‘Figaro’ at the Met: A Marriage on the Rocks

Le Nozze di Figaro

by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. The Metropolitan Opera, directed by Günther Rennert, designed by Robert O'Hearn, and conducted by Steuart Bedford

“Figaro (Marriage of). Another of the causes of the Revolution.”

Dictionary of Accepted Ideas

This epigraph from Flaubert’s lexicon would surely mystify most of the audience for the new Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan. Although the reference is to Beaumarchais’s play, in which the consequences of prerevolutionary social structure are more accentuated than they are in the opera, the relationship between the classes is an indispensable element in the latter also. Traditional stagings recognize this, but the current one at Lincoln Center minimizes the historical circumstances. Günther Rennert, who directed the new version, believes that

[There is] little logic in loading Mozart’s opera with political portent or emphasizing the class distinctions to make the character of Figaro a personification of the revolution that was to sweep across Europe after 1791. That approach would be right for Beaumarchais but wrong for Mozart…. [The New York Times, November 16, 1975]

But any approach to the Figaro story, for Beaumarchais or for Mozart, must “emphasize class distinctions,” while to portray the ingratiating valet as the “personification of the revolution” would be ludicrous no matter what the circumstances. Yet Mozart did choose this “revolutionary” play and naturally would have been attracted to a hero who successfully challenges his “superior” under the cloak of compliance.

The opera’s continuing supremacy after two centuries testifies to its ability to accommodate a variety of interpretations tending to highlight either the political-social content or the sexual one. But whatever the proportion between them, the two are inseparable. Dr. Rennert’s principal error is in too heavily exploiting the latter at the cost of obfuscating the former. This is not to say that his emphasis on the erotic element is unjustified but only that to blur the social differences of the period is to remove the basis of the plot, which depends on the feudal relationship between master and servant:

Countess: So [the Count] tried to seduce you?

Susanna: His lordship does not make pretty speeches to a girl of my station; he regards it as purely a matter of business.

Rennert ignores this dialogue and places the Count in a cat-and-mouse, Feydeautype chase of her ladyship’s maid. Throughout the performance, moreover, the familiarity between master and servant reaches the level of mutual backslapping—or, rather, of fisticuffs, for at one point Figaro seems to be on the verge of punching the Count, a preposterous gesture for the time. More important, this betrays Rennert’s essential misunderstanding of Figaro’s most famous characteristic, his reliance on wit rather than physical strength, the story being a contest between the power of talent and that of birth. Rennert’s direction of the peasants also shows this distorted point of view. Instead of presenting their flowers to the Count indifferently or with ill-concealed contempt, as the scene is usually played, the chorus flings them at him like a mob pelting a politician. At this moment and others in Rennert’s production the Revolution appears already to have taken place.

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