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Inventor of Modern Opera


by Caron de Beaumarchais
Gallimard, 1,696 pp., fr165

Like so many other eighteenth-century men of letters, Beaumarchais wanted to reform opera. This was the grandest of all musical genres, but everyone felt it to be, for one reason or another, absurd. “There is too much music in the music of the theater,” wrote Beaumarchais. “It is always overloaded; and, to use the naive expression of a justly famous man, the famous chevalier Gluck, our opera stinks of music: puzza di musica.” In spite of the authority of Gluck, this is a writer’s typical irritation: too much music, not enough action. Beaumarchais even tried his hand at writing librettos: his only published example is a ridiculous allegory called Tarare with characters like The Genius of the Reproduction of Beings: it was appropriately set to music by a pupil of Gluck—Salieri, who was to achieve posthumous fame as a mythical enemy of Mozart.

Nevertheless, Beaumarchais realized his ambition: he did indeed reform opera, and the reform was revolutionary and permanent. It was by setting Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro that Mozart achieved his operatic ideals and gave himself at last the central dramatic ensemble that had to be constructed for him factitiously in The Abduction from the Seraglio. The experience also radically altered Mozart’s style, and determined the course of opera for the next century. Part of the credit must be given to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who adapted the play for Mozart, but even more belongs to Beaumarchais himself. His theater was not transformed into opera, but was originally conceived in operatic terms, quite literally inspired by the tradition of comic opera and its unrealized possibilities.

The new edition of the works of Pierre-Augustin Caron (who later called himself Caron de Beaumarchais, after a piece of land owned by his first wife) will not do much to alter his reputation. The son of a watchmaker, he was known as a dazzling polemicist, particularly when his own financial interests were concerned; he won an important lawsuit by appealing over the heads of the judges to the general public in a series of brilliant and entertaining pamphlets or memoirs, in which he dramatized his case with considerable verve. He also produced some insignificant farces, and three sadly unconvincing sentimental dramas. Finally there are the two comedies: The Barber of Seville, original and inventive; and The Marriage of Figaro, a masterpiece and perhaps the finest play of the eighteenth century.

The Barber of Seville was first conceived and written in 1772 as a four-act opera: in this form (now lost) it was rejected by the Comédiens-Italiens (that was the name given to the opera company in eighteenth-century Paris). Beaumarchais rewrote it during the following year for the Comédie Française, but difficulties with the censor postponed the production until 1775. By this time Beaumarchais had enlarged the play to five acts. The first performance on Thursday, February 23, was a disaster. The author quickly went back to a revised four-act version which was played on Sunday, February 26; and was immediately a triumphal success.

It had not lost its character as an opera in the rewriting: not only is it full of songs, serenades, and music lessons, but many of the speeches are like arias. Figaro enters singing—and his song turns out to be an unfinished aria for the comic opera he is writing, and he continues to compose the aria throughout his long opening monologue. Don Bazile’s famous description of calumny is already an aria even without the music:

First, a light sound, skirting the ground like a swallow before the storm, pianissimo murmurs and then bolts, sowing as it goes the poisoned suggestion [trait]. Anyone’s mouth can pick it up, and piano, piano, slip it adroitly into your ear. The evil is done, develops, crawls, walks and rinforzando from mouth to mouth it goes like the devil: then suddenly, I don’t know how, you see Calumny spring up, hiss, swell, grow before your eyes. It bounds forward, spreads its wings, whirls, surrounds, tears away, sweeps along, bursts and thunders, and becomes, thank Heaven, a general shout, a public crescendo, a universal chorus of hate and proscription. Who the devil could resist it?

This extraordinary succession of mixed metaphors has an almost purely musical structure: Rossini’s famous setting is an achievement of genius, but one can see that half his work had already been done for him by Beaumarchais.

This “aria” had been added in the five-act version of the play but it was retained when the company went back to the shorter structure. There are three different versions of The Barber of Seville (four, with the lost opera): the new edition gives hundreds of variant readings, all in almost unreadable form. If publishers are going to make the variants available for the delight of scholars, it is self-defeating to print them in a way that can give pleasure to no one, and is disgustingly painful to read. I should have sacrificed the hundreds of pages of Beaumarchais’s mediocre sentimental plays for a satisfactory printing of the five-act version of The Barber. It was undeniably less effective than the final version but it contained lots of good things that are not in the revised version—one, indeed, so good that Beaumarchais saved it for his next play: a virtuoso aria on the use of the word “goddamn” in English.

His next play was The Marriage of Figaro, a sequel to The Barber of Seville which started as a joke. Annoyed by critics who complained that the first comedy had too simple a plot, Beaumarchais facetiously outlined a possible sixth act in the preface: a ridiculous scene in which Figaro is discovered, by a birthmark, to be the long lost natural son of Doctor Bartholo and the governess Marceline. This extravagant parody of the silliest moments of sentimental melodrama was incorporated bodily into the new play, where it is by a kind of tour de force, both absurd and touching. This became the occasion for Mozart’s greatest ensemble, the sextet of recognition, which was the composer’s own favorite number in the opera, a work of the most sophisticated irony, deeply moving and yet humorous at the same time. Only Mozart could have carried this off, but only Beaumarchais thought of it. It is a fine example of the playwright’s characteristic genius, at once serious and playfully impudent. The impertinence, in fact, is what made Beaumarchais’s powerful moral and political satire acceptable and dangerous.

The Marriage of Figaro was written by 1778 but the assault on the social order was considerably more outrageous than in his earlier play—or than in anyone else’s earlier play—and the censorship authorities refused permission to perform it until 1784: the première on the 27th of April was perhaps the greatest triumph in the history of the French theater. The combination of gaiety and sedition, of daring and charm, was irresistible. (At one point the Count reproaches Figaro for his detestable reputation. Figaro has a ready answer: “And suppose I am better than my reputation? Can many aristocrats say as much?”)

The première in Vienna of Mozart’s setting followed only two years and four days later. Paisiello had already set The Barber of Seville in 1782, seven years after the première of that comedy. Da Ponte and Mozart may have wished to exploit the success of Paisiello’s Barber, which had already been produced in Vienna, or simply to exploit the popularity of a new and scandalous work. Much—but not all (!)—of the political satire was removed by Da Ponte, or he would never have seen the work produced in Vienna, infinitely more reactionary than Paris: but with a play so recent and so famous, a large part of the public would have known much of what was taken out.

The originality of play and libretto was immediately evident. One odd measure of this is the length. Da Ponte apologized for the unorthodox length of Le Nozze di Figaro (four acts instead of the usual two or three), but explained that Mozart and he were doing something absolutely new. The opera is really in two acts, but the size demanded extra divisions: when the opera was finally done in Italy, it was too much for the Italians—they did the first two acts on one night, and the last two on the following (having hired another composer to rewrite them, since Mozart’s last two acts were found to be too difficult). Beaumarchais’s play was already startlingly long: the première lasted four-and-a-half hours.

Da Ponte claimed that he did not translate Beaumarchais, but imitated him; in fact, he followed the original more closely than one might have believed possible. For example, after Figaro’s opening scene with Suzanne, Beaumarchais gives him a menacing tirade against the Count and Bazile, the music teacher. Da Ponte changes the terms of the threat into “If you want to dance, my little Count, I’ll play the guitar for you.” This, however, is an adaptation of a later, defiant Figaro, when Suzanne and the Countess disguise Cherubino as a girl to fool the Count: “Dress him, fix his hair, I’ll take him off and indoctrinate him and then—dance, Monseigneur!” Many of the arias come directly from the French original: Figaro’s prediction of the unpleasant military life that awaits Cherubino, and the latter’s expression of his adolescent eroticism are almost word for word in the play. Even more than in the Barber, Beaumarchais was capable here of brief moments of lyric intensity. The sentimentality in Beaumarchais’s serious plays is merely embarrassing: concentrated into a few brief sentences in the comedies, it has great force and, moreover, helps to organize the rhythm of the play.

The best critical interpretation of Beaumarchais’s comedy is Mozart’s opera. We may extend that interpretation by reversing the terms, by observing what Beaumarchais gave to Mozart, above all those gifts that no composer had ever received from a dramatist before. We shall find that Beaumarchais was largely responsible in the end not only for The Marriage of Figaro, but for Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and even for The Magic Flute as well.

The most obvious gift is the importance given to the erotic element. Of course, love was hardly a novelty in the theater, and the wicked seducer, the languishing wife, the honest gardener’s niece, and her trusty betrothed are all stock figures. Cherubino, however, is an absolutely original invention on the stage, although he springs partly from the many eighteenth-century novels and stories, semi-pornographic, about awakening sexuality. It is the ambiguity of Cherubino that is new: only thirteen, he is too young to be respectably and openly an object of desire for the Countess. Beaumarchais is quite explicit about him in the preface to the play:

Is it my page who scandalizes you?… A child of thirteen, whose heart is just beginning to beat, seeking everything and discerning nothing, adoring—as one does at that happy age—a heavenly object who happens to be his godmother, is he the subject of scandal?… Do you say that one loves him with love? Censors, that is not the right word! You are too enlightened not to know that even the most pure love is not disinterested: one does not yet love him, therefore: one senses that one day one will love him.

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