“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.
Rennert’s initial conflict with Mozart, therefore, is in having transgressed the boundaries of class which the composer always scrupulously observes. That Figaro may have egalitarian aspirations, and is more than a match for the Count in native intelligence, has no bearing on the musical delineation of the social positions of the two men. Where Beaumarchais uses verbal idioms to distinguish the nobleman from the notary and the doctor from the dolt, Mozart employs the conventions of his own art. Thus the Count’s music, even when he suffers a fit of jealousy, retains a formality appropriate to the aristocrat, while Figaro’s music, when he is in the throes of the same emotion, never loses the buoyancy associated with those who have had to fend for themselves. So, too, the musical style of the Count’s comments, when he enters the scene during Figaro’s and Susanna’s “Pace, pace,” is never confounded with that of this rustic, cozy duet.
Similarly, the Countess’s music, in arias and ensembles, always befits the noblewoman, just as Susanna’s does the maid—albeit one with larger potentialities. And it follows that the music of Bartolo and Marcellina unmistakably marks them, with their pomposities and affectations, as bourgeois. To be sure, this social defining is only one of many means of characterization by which Mozart creates some of opera’s most convincingly three-dimensional people. On a more rarefied level he even offers glimpses into the subconscious, revealing the true motive that may contradict the one which a character is avowing.
Whether from ignorance or by design the Met’s Almaviva lacked all dignity, slouching about, remaining seated when his wife entered the room, brandishing a rapier as if he had never had a fencing lesson. And in her over-enthusiastic response to the infatuated Cherubino’s advances, the Countess behaves with unthinkable, if not merely anachronistic, vulgarity, though in the first place her conduct defies credibility, since her would-be seducer is only thirteen years old. Here again, the more serious fault is the failure to understand that the whole concept of the Countess’s character is based on the reality of her love for her husband, a premise of the opera.
The Metropolitan’s costumes also suggest that the times are somewhat later than Da Ponte and Mozart had thought. The peasants look as if they came by their clothes in a raid on the Carmen wardrobe, or had them copied from Goya’s portraits of the nobility. In fact the only protagonist shown as being in a truly wretched condition is the musician Basilio, who is shabby, unkempt, and evidently too poor to afford the tonsorial services of Seville’s most famous citizen. Local 802, in its next strike against the Met, should include among the list of grievances this caricaturing of a musician and his pathetic situation.
As for the sets, Act One perpetuates the opera’s built-in inconsistency that requires Figaro to measure a room for the nuptial bed, though a glance shows a space large enough for a dozen such. But this is mandated by the action. Less justifiable is the addition of a corridor visible to the audience, since this eliminates the possibility of the surprise visits that are part of the plot. Also, the room itself is equipped with extra doorways that obviate the entire dramaturgical problem, despite the Count’s obliging, if inexplicable, failure to take advantage of them. Finally, the first-act curtain descends on Figaro alone, as if Act Two were to follow like a second scene, which is the way Karajan presents it, partly for the sake of the Act Two Finale. In general, however, Aguas Frescas, the Almaviva palace, is unattractive both inside and out, the last scene more nearly resembling a cemetery of wire-sculpture tombstones than a garden.
Figaro can be enjoyed regardless of botched staging if the musical performance is reasonably good. Unfortunately the Met did not offer this compensation. The male leads were passably sung, but those of the females were not even that. Though superior to the Countess and Susanna, the Cherubino filled the same part in Salzburg much more satisfactorily, suggesting that the Met’s unfavorable musical ecology might have been responsible for her frequently sharp notes. But neither of the two other singers possessed the voice for her part, the Countess’s lacking purity and warmth, and Susanna’s the volume for a theater the size of the Met—as well as the range for anywhere, a deficiency not offset by a histrionic repertory limited to eye-rolling of the minstrel-show variety. In the letter-dictating scene, where the alternating voices should be perfectly matched, the two women contradicted each other instead, in both intonation and style. But the Met’s obliviousness to complementarity in casting is well known, this operation apparently being entrusted to lottery.
Even so, the weakest link in the performance was the conductor. His huge, inflexible beat seldom found judicious tempi, reducing the Presto Overture to an Allegro Moderato, for example, and trailing Bartolo’s triplets by a full length. The singers and orchestra were rarely together, furthermore, though ragged ensembles are not always the conductor’s fault at the Met since the prompter rules the stage. Apart from these disasters, the musical reading lacked any sense of style, appoggiaturas and ornaments being inconsistently and sometimes incorrectly applied, and articulation left to take care of itself (with, for instance, the habitual misplaying of portato as staccato).
Whether the conductor or the stage director was responsible for cutting Marcellina’s but not Basilio’s Act Four aria, the decision was ill advised. Though pertinent as philosophical asides, both pieces are expendable, since they dissipate the dramatic tension and, arguably, lower the musical caliber; that Mozart was inspired by theatrical situations partly accounts for the inferiority of even his greatest concert arias to those in the operas. But these two, probably interpolated, numbers are also stylistically alien; Marcellina’s fioritura line and Basilio’s “descriptive” chromaticisms are reflected nowhere else in the score. If one of the pieces is omitted, however, both should be.
Most of the Metropolitan openingnight audience reacted to the performance as if they were attending a world premiere. Many spectators were more surprised than either the Count or Figaro at the revelation of identities in the final scene, as well as more amused by the chair episode than would be possible at a second viewing. And each instance of bad singing and jejune stage business provoked applause that betrayed a total insensitivity to the music. Yet the audience was not entirely to blame. Mozart’s opera buffa, with its serious theme disguised in comic conventions, should not have been treated as farce. Who, one wonders, is responsible for having made pandering a policy at the Met? It does not help the city’s claim to artistic pre-eminence as a basis for national support when one of its foremost cultural institutions yields to such standards.
In view of the consensus that Le Nozze di Figaro is Mozart’s most successful opera, it has engendered surprisingly little criticism of any substance. Perhaps the very abundance and obviousness of its virtues explain this dearth. Unlike Die Zauberflöte, for instance, Figaro is not encumbered with symbolic meanings, confusing antecedents, and bizarre and supernatural characters, nor is it in need of interpretive theories, such as Kierkegaard’s on the erotic in Don Giovanni. The story is credible, suspenseful, and well constructed in spite of loose ends and a considerable dependence on accidents and coincidences. The play is perfectly fitted to the opera form, moreover, and its adaptation is skillful. In Le Nozze as in Le Mariage, the characters are so vivid—their emotions and motivations transcending specific time and place—that the audience never questions their humanity.
The one topic that continues to provoke discussion is the extent of the opera’s revolutionary subject matter. The British philosopher Bernard Williams argues that the play was not at first recognized as revolutionary at all and that Beaumarchais’s “reputation as a subversive writer increased with hindsight.”1 The beginning of this statement cannot be entirely true, since the King banned the play for a time and the aristocracy repeatedly warned against it, but Flaubert’s “definition” attests to the retrospective inflation of the received idea. Williams notes that the explicit political comment in the Beaumarchais is minute. But surely the implied is a potent as the overt, while even a few words on such subjects spoken in a play have more impact than the same words sung in an opera. Williams proves this and contradicts himself with a quotation from a Viennese newspaper published shortly after the opera’s premiere:
What is not allowed to be said these days is sung, one may say, with Figaro—this piece, which was prohibited in Paris…we have at last had the felicity to see represented as an opera….
Yet Williams attributes more profound revolutionary sentiments to the opera than to the play:
Beaumarchais never comes near the depths of…bitterness that Mozart uncovered in the recitative Tutto e disposto…and the snaking unsettled aria which follows it.
The peculiar adjectives apart, the comment lacks perspective on the opera as a whole, for the essential difference between it and the play is not in the degree of political involvement but in qualities of expressiveness. As Stendhal wrote:
The true temperament of the French play is nowhere to be found in the opera…. [Mozart] converts into serious passion the transient inclinations which in Beaumarchais simply amuse the agreeable inhabitants of Aguas Frescas.
Although the moral edification may come to the same thing in both works—cleverness triumphs, two can play at the same game, fidelity is advisable if only because it is prudent—and although the Almaviva world is still shallow in whatever medium it is portrayed, Mozart and Beaumarchais have imbued the same material with almost antithetical feelings. The play, no matter how expert and ingenious it is, and how effective its satire, remains a comedy of manners whose emotional range is inherently narrower than that of the opera.2 Mozart, by contrast, transfigures the mundane story and less-than-heroic characters in the ardor of his music. His theme is romantic love.
The essay on Figaro by Edward Dent,3 still the best-known criticism of the opera in English, is less than half as long as his studies of Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte. Moreover, Dent’s Figaro is useful mainly for its examination of stylistic resemblances between Mozart’s opera and earlier and contemporary ones by Paisiello, Salieri, and others. In fact, the critic’s one “original” comment about the music, that its highest achievement is the Act Three Sextet, only repeats Mozart’s own preference, as well as that of most thoughtful musicians. Dent discusses this ensemble as a demonstration of the opportunities, unique to opera, for blending different emotions while at the same time keeping them distinct. But he does not offer a musical analysis of the piece, and it was left for Charles Rosen4 to perceive that its structure is that of the slow movement of a sonata.
Figaro is by no means free of archaic theatrical conventions and of plot inconsistencies, yet the former do not creak loudly enough to distract, and the latter are not really disturbing. Who cares how Cherubino manages to escape from the locked dressing room—or, if the lock were of the one-way type, believes that the Count would not be cognizant of the fact? Also, if the dropping of the pin is too convenient, and the discovery that Marcellina and Figaro are mother and son too outrageous, such doubts may puzzle the audience after the opera but hardly during it. Even Figaro’s unlikely marriage contract with the elderly and unappealing Marcellina is forgotten in the music of the Sextet in which this foolish business is exposed.
In one respect the conventional structure of the opera does fail. It is too evident that the happy ending will not last very long for the Countess. Our apprehension and concern for her future arise, of course, because of the depth of feeling with which her music is suffused, and which by the end of the opera has won for her the largest share of sympathy—even larger than for Figaro and Susanna, who are all too clearly on the way up. After spending four acts with the Count, the audience does not trust him, realizing that the one lesson he may have learned is in future to choose a more naïve and less shrewdly escorted prey than Susanna. In spite of his final good resolutions it is obvious that he will follow the pattern of the amorist “hero” of Mozart’s subsequent opera.
The late appearance of Cherubino’s partner, Barbarina, has been described as a fault of construction. (She is not introduced in the earlier scenes in order that he can pursue his flirtation with the Countess, which is central to the plot.) Yet the same imbalance in the corresponding role (Fanchette) in Beaumarchais’s play passes unnoticed. Mozart’s “error” is in having given the young girl the opera’s most beautiful short piece, one that is also distinguished in tonality, color (muted strings), and placement—for beginning the final act with this delicate lyric is perhaps the composer’s greatest surprise. Barbarina’s tiny Cavatina makes us regret that he did not enlarge the part.
Da Ponte’s preface to Le Nozze di Figaro warns that
in spite of all the zeal and care on the part of both the composer and myself to be brief…the opera will not be one of the shortest that has been performed on our stages.
The librettist’s prediction is true: the opera is long. That it does not seem so may be partly due to Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s avowed efforts “to avoid the boredom and monotony of long recitatives,” even though as much as one-fifth of the work consists of this form of dialogue. But the opera’s extremely fast pace gives the impression of brevity and also helps to account for its popularity. The musical numbers are not only short but most of them are in fast tempo. Beginning with the Presto Overture, and with the exception of four measures of accompanied recitative, Act One consists entirely of allegro or allegretto music. As in symphonic tradition, the second act promises to be the opera’s slow movement, but after the opening, and apart from three later andante passages, music and events resume their rapid tempo. The third act contains a larger proportion of slow music, as befits the more serious mood of the opera’s climax, but even here there are more fast pieces than slow, and in Act Four quick tempi again predominate.
Other factors contribute to the effect of fluidity. One is that the score is free of musical digressions; the March and Fandango, for example, might well have been extended but, instead, seem to have been written with a stop watch in hand; every note, here and elsewhere, builds toward the dramatic totality. Moreover, the same grammar that seems so confining and rigid in much of the music of Mozart’s contemporaries was for him a challenge to endless invention. Though his harmonic vocabulary consists of only a few monosyllables—by later criteria—he continually renews the music’s harmonic aspect through modulation and changes of tonality. Still further reasons for the impression of acceleration throughout the opera are the rarity of minor keys, generally associated with introspective moods and slower tempi, the constant varying of meter and rhythmic pattern, and, above all, the succession of ever higher-spirited pieces. As an example of the last, Mozart manages to top even the effervescence of the “Rossini”5 Allegro, in the Finale of Act Two, with, at Figaro’s entrance, a still more exultant burst of musical joy.
The fundamental reason for the continual impression of animation is the opera’s origin in a play that teems with action, incident, and detail, all of which are found in recitative and aria alike. Further, Mozart creates conversational forms. For example, in the Andante near the end of Act Two, beginning with Antonio’s “Vostre dunque,” at first the repartee resembles speech more than song, each voice being limited to a single pitch or to a narrow range. And the tension-generating technique at this point anticipates Wagner, in the use of ostinato, pedal point, orchestral dynamics, and sequences—in Mozart’s case changes of tonal degree corresponding to changes of speakers. The crescendo and switch of key between the Count’s “Su via, ti confondi?” and Figaro’s “È l’usanza…” are as exciting as the phrases in the orchestra, at successively higher transpositions, that first introduce Tristan into the presence of Isolde.
Le Nozze di Figaro does not encompass Mozart’s most celestial or profound music. Nor should it. His goal was to fit music to character and action, evoke situation, express shades of feeling, convey dramatic meaning. In all of these, Figaro both breaks ground and has yet to be surpassed. Here Mozart reveals himself not only as a master of new and greater musical dimensions but also of the understanding of human beings.
(This is the fifth in a series of articles on Mozart.)
January 22, 1976
“Mozart’s ‘Figaro’: A Question of Class?” The Listener, August 15, 1974. ↩
See Georges Lemaitre’s Beaumarchais (Knopf, 1949) for a discussion of the differences between the play and the opera. ↩
Mozart’s Operas: A Critical Study (Oxford, 1913; revised edition, 1947). ↩
The Classical Style (Viking, 1971). ↩
Verdi also comes to mind at one point, in the passage beginning in G minor just before the final Andante. ↩