A Timeless Mirror: Finding Ourselves within “The Marriage of Figaro”

WNO_16-17_MarriageofFigaro_620x349_v2From the playbill for The Marriage of Figaro

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg

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Spoiler alert: No one dies in The Marriage of Figaro.

In an art form teeming with over-the-top offenders, the characters in The Marriage of Figaro seem slightly tame—more Downton Abbey than True Crime. But the lack of superheroes and supervillains is precisely what makes Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy of manners so compelling. The emotional life of the household first imagined by the playwright Beaumarchais raises our ire, splits our sides, breaks our hearts, and sends us out of the theater with recognition of—and hope for—our shared humanity.

Beaumarchais first introduced Figaro and friends to the public in Le Barbier de Séville (1775), a rollicking comedy in which a multitalented barber named Figaro facilitates Count Almaviva’s courtship of Rosina, his Countess-to-be. Only seven years after the stage premiere of Le Barbier, the play was made into an opera, with music by Giovanni Paisiello and a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini. The popularity of Paisiello’s opera alerted Mozart and Da Ponte to the operatic possibilities of Beaumarchais’s intricate plotting and charismatic characters, who are all the more compelling for their flaws.

Da Ponte and Mozart turned their attention to the second of Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays, Le Mariage de Figaro, late in 1785. By that time, Paisiello’s opera had been seen in Vienna, Italy, Prague, Warsaw, Barcelona, France, and Germany, and audiences were eager for the next installment in the lives of the cocksure Count, the spirited Rosina, and the resourceful Figaro.

There was just one problem: Le Mariage de Figaro had been banned in Vienna. Da Ponte managed to gain the Emperor’s permission to make an operatic version of the play by assuring him that he had cut “anything that might offend good taste or public decency at a performance over which the Sovereign Majesty might preside.” And indeed, Figaro’s caustic remarks about the aristocracy are scrubbed from the opera—but the representation of aristocratic excesses remains.

Da Ponte tightened Beaumarchais’s clockwork machinery another notch, forging a libretto from which Mozart created an opera quite unlike anything that came before—a score stuffed with ensembles that propel us through an impossibly knotted plot even as they allow us a glimpse into the hopes and fears that motivate nobility and peasantry alike. Mozart’s melodies map the peaks and valleys of the human experience with uncanny accuracy: from Figaro’s simmering resentment to Cherubino’s eager adolescent yearning, from the Countess’s bittersweet recollection of a love lately lost to Susanna’s seductive invitation, “Deh vieni,” which manages to be both archly teasing and sweetly sincere.

The Marriage of Figaro was produced in more than 20 European cities before the end of the 18th century and remains one of the most popular operas in the repertory. This company’s first production was in the 1958-59 season; it was repeated in the 1964-65, 1984-85, 1994-95, 2000-01 and 2009-10 seasons.