The next few minutes of music will be so familiar that I expect many of you will wonder why I’m bothering with it at all. There are several reasons why I have chosen the overture for Mozart’s opera ‘The Marriage of Figaro’. The first is to introduce the concept of the overture as a standalone piece of music; the second is to alert you to one of the greatest operas ever written; the third, perhaps most importantly, is that this is a particularly fine recording, which reminds me of one of the best performances I ever saw of this – not a stage, but a concert one, at the Royal Festival Hall in 1991.
Coming from the French word ‘ouverture ‘, meaning ‘opening’, an overture is simply a piece of music which precedes an oratorio or opera. In its early days, it had a practical use in Italian opera, as a means of informing audiences that a production was about to start and encouraging them to get to their seats and settle. Apart from the inevitable latecomer, modern audiences tend to be a little more prepared; which is just as well in this case, because to be a few minutes late when attending ‘Figaro’ would be to miss a gem of an overture. Unlike most overtures, where themes or characters of the opera are often introduced for the first time, this energetic passage is not a precursor to anything that follows. ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, first performed in 1786, is a lengthy comic opera, which can be hideously complicated to understand when reading through the synopsis for the first time, despite all the action taking place over a period of just one day. So I’m not even going to attempt to summarise it here, beyond saying that it was based on a play by Beaumarchais, which was banned in France because of its perceived encouragement to the lower classes to rise against their seniors: something which turned out to be rather prescient with the French Revolution only years away.
It is no exaggeration that the opera contains some of Mozart’s most exquisite music, of which he was himself proud, and I will select other golden moments in time. For now, just imagine your reaction as you sit down and hear this for the very first time: from the outset, you are immediately aware of some frenzied excitement. There is plenty of comedy in the opera, but at its heart is truth and frailty: the characters are real and their behaviour is credible. This recording of the overture is conducted by Sir Georg Solti (pronounced Sholti), who conducted it in that concert performance I attended at the Festival Hall. Solti’s temperament in rehearsal earned him the nickname of the ‘Screaming Scull’, but there is no denying the wonderful sound he extracts from his players – and it was under his stewardship that Covent Garden was awarded the title of ‘The Royal Opera’.
The late journalist, Bernard Levin, was also attending this concert, which reminded me of another trivial, but nonetheless practical, use he once suggested for this overture: taken at the right speed, it is the perfect egg-timer. If you like your boiled egg with a soft yolk and firm white, place it in cold water, bring to the boil; then play this recording, removing from the heat on the final chord. Obviously, if you prefer it firmer or hard-boiled, you can just play it again – or go for a slightly more pedestrian conductor (I couldn’t possibly say who) but that, in my view, would be to miss out on Solti’s vibrant and thrilling account.