase, high-pitched and accompanied by martial rhythms in the strings, she denounces her husband for forcing her to conspire with her servants.
By contrast, the aria (in serene C major) opens in a contemplative mood. The Countess sings in long, tender phrases as she recollects her past happiness. A solo oboe – an instrument often associated with nostalgia – and bassoons intertwine sensually with her voice. As the Countess reflects on how her contentment has turned to sorrow, minor harmonies enter briefly, and her vocal line becomes more dramatic and low-lying. However, the bright major harmonies and lyricism of the opening soon return in a shortened reprise of the aria’s opening section. This is sung very quietly, as if the Countess is lost in a reverie; until her mood abruptly shifts again, and she breaks off mid-phrase to launch into the aria’s second, faster section.
Here, the full orchestral textures, little woodwind flourishes, rapid tempo and expanding vocal tessitura illustrate the Countess’s growing sense of purpose. Although her memories of how her husband has hurt her briefly lead her to melancholy, she refuses to lose hope. Her vocal line becomes wider-ranging to reflect her growing courage, and she soars to repeated top As (the highest note in the aria) as she vows to soften her husband’s heart – though the repetitions of ‘l’ingrato cor’ (ungrateful heart) imply that she knows it will take determination. The energetic orchestral conclusion maintains her mood of new-found optimism. The Countess has taken control of her destiny, and from now on will lead the plot to shame the Count.
Le nozze di Figaro is a great opera not only because of its wittiness and fast-paced plot, but also because of those passages in which Mozart allows us to pause and explore the characters’ emotional states in all their complexity. ‘Dove sono’ is one of the finest of these episodes. Mozart’s vivid depiction of the Countess’s progression from anxiety and anger to nostalgia to purposeful hope make this aria one of the most moving, not only in Figaro, but in his entire collection of works.
Le nozze di Figaro runs 15 September–14 October 2015. Tickets are still available.
The production is staged with generous support from Paul Cartledge and Judith Portrait.