The More Things Change

The More Things Change: Making Figaro’s Meaning

Recalling the process of turning playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ recent hit The Marriage of Figaro into a libretto for Mozart, Lorenzo Da Ponte acknowledged: “I did not make a translation of this excellent comedy, but rather an adaptation or, let us say, an extract.” If so, how should we make sense of an extract from a French play set in Andalusian Spain that is adapted as Italian opera for an Austrian imperial court and subsequently relocated by a Canadian director to postcolonial America for a twenty-first-century San Francisco audience? What is preserved and what is transformed—what is lost and what is found— in this transatlantic game of telephone unfolding over the course of two and a half centuries?

A sequel to The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro (subtitled The Mad Day) was second in a series of three Beaumarchais comedies about Castilian nobleman Count Almaviva and his resourceful, quick-witted valet Figaro. Representing the master-servant relationship as more confrontational than complementary, the play consciously rebuked the arbitrariness of authoritarian power. In Act I of the opera, Figaro throws down this gauntlet in the aria “Se vuol ballare,” promising to “school” the Count on who really calls the tune. No wonder some contemporaries perceived Beaumarchais’ takedown of nobles and magistrates as signaling “the end of the old order.” It was Mozart’s idea to remake Figaro as an opera, a vision that struck the composer with notable immediacy and was executed with breathless efficiency. Beaumarchais completed the play by 1778, but after protracted haggling with King Louis XVI’s censors over its politically subversive message—setting it in Spain instead of France was one concession—it was not publicly performed until 1784. By November of the following year, Mozart’s father Leopold reported that his son was already “up to the eyes” composing the score for Le Nozze di Figaro, which premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on May 1, 1786, a mere two years after the play’s debut. Beaumarchais’ critique of licentious privilege was resonant across Europe. After writing the libretto on the sly, Da Ponte was given the go-ahead to pursue his first collaboration with Mozart only after reassuring Emperor Joseph II that he had “omitted and shortened anything that could offend the sensibility and decency” of His Majesty.

Much of the stage action involves cajoling the chronically philandering Count to come around: concede Figaro’s wedding, desist in his pursuit of Susanna, do right by the Countess, cut Cherubino a break. Though driven by the satisfaction of an indulgent sovereign’s well-deserved comeuppance, Figaro also asks a fundamentally human question: how do we reconcile personal desires with our obligations to others, whether social, professional, conjugal, legal, or ethical? Interactions among the characters are often guided by caste, custom, and personal wiles, though to a striking degree they are also bureaucratic, mediated by papers that are flashed throughout the opera: military commissions, anonymous letters, passed love notes, IOUs. Cornered by the Count to identify an official document, Figaro stalls, rummaging his pockets: “Give me a minute. I have so many.”

The unstable relationship between individuals and the world they occupy is perhaps best captured by the Countess—Almaviva’s neglected wife, Rosina—and the page boy, Cherubino, a hormonal teenager cast in both the play and the opera as a woman in a “trouser role.” The physical gags, disguises, pacing of the action (especially in Mozart’s remarkable Act II finale), and archetypal origins of Figaro’s characters betray a debt to the Italian improv comedy tradition known as commedia dell’arte, though Beaumarchais molded stock types into distinguishable individuals. Da Ponte and Mozart pushed things further in the case of the Countess, who is given two glorious arias that deeply humanize and dramatically center her distress. Act III’s “Dove sono” emotionally grounds the Countess’s plight while speaking for any spouse anytime anywhere who in a private moment has wondered: What happened to my marriage? Whereas the Countess, through Da Ponte’s poetry and Mozart’s music, becomes a finely-sculpted character, Cherubino, who confesses in “Non so più” that he can’t even control himself, remains an almost inanimate force to be reckoned with, one that is alternately put into action or shooed, as necessary. He is incidental, even dispensable, within the social order of Beaumarchais’ castle or Michael Cavanagh’s Great House, yet he is everywhere, single-handedly making the Countess the object of unquenchable passion she so desperately longs to be.

In this regard, alongside perennial philosophical questions about how relationships, communities, and societies should work, Figaro presents narrative ambiguities that each production and its audience must figure out for itself: Is the title character intent on disrupting the prevailing status quo, or is he, like Don Basilio, content to work the system? Is the Count genuinely or strategically contrite at the end? Is his denouement a moment of truth, or truthiness? How receptive is the Countess, or even Susanna, to Cherubino’s pubescent come-ons? (We know what Beaumarchais thought: in the somewhat obscure third installment of the Figaro trilogy, The Guilty Mother, Rosina bears a child by Cherubino).

If Mozart and Da Ponte’s adaptation ramped up the human intrigue, it also, as Da Ponte suggested, tamped down some of the more overt activist politics. The fact that The Marriage of Figaro emerged against the backdrop of three epoch-defining revolutions—in the United States in 1776, in France in 1789, and in Haiti in 1791—is a reminder of the social turbulence that was in the air and had concrete stakes for late-eighteenth-century audiences. The American Revolution was a popular topic of plays and operas in Mozart’s Vienna and Beaumarchais himself was an ardent supporter of the uprising in the American colonies. Cavanagh’s production of The Marriage of Figaro for San Francisco Opera reanimates this history by returning the work to a post-revolutionary point of departure, with all its promise and trepidation.

The energies that motivated Mary Wollstonecraft’s influential 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, are also part of this context. Figaro interrogates class privilege but also, perhaps even more forcefully, male privilege. The two often intersect. The Count’s determination to redeem his “feudal rights” to Susanna seems driven as much by maintaining his supremacy over Figaro as by sexual attraction: “You were not born, audacious one, to give me torment and perhaps even laugh at my unhappiness,” he rants in “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro,” revolted by the thought of being denied any pleasure in life his servant is entitled to. Beaumarchais’ play included sharply worded feminist commentary by Marcellina, carried over into the opera by an Act IV aria prefaced by her terse dictum: “all women should defend their unfortunate sex, so wrongly oppressed by ungrateful men.” These sentiments are also conveyed in spirit, if soft-pedalled, through girl talk between Susanna and the Countess—who rationalizes the explosively jealous, womanizing Count’s behavior as typical of “modern husbands”—and by Barbarina, who maneuvers her outing of the Count’s advances to her own advantage. Figaro’s mistaken belief that Susanna, the opera’s most sensible character, has yielded to the Count prompts a misogynistic, fourth-wall-breaking outburst in Act IV. But he, too, gets his just deserts for underestimating his bride when he is duped into eavesdropping on Susanna’s feigned infidelity in “Deh vieni, non tardar,” an aria as ravishingly beautiful as it is utterly false.

Adaptations allow people to re-tell and interact with stories, generating both process and product. As a product, an adaptation of a canonic opera can offer a gratifying reencounter with a familiar story read to us in an unfamiliar voice, refilling a prescription with a Cracker Jack box surprise. As a process, adaptations are about something more active and ongoing: the work of interpretation through which, in the case of Figaro, we discern meaning within a Bermuda Triangle of play, opera, and historically-situated production. This process extends to the audience. What world did these characters live in? What kind of world do we want to live in? Being confronted with stubbornly recurring questions through Beaumarchais’, Da Ponte’s, Mozart’s, and Cavanagh’s Figaro is not just another opportunity to find the right answer. It is an invitation to gauge the contemporary urgency of these questions, to think anew about what they might mean in our own time.

Mark Burford is Associate Professor of Music at Reed College, where he is also chair of the American Studies program.

The Marriage of Figaro - Director’s Note
Revolutionary Partnership: Mozart & Da Ponte In Vienna