12/04/2014 10:10 am ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

When Silence Gives the Opera Meaning

Near the very end of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro comes the moment when the philandering Count Almaviva, fresh from yet another discovery of his betrayal, asks his wife for forgiveness. "Contessa, perdono," he sings, repeating the phrase. And then there is a pause while he awaits the Countess' response.

Depending on the production you see or the recording you hear, the pause can be the briefest of instances or the longest, most agonizing interruption to the opera's giddy pace. And if you have the good fortune to witness that longer pause, the agony you feel unfolds like a rich perfume, its narrative deepening and become more complex as the time passes. You have time to hope for the Countess' mercy and you have time to hope that this time she will stand up for herself, and you have time to ponder a marriage in which forgiveness granted, requested or withheld is its defining characteristic. By the time the Countess sings, you may well not know what it is you want her to say, though you somehow feel as if your own fate hangs in the balance.

It's a marvel to me that the moment I would consider the opera's most powerful -- indeed, the moment in which the underlying seriousness of this seemingly comic fluff reveals itself -- comes in silence. The Marriage of Figaro begins with perhaps the most purely fun piece of music I have ever heard: the overture, a piece that can't possibly be played at anything other than breakneck pace and which concludes with a series of wonderfully arrogant chords. It is an onrush of sound that almost can't keep up with itself. When you see the opera live, you can peek down into the pit and, even from the nosebleed seats, you can sense the exhilaration of the orchestra racing through this physical and aural rush.

And three hours later, you sit up there in those nosebleed seats and hold your breath and wait, along with hundreds of others, to hear whether the Countess will pardon her wayward Count. In a 1981 studio recording of Kiri Te Kanawa singing the role, you wait a for a full four seconds of silence. You wait long enough to begin to feel that something is wrong, that the opera has come to a stop -- that the Countess will say no and bring the entire enterprise of the opera, of her marriage, of marriage altogether, to a halt. While you wait, you hear the rustle of someone's dress, or another person's cough. Perhaps it's a nervous cough, for the silence is going on too long and you begin to worry for the Count and somehow for yourself.

Then the Countess replies with perhaps the most beautiful phrase in music, beginning with a soaring fifth that, in Te Kanawa's voice, seems to be pure, ether-born sound: "Piu docile io sono." I am kinder than you, she tells the Count, and so I will say yes. Her answer is deeper for the silence that has preceded it -- a silence that makes us see the real possibility of rejection and the real cost of her forgiveness.

In Mozart's silence, the Countess has had time to consider her own pain balanced against her love. What she seems to find in that silence is her dignity. I am kinder than you, and so I will say yes. And we who have waited anxiously for her answer feel that kindness and that dignity all the more powerfully.