Le Nozze di Figaro
Comic Opera in 4 Act| Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart | Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte
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Language: Italian | Surtitle: Chinese / English
Although banned in Vienna, Mozart selected the play for an opera. Le nozze di Figaro was Mozart’s first collaboration with the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (who went on to do the words for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte).
Figaro and Susanna prepare for their wedding; Susanna informs him the Count has designs on her; Figaro declares that he can handle the Count. Dr Bartolo and his former servant Marcellina come by; Bartolo wants revenge for Figaro having spirited away Rosina, his former ward, now the Countess, while Marcellina wants Figaro for herself. Susanna shoos Marcellina away, archly remarking on her age.
The page Cherubino needs Susanna’s help; he’s been flirting with everyone and been caught by the Count. But he must hide when the Count arrives to court Susanna. Basilio comes to gossip, forcing the Count to hide — but he jumps back out when he hears of Cherubino’s flirting with the Countess. Cherubino, discovered, is “forgiven” by the Count with a commission in the Army.
The Countess pines for her earlier happiness. When Cherubino comes, the Countess and Susanna make to disguise him as a girl. Susanna goes to fetch a dress — the Count knocks, suspicious at the locked door. Cherubino hides in the closet. The Countess refuses to open it. The Count says he’ll fetch tools, taking the Countess with him.
Susanna tells Cherubino to escape; the only avenue is to jump out the window. The Count and Countess return, both surprised to find Susanna, not the boy, in the closet. This triumph is short-lived when the gardener arrives asking who had jumped into his flowerbed. Figaro, thinking quickly, says it was him. The gardener produces Cherubino’s commission papers; Figaro, taking hints from the women, notes that it is missing its official chop.
Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio enter, demanding Figaro repay his loan to Marcellina or, as per contract, marry her.
Susanna pretends to agree to meet the Count in the garden, who then overhears her telling Figaro that his “case” has been won. The Count, realising he has been tricked, resolves to force Figaro to marry Marcellina. But it turns out that Figaro was stolen as a baby and his parents are … Marcellina and Bartolo. Susanna misinterprets the reconciliation and slaps Figaro before being apprised of the new development.
Susanna and the Countess finalise their plans by composing a letter to the Count with an invitation to meet in the garden.
Susanna and the Countess plan to exchange clothes. Cherubino, still causing trouble, flirts with the Countess, thinking she’s Susanna. The Count arrives intent on seducing Susanna. Figaro, unaware of the plan, is jealous, and decides to flirt with the Countess — whose voice he soon recognizes as Susanna’s, finally understanding what the two women have been up to. He continues his wooing and is accused of infidelity by Susanna, dropping her disguise. Figaro says he knew it was her all along.
The Count is enraged at Figaro wooing his “wife”, only to be flummoxed to discover it’s really Susanna. He realises he’s been caught philandering and asks the Countess for forgiveness. She grants this, and the weddings — Figaro and Susanna, Marcellina and Bartolo — proceed.
₍₁₎ 20/9, Friday | ₍₂₎ 21/9, Saturday
* With kind permission of the Jockey Club Opera Hong Kong Young Artist Development and Education Programme.
# With kind permission of The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
^ The Artistic Internship Scheme is supported by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is a revolutionary opera. I don’t mean dramatically or musically, although it most surely is that as well: I mean Revolutionary. Or it at least had revolutionary origins in a blockbuster French play of the same name – which debuted just two years before in 1784 – by bad-boy playwright Pierre de Beaumarchais, himself something of a story. The son of a watchmaker, he was at various times a watchmaker himself, inventor, musician, diplomat, spy, publisher and gun-runner to the Americans during their revolution as well as writing for the stage.
Le Mariage de Figaro was in fact a sequel to Beaumarchais’s earlier hit Le Barbier de Séville – which most of us will know through the bouncy Rossini opera buffa (which ironically came 30 years after its nominal sequel). “Figaro” starts with an altogether darker premise: Count Almaviva has, only three years after having wooed Rosina from beneath her window, already tired of her. His eye has settled on Rosina’s maid Susanna, coincidentally Figaro’s betrothed. The Count, no longer the lovestruck youth of “Barbier”, is now an overbearing and entitled aristocrat. He strikes upon the idea of reinstituting the feudal droit du seigneur, which gives the lord first dibs on any servant girl who gets married. This was, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, dangerous stuff. Probably as a result, once the play opened at Théâtre Français (after several years of negotiations with the French censors), it ran for 68 consecutive performances with record ticket revenues. Beaumarchais had a good sense of the zeitgeist.
Although banned in Vienna, Mozart selected the play for an opera. Le Nozze di Figaro was Mozart’s first collaboration with the Italian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (who went on to do the words for Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte). Da Ponte removed the explicitly political references in the play — Figaro’s diatribe against the aristocracy was replaced with the bitter aria Aprite un pò quegli occhi (“Open your eyes”) in which he rails against the inconstancy of women instead.
For all the comedy, intrigue, plot twists and romantic tenderness, the class struggle remains impossible to ignore. Yet Le Nozze di Figaro today has a renewed, if somewhat different, relevance. An entitled male pursues relationships other than the purely professional with the women in his employ, who in turn have to resort to subterfuge and pretense to protect themselves from unwanted advances. Now, where have we heard that before?
It’s impossible to know what Mozart thought of all this: it is however clear from the lyricism of the music that he saw here a very human story. The opera opens with the tender, if somewhat suggestive, scene of Figaro (having graduated from factotum to working full-time for the Count) measuring the room he and Susanna have been given – “Cinque… dieci… venti… trenta… trentasei… quarantatre…” (“Five… ten… twenty… thirty… thirty-six… forty-three…”) for their wedding bed. Susanna is trying to get him to pay attention to the cap she has made for herself. The opera is full of simple domestic interludes like this.
Although the opera is in many ways entirely modern – both Mozart and da Ponte seem to be leaving the Baroque behind and setting off on the journey to what will become “musical theatre” – elements of Italy’s national commedia dell’arte round-tripped through Beaumarchais to da Ponte. Figaro is an incarnation of Harlequin, the clever (and not always entirely sympathetically portrayed) servant who puts one over on his master, while Susanna reflects Colombina, the sweet young thing who is not perhaps as innocent as she appears. But in the hands of Mozart and da Ponte, these stock representations became fullyfledged characters, bundles of affection, anger, hope and anxiety.
Da Ponte and Mozart clearly like to have fun with both language and music. When Susanna thinks that Figaro has abandoned her for Marcellina, she is furious (especially since she just raised a thousand double crowns to buy him out of the marriage contract her rival has hanging over him). Unbeknownst to her, Marcellina has just discovered that Figaro is her long-lost son. Figaro tries to explain: “Senti, oh cara, senti!” ( Listen, darling! ); Susanna replies “Senti questo!” (You listen to this!) and whacks him. (The Italian is a bit of a pun, since “sentire” can mean both “listen” and “feel”.)
Later in the scene, she is pretending to go along with the Count’s desire for an assignation in the garden: “will you come?” – “yes”; “you won’t be late?” – “no”; until he gets a bit too insistent and she mixes up her yes’s and no’s, only to correct herself.
And this 230-year-old work contains one of the most gender-ambiguous subplots in all opera. The page Cherubino is sung by a mezzo-soprano. No surprise there: “pants parts” were, and remained, common.
But in Act II, Susanna and the Countess Rosina, dress Cherubino, the woman in man’s clothing, up as a girl, all the while commenting on his (or is it her?) feminine qualities. Later on, Cherubino – who is supposed by now to be off in the Army – is disguised as a girl and paraded in front of the Count.
In the final scene, after Susanna and the Countess have switched clothes, Figaro recognizes Susanna’s voice under her disguise and so pretends to woo his mistress – earning himself another whack. It all ends happily: Susanna can marry Figaro without any reactionary social obligations, the flighty Cherubino is dragged off into marital stability by Barberina and the Count and Rosina are reconciled – so, it all ends happily, or so the final ensemble would have us think.
But Mozart is never so simple: the opera ends with an undercurrent of ineffable sadness. The Countess hears the first words of love in far too long from her husband but addressed to her disguised as Susanna. When caught out, he apologises. She forgives him, for what else can she do?
One hopes Figaro will prove a better man than his master.