Human beings will always be good for a laugh, especially when they're in full pursuit of sex.
This makes them a continual subject for low, lower and lowest-brow entertainment -- check out almost any TV sitcom today for a demonstration. More brain cell-active studies of this behavior can, of course, produce valuable insights alongside the chuckles. Occasionally, as in the comedies of Shakespeare, an observer of these mortal fools will even fashion from their foibles the stuff of real art.
And once in a great, great while -- only once in the past 219 years, I would argue -- the human condition can inspire the creation of something not just amusing, but profoundly rewarding and impossibly beautiful. Something called The Marriage of Figaro.
This magnum opus by Mozart returns, after an absence of 17 years, to the repertoire of the Baltimore Opera Company this week. Although it's only the company's fourth production since 1955, the rest of the world pays the work a lot more attention. After all, many folks consider it not just Mozart's greatest opera, but the greatest opera of them all.
Too extreme an assessment? Not when you consider how brilliantly the composer sets the words to music -- Lorenzo da Ponte's masterful libretto is a key element in the opera's success -- and how deftly he uses that music to delineate the nature of the characters.
But many other operas can claim a superb match of text and tune, even deft characterization. For that matter, many other comic operas are very funny. So what's the big deal about this one?
Something Aaron Copland once said about Mozart in general makes an ideal explanation of the quality specifically in The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro in the original Italian): "Mozart tapped the source from which all music flows, expressing himself with a spontaneity and refinement and breathtaking rightness."
Breathtaking rightness. Couldn't be a better description for this opera, right from first notes of the overture, which seize the ear with their sneakily infectious tunefulness.
Throughout the opera's four acts, Mozart's music reveals a disarming perfection of melody, harmonic and rhythmic flow, structure, orchestration. Not a note of the score sounds contrived or decorative, just one reason why audiences demanded to hear so many of those notes a second time at the premiere of Figaro in Vienna in 1786 that the emperor banned encores after that.
There's still much more to this opera, though, the extra ingredient that separates it from the rest. Call it "heart."
Sure, this is a comic opera. It's even got some pretty surefire bits that have the punch and timing of great slapstick. On the surface, things couldn't be breezier as Figaro and his bride, Susanna, try to figure out how to keep the Count from getting his hands on her -- and the Countess tries to figure out how to win back the Count's affections.
Throw into the mix a silly woman who turns out to be Figaro's long-lost mother, and a vengeful doctor who once had the hots for the Countess, and a bundle of adolescent hormones named Cherubino, and you've got classic situation comedy.
But look again. As art historian Kenneth Clark points out, Mozart took "a passionate interest in human beings, and in the drama of human relationships." In Figaro (as in another of his comic masterworks, Cosi fan tutte), he didn't treat the libretto's characters as mere plot-spinners, but found in them flesh-and-blood creatures, full of nuances, complexities and contradictions.
For nearly every laugh, there's something deeper to consider. "The nature of Mozart's comedy is extremely serious," says theater and opera director Peter Hall. "That is why it plays on the heartstrings."
The seriousness of the comedy in Figaro starts with the plot, adopted from a once-incendiary French play by Beaumarchais that was officially banned in some places for a time. Although da Ponte whittled away at the more revolutionary elements in that play for his libretto, the story still contains the essential, seditious prerevolution twist -- servants getting the better of their masters.
You don't have to give that stuff a thought, though, to realize that the opera isn't trying to be just a yuk-fest. The principal figures reveal something deeper about themselves along the way, which is how we know for sure that the love between Figaro and Susanna is genuine and deep; that the Count is at least theoretically redeemable; and, above all, that the Countess is truly, innately noble.
The Countess gains the most from both da Ponte and Mozart. In her first appearance, she is alone, reflecting on the happiness she experienced at the beginning of her marriage to the Count. "Grant, love, relief to my pain and sighing," she sings in the tender, eloquent aria Porgi, amor. "Give me back my treasure, or let me die."