Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto for Mozart's Figaro after falling out with Antonio Salieri, who, as imperial court composer, had obtained the position of court poet for da Ponte. At the time of the opera's composition and first performances, there was a climate of antagonism among factions of Italian musicians and poets living in Vienna, among whom was counted Salieri. Although the efforts of the anti-Mozart Italian clique did not succeed in having Mozart's Figaro banned from the stage, the opera did receive fewer than ten performances in Vienna immediately after its première at the Burgtheater on May 1, 1786. Figaro would have tremendous success in Prague, however, before spreading to other parts of Europe and becoming a classic of the opera buffa repertory. So began the fortuitous Mozart/da Ponte relationship, from which would come two further masterworks, Don Giovanni (1787) and Così fan tutte (1789-1790).
Mozart admired Pierre Auguste Caron de Beaumarchais' politically radical play Le mariage de Figaro (1781), the second play in what would become a trilogy based on the autobiographical character Figaro. Beaumarchais' Le barbier de Séville had been performed in 1775 and the third play of the trilogy, La mère coupable, would be premièred in 1793. In his Figaro plays, Beaumarchais, who himself was a participant in the Revolution, working towards anti-aristocratic revolutionary ideas, sharply spoofs pre-Revolution French society.
Mozart's music for Figaro consists of conventional dry and accompanied recitative, aria, and ensemble pieces. The overture, despite having no development section, is essentially in sonata form. Mozart musically conveys the range of Figaro's perturbation in his Act One cavatina, "Se vuol ballare," by whimsically changing the character of his music to correspond with Figaro's machinations. Mozart also imbues Figaro's rondo-form aria, "Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso," with colorful musical depictions of Cherubino's forthcoming military service through dotted rhythms and trumpet arpeggio fanfares. The Countess' cavatina, "Porgi amor," conveys the character's elevated social status through its graceful melodic language. The duet ("Aprite, presto, aprite") between Susanna and Cherubino in Act Two bristles expectantly with its moto perpetuo string writing and nervous, patter vocal declamation. In the Count's and Susanna's Act Three duet ("Crudel! Perchè finora"), the minor mode conveys the Count's initial grief and a shift to major mode, after Susanna agrees to come to the garden, confirms a sense of momentary resolution. Later, in the Count's accompanied recitative ("Hai già vinta la causa!"), the orchestra adds an extra emphasis to his verbal expression of anger and agitation through impetuous dotted rhythms and string tremolos. Through furiously rapid-scale passages and trills, the orchestra maintains this angry intensity in the Count's vengeance aria ("Vedrò mentr'io sospiro"). Barbaina's Act Four cavatina, "L'ho perduta...me meschina!" introduces a minor mode melody of classic Mozartean pathos. The finale of Act Four brings the principal characters to beg the Count's forgiveness and the music swells from a pious hymn-like ensemble to a triumphant fanfare-laden exultation.