Perhaps the most sublime moment in all of music occurs in the Fourth Act of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. After over three hours of breathtaking music, matters in the Almaviva household have finally been brought to a head. A moment of crisis has been reached. The Count, discovering a woman he believes to be his wife in a dalliance with Figaro, his servant, calls for his people to gather (gente gente all'armi!). His courtiers come running, and as the music builds to a frenzy, add their voices to the Count's outraged roar.
Then, over this seething mass of menacing voices, a single soprano is heard, soaring like the wing of a seagull over a raging sea. The Countess comes forward, revealing herself. The courtiers are amazed - how can this be? The Count stands dumbstruck, realising the trick that has been played on him. The music falls away in bewilderment, dwindling into hushed confusion, then coming to a stop.
There, at that most dramatic of moments, there is an instant of absolute silence. The fate of the world hangs in balance. The audience, like the characters on stage, wait with bated breath. What will the Count do now?
The song, when it returns, shatters the spell of the last four acts completely. It's as though you had broken through the laughter and merriment of everything that had passed, and stepped suddenly into a different, more serious opera. The Count's voice, half moan, half cry, echoes through the silenced auditorium with all the remorse and yearning that the human soul is capable of. "Contessa, perdono", he sings, and the music soars like a wounded bird, then, ashamed of its own presumption, sinks wearily, guiltily back to earth.
It is the Countess who rescues it. It is her purer soprano that lifts the entire audience beyond the reach of gravity, her rising cadences that finally achieve that perfection we have all been waiting for. As the others slowly join in, drawn by the tranquility of her theme, the song becomes more than just a closing chorus for the opera, it becomes a hymn of peace, an anthem of soft contentment. The Contessa's voice shall rise above these liquid voices, her song clearer and sharper than that of the others, but it is in their gentleness that you lie floating, the tears coming unbidden to your eyes.
If there is beauty in the world, if there is forgiveness, then surely this is what it sounds like. This is what we have all hoped for - that at the end of all the playfulness and confusion, at the end of all the loves and deceits and jests, there shall be a judgement gentle enough to harm no one. It is the most the human spirit can dream of. It is more than we could ever deserve.
P.S. if you're wondering where that came from - I just returned from a performance of Figaro by the Opera Company of Philadelphia.
Categories: Arts, Music