The Libretto

A libretto is the text of an opera. ('Libretto' is Italian for 'little book', people used to take the book of words into an opera before the days of surtitles). Mozart's librettist was Lorenzo da Ponte, a very dodgy priest – not unlike Don Basilio. Da Ponte started off as a priest in Venice, but he had so many girl friends that he was banished from Italy and turned up, penniless, in Austria.

He got a job, writing the words for court operas, for the Emperor and met Mozart. The two men took to each other and Da Ponte wrote three of Mozart's most famous operas, one of which was The Marriage of Figaro.

Unluckily for him, the Emperor Joseph II died in 1790, Da Ponte lost his job and drifted around for a bit, before marrying an English girl and emigrating to New York. There he became a grocer. But nothing could keep Da Ponte down, and he ended up as America's first Professor of Italian.

Writing the words of Figaro was no joke. It takes three times longer to sing something than to say it, and Da Ponte had to slash Beaumarchais' text to turn the play into an opera. More than that, he had to get it past the Emperor.

Joseph II was a liberal monarch, but he still disapproved of the play – just as Louis XVI had done in France – and when he heard it had been turned into an opera, he looked very disapproving. Da Ponte apparently sidled up to him and said he'd taken out all the offensive speeches, this wasn't quite true, but the Emperor calmed down and let the show go ahead.

The Play

Figaro is the hero of an earlier show, The Barber of Seville, a play by the French author, Beaumarchais. In it Figaro runs a barber's shop and, because barbers are in and out of people's houses, shaving their customers, he gets into the tyrannical Doctor Bartolo's house and helps his unhappy ward, Rosina, escape. The Marriage of Figaro is really The Barber of Seville Part 2.

Beaumarchais wrote a second play, The Marriage of Figaro, only to have it banned by the French king, Louis XVI. Beaumarchais retaliated by organising some private readings which were so popular that the King had to backtrack. The Marriage of Figaro was first performed in Paris in 1784 and the demand for tickets was so great that, on the first night, three people died in the rush for seats.

However, Louis XVI had a point, the play has a hidden revolutionary agenda. Napoleon once said that 'The Marriage of Figaro is the Revolution in action.'

Most of The Marriage of Figaro is straight comedy and in it Beaumarchais sends up noblemen, servants, clergymen – and the English. Here's Figaro talking about ghastly English grub, and the minimal amount of English you need to survive in London.

Figaro: "English is a great language. You need so little of it. Suppose you fancy a nice chicken, you go to a pub and say 'Dammit!' and they bring you a slice of beef. Amazing! Or perhaps you want some wine, you say, 'Dammit!' And in they come with a pint of beer. Marvellous! It's true that the English put in a few other words into their conversation but 'Dammit!' is all you really need."

Act 1

Susanna has a difficult morning as she prepares for her marriage to Figaro. She is interrupted by Bartolo and Marcellina – who want to get back some money Figaro owes them – then by Cherubino (in big trouble for chasing girls) then by her master, Count Almaviva, himself. Cherubino dives for cover. Can you see him?

The Count slides in, hoping to seduce Susanna, but he's interrupted by another visitor, Basilio, the singing teacher. The Count hides behind a chair and overhears Basilio gossiping about Cherubino. Apparently the boy is in love with the Count's wife, the Countess.

The Count leaps furiously out of hiding and tells the others how he keeps finding Cherubino everywhere – behind doors, under tables, under sheets. As he says this, he pulls away a sheet covering the chair only to find – Cherubino. A major row is averted by the entrance of Figaro with a crowd of servants.