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.