The Marriage of Figaro
New Moon Opera
April 17-18, 2015
The Age of Enlightenment, which lasted from the 1650s until the end of the 18th century, saw some of the grandest gestures of intellectual thought in the history of Western civilization. During this period philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant sought to chart the development of freedom and reason, from the dawn of man to their own moment, in terms that lay beyond empirical activity, which is to say that they sought to determine the potential and meaning of human experience. It was this kind of idealist thinking that birthed the notion that man needed to overcome bourgeois society in order to truly be free. These beliefs were most directly and famously acted out in the French Revolution, the result of which was the abolition of the French monarchy and the introduction of democracy on an international level. The question of the Revolution’s success was widely debated, however, as philosophers of the 19th century, namely G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, attempted to understand the relationship of human freedom to this new kind of society, one that was in the process of transitioning into capitalism.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1792) opera The Marriage of Figaro (1786) can be seen as a response to the problems of reason and human experience presented in the works of the Enlightenment thinkers. The opera, based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s 1778 play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), featured a libretto by poet Lorenzo da Ponte, who also provided libretti for Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. Figaro is well known for being one of the first works of its moment that attempted to understand its characters’ psychological states, their happiness and despair, not as a result of merely their own self-determined will, but, rather, of the bonds placed on them by society. To this end the characters’ positions in the household were not incidental, but, rather, part of the very fabric of the drama.
In the first scene of the opera, the bliss of the valet Figaro’s imminent marriage to Susanna is overshadowed by his recognition of his fate: that the Count is planning to enact his right as their lord to sleep with Susanna before the wedding. Figaro resolves to fight back against the Count and to challenge the contract that he unknowing entered into simply by being employed by the Count and Countess. In one of the most delightful moments of Act I, which sets the tone for the whole work, Figaro sings of his desire to foil the Count in his aria “Se vuol ballare”: “Se vuol ballare, signor contino/…/il chitarrino le suonerò” (“If you want to dance, my little count/…/I’ll play the guitar”).
Over the course of the opera the characters become engaged in numerous plots to outsmart each other. Marcellina and her lawyer Bartolo attempt to ruin the wedding by citing a past contract in which Figaro agreed to marry Marcellina in return for a financial loan; the amorous, young Cherubino tries to succeed in wooing Barbarina; and, most importantly, the Countess Almaviva conspires to catch her adulterous husband in an act of betrayal. Of course, in typical opera buffa (comedic opera) style, these trysts are all resolved in the end, which is facilitated by the Countess’s overcoming of the labor relations of the household in Act III, through her recognition that the only way to ensure happiness across the entire estate would be for everyone to work together (“oh cielo, a quale/umil stato fatale io son ridotta/da un consorte crudel/…/fammi or cercar da una mia serva aita!” (“oh heavens, to what a humiliating state I am reduced by a cruel husband/…/now makes me turn to one of my servants for help!”)).
In the final moments of Act IV the Count discerns that her conspiracy to catch him being unfaithful has succeeded and that he has been exposed as an adulterer. He begs forgiveness, and in a moment of transcendent benevolence—and certainly one of the most beautiful moments in all of opera—the Countess ratifies his plea for forgiveness (“Più docile io sono/e dico di sì” (“I am gentler/and I grant it to you”)). The chains of struggle, at least in the context of the opera, have been overcome, the infractions of the participants in the crisis redeemed, and they, together, sing “Ah, tutti contenti/saremo così” (“Ah, all will now be happy”).
This production of The Marriage of Figaro is set in 1957 Seville, Spain, in the early spring, when Spain was in the throes of the Ifni War. This battle between Spanish and Moroccan insurgents over land and possessions in the African territory of Ifni only lasted about eight months. During this time, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco voided the laws ensuring the equal treatment of women in society and instituted severe punishments for wives convicted of adultery. Naturally, this setting presents an interesting update for the opera, which was itself set just outside of 18th century Seville. Although The Marriage of Figaro could be read as an allegory for the overcoming of class struggle, this 20th century setting serves to remind us that freedom for all has not yet been achieved. In combining a meditation on Franco’s oppressive state with the sublime music and message of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a silver lining is exposed: that the continued fight for equality and freedom will, surely, one day be won.
Adam Rothbarth © 2015