Le nozze di Figaro
An introduction to the opera.
On February 16, I gave the pre-performance talk about this Mozart opera, ahead of its Lyric Opera production, staged on February 16 and 17, in the National Concert Hall Dublin.
Some of the text of that talk is published here, with kind permission.
The Canzonetta sull’aria from Act 3 is a charming Letter Duet sung by the Countess Rosina and her maid Susanna, in which they echo and overlap each other’s sentences as one dictates and the other writes.
This music gained an entirely new lease of life, and found a new audience, when it was used in the film – that adult, feel-good fairy tale – The Shawshank Redemption (1994), written and directed by Frank Darabont.
This is how the narrator (played by Morgan Freeman) recalled it:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about.
Truth is, I don’t want to know.
Some things are best left unsaid.
I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.
I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream.
It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away and, for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
The ‘Italian ladies’ were in fact the Austrian soprano Gundula Janowitz and her Swiss counterpart Edith Mathis, on a recording of Figaro made in Berlin in 1967, but in the event, in the film, that hardly mattered.
Meanwhile back in Count Almaviva’s country residence outside Seville, the page-boy Cherubino – one of Mozart’s most curious little creations – who loves all women, is obliged to give up his sexually-confused court life to become a soldier.
At the end of Act 1, in his song Non più andrai, Figaro puts the boot into Cherubino, not in an aria, not even in a patter song, but in this vicious and bombastic gloat, and we notice how the orchestra joins in to taunt the poor lad.
However, just before he is supposed to leave for the army, Cherubino goes to heaven, so to speak, when, near the start of Act 2, in the Countess’ bedroom, he gets to sing to her his set piece aria Voi che sapete about the agony and the ecstasy of teenage love, a somewhat naive but wondrous melody, accompanied on the pizzicato strings of Susanna’s guitar.
Later on, in Act 3, and not for the first time in this narrative, the Countess laments a love that has disappeared, in Dove sono, an aria which is preceded by a powerful accompagnato and in which she recalls the golden moments of her love affair with the callous Count.
This is impeccable music, and no surprise there, for I have always contended that Mozart wrote his most beautiful music for his female characters, particularly in his last seven mature operas.
But Figaro being a comedy, an opera buffa, shouldn’t it all end well for the Countess?
You’d certainly think so when, at the end of the opera, in the piece Contessa, perdona, a stunned and ashamed Count Almaviva, nobleman of Seville, repents his ways and asks his wife’s forgiveness which, in their beautiful duet, she willingly bestows.
How then, in my teaching and writing about opera over the last two decades, have I both introduced it to Figaro virgins and summarised it for Figaro veterans?
Mozart set this opera in the precise period in which he and his poet-friend Da Ponte lived, the 1780s.
If care is taken, in its production, to re-create the social world to which it belongs – whether that of Seville or of Vienna – we the audience have the enviable opportunity of spending what should feel like a whole day in the company of ‘real’ people – such is the art and artifice of theatre for which we so willingly suspend our disbelief.
In other words, Figaro is one of those rare masterpieces which allows us to enter, for a couple of hours, the unvisitable past, a foreign country where they do things differently
I don’t believe it’s a revolutionary opera; it certainly has what we might call subversive themes, sub-plots, and it undoubtedly raises what must have been, at the time, awkward questions about the privileges of the aristocracy.
But the fact that the action takes place on what we now know was the eve of the French Revolution doesn’t really justify, in my view, making these political issues explicit, as some productions do.
On the contrary, it is the characters’ blissful ignorance of those forthcoming events (still 3 years down the road) which lends the opera its melancholy pathos.
And, even without the benefit of such hindsight, The Marriage of Figaro has a curiously wistful quality because, although it’s unarguably a comedy, there is an irresistible impression, an after-taste, of loss, and of transience, and the irredeemable passage of human time
In the course of that one mad day, we witness the four seasons of love and marriage:
the carefree springtime of Cherubino and Barbarina;
the high summer of Figaro and his bride-to-be Susanna;
the cold autumnal wind of the Count and Countess’ relationship;
the loveless winter of Bartolo and Marcellina.
It is always difficult to summarise, for new-comers, the intricacies of this drama: even in plain English it still sounds so elaborate and improbable that the irrefutable pleasures we experience of the opera-in-performance should come to us as a great surprise, simply because the music is supreme, it speaks for itself.
For example, at the beginning of Act 2, Porgi amor, a short cavatina (an aria without the da capoelement), introduces us to the wronged Countess Rosina, with its long melodic line and its melancholic, nostalgic beauty.
In the history of 18th century European music, this is truly revolutionary in that this music, and that of the three Da Ponte/Mozart operas, had no precedent in Gluck or Handel.
From 1786, the ground had shifted irredeemably.
Finally, as to plot and character, this is a basic outline.
The marriage of the Count and Countess Almaviva is on the rocks.
Bored by the lady Rosina he once wooed with such ardour, the Count has turned his unwelcome attentions to the Countess’ maid Susanna, in the hope that he can exercise the traditional droit de seigneur with her on the night of her wedding to Figaro, his own manservant.
The story then revolves, and resolves itself, around the various ingenious efforts to forestall such adulterous ambition, to ensure Susanna’s chastity and, if possible, to bring about an affectionate reconciliation of the lord and lady of the big house.
But if so, will it last …. ?
There are so many CD recordings of Figaro on the market, but the one I keep returning to is EMI’s, with Moffo, Schwarzkopf and Cossotto, from 1960, with the London Philharmonia, conducted by Giulini.
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Lyric Opera’s next production is in the Gaiety Theatre Dublin on June 05, 07 and 08: La Traviata, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Verdi’s birth.
© George Fleeton 2013