LE NOZZE DI FIGARO (THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO)
Opera comica in 4 acts
Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte, after Beaumarchais
First performed: Burgtheater, Vienna, 1 May 1786, conducted by Mozart
(Parts of this post come from an article published in The Canberra Times, 10 August 2016.)
Wedding preparations can be hell. For audiences, however, Mozart’s comedy The Marriage of Figaro is four acts of delight.
Criticising The Marriage of Figaro is, as Evelyn Waugh remarked of P.G. Wodehouse, “like taking a spade to soufflé”. The Wodehouse analogy is apt; Figaro is the operatic equivalent of the Blandings novels or The Code of the Woosters.
The opera is based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1778 play – an enormous success throughout Europe, as much for its polished wit as for its attack on aristocratic privilege. “It is the Revolution already put into action,” Napoleon said. In Vienna, Emperor Joseph II deemed the play immoral and banned it, worried by its revolutionary tone, but he relaxed his ban in 1786 for Mozart’s opera, which turned the politically charged play into a warm and witty comedy of manners.
It balances a farcical plot – pig-headed aristocrats, clever servants, romantic complications, cunning plans involving letters, women playing men dressed up as women, and characters hiding under chairs or in cupboards, and jumping out of windows – with an elegant, witty score and human characters. Today, it is a perennial favourite, #6 in the list of the world’s most performed operas.
The story takes place over the course of a crazy mixed-up day in a Spanish castle. The Count’s valet Figaro is about to marry Susanna, the Countess’s maid. The Count, however, has fallen in lust with Susanna, and rues abolishing the droit de seigneur. So he plans to stop the marriage. Figaro owes money to Marcellina, his enemy Dr. Bartolo’s elderly, ugly housekeeper; if he doesn’t pay her back, he’ll have to marry her instead. The clever valet, on the other hand, wants to outwit his master, and make him dance to the servant’s tune. Meanwhile, the Countess and Susanna plot to make a fool of the erring Count and reunite him with his wife. And Cherubino, the amorous teenage pageboy (played, of course, by a woman), keeps walking into the middle of these schemes, and tangling them up. By the end, though, everything is sorted out. The Countess forgives her husband; Marcellina turns out to be Figaro’s mother; and Figaro and Susanna are duly mated.
The complicated story moves briskly, with all the precision of intricate clockwork. (Beaumarchais was at one time watchmaker to the King., so knew both court life and precision engineering first-hand.)
It’s not all laughs, though. The five major characters come across as people rather than types, and Mozart understands the Countess’s grief at being abandoned, and her wounded pride at seeking help from servants; the Count’s bullish jealousy; and the teenage Cherubino’s crushes on anyone with an XX chromosome.
The masterly score contains such famous pieces as Figaro’s “Non più andrai farfallone amoroso”, Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete”, the Countess and Susanna’s duet “Sull’ aria”, and the Countess’s “Dove sono”. The ensembles are inventive, notably the 20-minute Act II finale, which starts as a duet and ends as a septet, and the Act IV finale, dexterously steering characters in and out of pavilions, before the Countess’s beautiful phrase of forgiveness.
“In my opinion,” Brahms said, “each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.”
Faced with perfection – as Stephen Fry said of Wodehouse – all one can do is “bask in its warmth and splendour”.
Of course, there’s also the dissenting Marxist view.
The Marriage of Figaro is REVOLTING, because it lacks a revolt. Mozart and Da Ponte recognise the fundamental reality of class struggle: the patriarchal, entitled, titled plutocrat oppresses the working man (and woman). But the opera is ideologically false. It ends with that most hackneyed of conventions: a happy ending, to lull the audience into acquiescence and false consciousness. The “marriage” upholds petit bourgeois moral values and heteronormativity. The classes are reconciled, with no revolution in sight. This is false to the empirical truth of Marxism. The opera should finish, like Dialogues des Carmélites, with the enemies of the people – here, the Count and Countess, and their lackey Don Basilio – guillotined! This is typical of Mozart and Da Ponte’s effete liberal Enlightenment ideology. Worse, Figaro discovers that he is really a member of the bourgeoisie, the son of a property holder, and not a member of the proletariat. Mozart and Da Ponte were class traitors, sycophants of the decadent imperialist Viennese court.
- Giuseppe Taddei (Figaro), Anna Moffo (Susanna), Eberhard Wächter (Conte Almaviva), Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Contessa Almaviva), and Fiorenza Cossotto (Cherubino), with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Carlo Mario Giulini. London, 1960. EMI.
- Hermann Prey (Figaro), Mirella Freni (Susanna), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Conte Almaviva), Kiri Te Kanawa (Contessa Almaviva), and Maria Ewing (Cherubino), with the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Karl Böhm. 1975-76. Deutsche Grammophon.
- Bryn Terfel (Figaro), Cecilia Bartoli (Susanna), Dwayne Croft (Conte Almaviva), Renee Fleming (Contessa Almaviva), and Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by James Levine. New York, 1998.
- IL CONTE D’ALMAVIVA, Spanish grandee (bass): Stefano Mandini
- LA CONTESSA ROSINA, his wife (soprano): Luisa Laschi
- FIGARO, the Count’s valet (bass): Francesco Benucci
- SUSANNA, the Countess’s maid (soprano): Nancy Storace
- BARBARINA, Antonio’s daughter (mezzo-soprano): Anna Gottlieb
- CHERUBINO, page (soprano): Dorotea Bussani
- BARTOLO, doctor (buffo): Francesco Bussani
- MARCELLINA, housekeeper (soprano): Maria Mandini
- DON BASILIO, singing teacher (tenor): Michael Kelly
- ANTONIO, gardener (bass): Francesco Bussani
- DON CURZIO, judge (tenor): Michael Kelly
- Chorus: Peasants – Extras: Peasants and Servants
A partly furnished room, with a chair in the centre
- Duetto: Cinque … dieci … venti (Susanna, Figaro)
- Duetto: Se a caso Madama la notte ti chiama (Susanna, Figaro)
- Aria: Se vuol ballare (Figaro)
- Aria: La vendetta, oh la vendetta! (Bartolo)
- Duetto: Via, resti servita (Susanna, Marcellina)
- Aria: Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio (Cherubino)
- Terzetto: Cosa sento! tosto andate (Susanna, Basilio, Conte)
- Coro: Giovani liete
- Aria: Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso (Figaro)
A handsome room with an alcove, a dressing room on the left, a door in the background (leading to the servants’ quarters) and a window at the side
- Aria: Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (Countess)
- Aria: Voi che sapete (Cherubino)
- Aria: Venite, inginocchiatevi (Susanna)
- Replacement aria: Un moto di gioia
- Terzetto: Susanna, or via sortite (Susanna, Contessa, Conte)
- Duetto: Aprite, presto, aprite (Susanna, Cherubino)
- Finale II: Esci omai, garzon malnato
A rich hall, with two thrones, prepared for the wedding ceremony
- Duetto: Crudel! perchè finora (Susanna, Conte)
- Recitativo ed Aria: Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro (Conte)
- Sestetto: Riconosci in questo amplesso
- Recitativo ed Aria: Dove sono i bei momenti (Contessa)
- Duetto: Sull’ aria? Che soave zeffiretto (Susanna, Contessa)
- Coro di Contadine: Ricevete, o padroncina
- Marcia: Ecco la marcia!
- Coro e Recitativo – Finale III: Amanti costanti
The garden, with two pavilions. Night
- Cavatina: L’ho perduta, me meschina (Barbarina)
- Aria: Il capro e la capretta (Marcellina)
- Aria: In quegli anni, in cui val poco (Basilio)
- Recitativo ed Aria: Aprite un po’ quegli occhi (Figaro)
- Recitativo ed Aria: Deh vieni, non tardar (Susanna)
- Replacement aria: Al desio di chi t’adora
- Finale ultimo: Pian pianin