Caron de Beaumarchais
Caron de Beaumarchais; drawing by David Levine

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.

This is somewhat disingenuous, and, I presume, intended to seem so, but the ambiguity of Cherubino (compounded by Beaumarchais’s insistence that “the role can only be played by a young and very pretty woman”) is essential to the play. The Count’s insane jealousy of him is both absurd and clearly right.

At the end, when the Count, humiliated and pardoned by his wife, learns that it was Figaro who received the slap on the face intended for Cherubino, he turns laughing and says, “What do you think about that, my dear Countess?” Her reply is:

THE COUNTESS, lost in thought, comes to herself and says with feeling: Ah, yes, dear Count, and for life, with no distraction, I swear to you.

She has not listened to a word he said, and she is evidently thinking about Cherubino. Perhaps Beaumarchais himself is thinking about the depressing sequel he was soon to write, called The Guilty Mother, in which the Countess has to face the consequences of having yielded for one brief night, some years after The Marriage of Figaro, to Cherubino’s passion. But we have not yet fallen so low: the Countess’s feelings are only half-conscious, half-willing.

This kind of ambiguous eroticism was realized by Mozart in music even more fully with Don Giovanni in the wonderful scenes with Zerlina, willing and not willing, and with all four lovers in Così fan tutte, where the men find their emotions brought unconsciously into play by the trick they are playing on the women. Kierkegaard thought Don Giovanni not only the greatest opera, but the only possible one, precisely because of the way it embodied the erotic ideal. We must acknowledge the influence of Beaumarchais: none of the previous dramatic versions of the Don Juan legend have anything like the fluidity of erotic atmosphere that Mozart and Da Ponte realized; but this is already found in The Marriage of Figaro, in Susanna’s teasing duet with the Count in which she resists and holds out the possibility of surrender, in Cherubino’s opening aria, with its breathless excitement, and, above all, in the moment of lyric peace in the middle of the fourth-act finale, when Figaro is alone on the stage, believing Susanna with the Count:

All is tranquil and placid
The beautiful Venus has gone in
She can take with wanton Mars
The new Vulcan of the age
In her net

Cuckoldry was never before or again set with such melancholy intensity, as by Mozart’s rich, slow horn calls. This scene, a wonderful contrast to Figaro’s earlier sardonic aria on women’s congenital infidelity, is almost pure Da Ponte. It has little counterpart in Beaumarchais, but it depends for its effect upon the elaboration of sentiment already present. Its calm resignation enlarges still further the range of erotic feeling, and compensates for the way the Countess’s ambiguous feeling for Cherubino is glossed over in the opera.

The complexity and ambiguity of sentiment in The Marriage of Figaro made it possible for Mozart to put on the stage, for the first time in the history of opera, really human, three-dimensional, individual characters. Even in the greatest of his earlier operas, he had not been able to do that: only Electra in I domeneo has some individuality—because she is raving mad—and Osmin in The Abuction from the Seraglio—because as a eunuch with a very short temper and incredibly low bass voice, he is outrageously picturesque: all the others are either the standard idealized figures of opera seria or the stock characters of opera buffa. What gives a new dimension to Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, and the Count is that Beaumarchais conceived of action and personality as a conflict, in political terms. His personages no longer move in a vacuum.

Beaumarchais was aware of the source of his power: “I have thought,” he wrote, “I still think that we get no great pathos, or profound morality, or sound and true comedy in the theater without strong situations which always spring from a social disparity [or incongruity (disconvenance)] in the subject we wish to treat.” Social disparity is the heart of his conception of stage intrigue: like so many French eighteenth-century authors, he saw life as a conflict of classes, but he was the first to be able to present this dramatically. Earlier authors had successfully depicted the hierarchy of classes: in Beaumarchais this has become a genuine opposition, even a struggle.

It is this conflict that reveals the full-blooded individuality of his—and Mozart’s—actors. There is, however, still another conflict that supports this individuality, that between class and character. “Every man,” declared Beaumarchais, “is himself by his character: he is what pleases fate by his position [état], on which his character has a great influence.” Figaro’s wit, for example, depends on his impudence, and this is determined by his station in life. He can only be impudent because he is not well-born. (He turns out to be the son of a doctor and a duenna, but this is a kind of joke that no one believes: neither before nor after the recognition scene does he lay claim to privilege, although he does try to get his birth legitimized.) The social disparity makes the drama possible, a conflict between character or merit and position. Figaro is not a domestic servant, but the superintendent of the chateau and about to be named ambassadorial courier by the Count in his new official post. When Figaro defends Suzanne against the seductions of the Count, he is fighting not just for love but also, as he himself says, for his property. The disparity is simply that Figaro is too clever for his station in life, and when he triumphs at the end, he humiliates his master.

Even Cherubino is conceived in class terms: as a proof that he is not to be taken seriously, Beaumarchais points out in the preface that Figaro uses the familiar form of address to him, which he would not have dared to do if Cherubino were older. His youth consigns him to an inferior class: his erotic ambitions, however, are those of a man. His inferiority, like Figaro’s, is in conflict with his sense of himself.

It is the ambiguity of class that gives Beaumarchais’s characters their full humanity. His characters seem to act independently, because the conflict of character and station is a dynamic principle. His sense of each character’s social position was wonderfully sharp. The music teacher, Bazile, refuses to obey an order of the Count:

BAZILE: I did not become part of the staff at the chateau to run errands.

COUNT: What then?

BAZILE: With my talent as a village organist, I teach the countess to play the harpsichord, her women to sing, and the pages to play the mandolin: my job is above all to amuse your company with my guitar, when it pleases you to order it.

In response to this, the Count sends a shepherd boy on the errand, and commands Bazile to accompany him singing and playing. “He is part of my company,” says the Count brutally: “that is your job. Do it, or I’ll throw you out.”

Beaumarchais was proud of the extraordinary individuality of his characters. I have no style, he claimed; my characters speak for themselves. In the preface to The Marriage of Figaro, he writes:

When my subject seizes me, I evoke all my personages, and put them into the situation: “Be careful, Figaro, your master will find you out!… Ah, countess, what imprudence, with so violent a husband.” I have no idea what they will say: I concern myself with what they will do. Then, when they are in action, I write under their rapid dictation, certain that they will not fool me, that I shall recognize Bazile, who does not have the wit of Figaro, who does not have the noble tone of the count, who does not have the sensitivity of the countess, who does not have the gaiety of Suzanne, who does not have the mischievousness of the page, and above all none of them have the sublimity of Brid’oison [the foolish judge in the breach of promise scene]. Each one speaks his language.

Like Beaumarchais, Mozart was able to adjust his style both to class and to personality. He had always done this, but before Figaro class and character did not interact. No librettist had ever offered him a scene like the one in which Suzanne comes out of the locked room to curtsy to the Count, with that ironic combination of modesty and impudence wonderfully reflected in the accompanying minuet.

After Figaro, the way was clear. Class plays an even greater part, if possible, in Don Giovanni, as the hero relegates the lady to his valet disguised as himself while he serenades the maid, and makes love to the peasant girl and sends off her fiancé with his servants. The class structure of Don Giovanni is static compared with that of Figaro, but it is disorganized by the hero—or villain—from the beginning, where he rapes the first aristocratic lady we see him with, and insults the next one by having his servant read out his catalog of conquests. It has often been said, correctly I think, that the ball with three orchestras on the stage at the end of Act I pictures all classes of society. I believe this view has been challenged, but I cannot think why Mozart would have a courtly minuet, a less noble contradance, and a rustic Teutscher, all played together in elaborate counterpoint unless he wanted a virtuoso musical representation of the class structure.

Politics had always played an important role in serious opera, but it had generally been the frivolous politics of court intrigue and the alliance of two countries by dynastic marriage. The political significance of Figaro and Don Giovanni, on the other hand, is based essentially on the popular belief in aristocratic corruption and sexual exploitation—this may appear equally superficial at first sight, but it touched deeper emotions. The political theme of Figaro is largely mythical, the famous droit du seigneur, the right of the lord to take the virginity of the bride of one of his vassals. Even if this had existed at all in medieval times, by the eighteenth century it was only a vulgar legend: nevertheless, it had genuine political resonance in the 1780s. With Figaro, comic opera became more seriously political than serious opera.

The libertarian ethics of the Masonic societies provides the politics of The Magic Flute. The wicked Queen of the Night was read, correctly or not, as the empress Maria Theresa. At the heart of the opera are the demands made by the Masonic virtues, above all those of steadfastness and fidelity, upon men and women of different conditions and talents. The opera is exceptionally humane: the clownish Papageno fails all the tests, and is rewarded with the wife of his dreams anyway.

Even in Così fan tutte, social disparity is crucial in giving substance to the characters. Here they all come from the same class, except for the chambermaid; but the opera pits women as a class against men, and the inferiority of women determines the structure. This, as we might expect, makes the women more not less individual, gives them greater humanity as each defines herself against a clearly oppressive masculine standard. Above all with Fiordiligi, we find a superb conflict of class (or sex) and character.

With Figaro, we can see that the personages of earlier operas—even the greatest by Handel and Scarlatti—were not characters at all, but a set of powerful and affecting emotions, strung together as a series of arias and organized logically by the intrigue—and then generally disorganized by the singers who almost always substituted different arias more suitable to their voices. We are sometimes persuasively told of the consistency of character in these operas created by the composers through a consistent musical style for each singer, but that is really a proof of their dramatic inadequacy. Mozart’s characters seem real because of their inconsistency, their contradictions. They reveal themselves above all by reacting to each other—not in the arias but in the ensembles and the finales. The ensembles of Figaro were Beaumarchais’s greatest gift to Mozart.

Even before Figaro, the ensembles of his operas had been Mozart’s special pride. With Figaro, however, the character of these ensembles changed radically. The quartet of I domeneo was magnificent but static; it is not very different from the great quartet in Handel’s Jephtha, in which each singer individually expresses a different isolated sentiment. One can see, however, that Mozart aspired to a more active form: at the end, the singers leave before finishing the melody, and the orchestra must round off the phrase. The quartet of The Abduction from the Seraglio was superficially more dynamic (the lovers are reunited, quarrel, and are reconciled), but it was obviously set up with little dramatic justification so that Mozart could have a brilliant finale to his first act. It has little relation to the intrigue, and does not advance the action. Nevertheless, the ensembles in the Abduction contain some of the most beautiful and striking music in the opera: they are virtuoso set pieces to display the composer’s genius.

The ensembles of Figaro are even more impressive; they are integrated dramatically and full of action. This is evident right from the opening number in which Figaro is measuring the floor for a bed while Susanna tries on a hat. From then on we have ensembles in which people dictate letters to each other, remove dresses from a chair to discover a page hiding underneath, threaten to smash down doors, and mistakenly seduce their own wife under the impression that she is the chambermaid. There were comic ensembles with some action before Figaro, but nothing of even remotely comparable complexity and richness of action had ever been seen before—and above all there had never been ensembles with such full-blooded individual personalities. Character cannot be portrayed adequately through the aria: this reduces the personality only to an emotion. It is the interaction of one person with another that gives character its depth; it is only through the ensemble that music can create the illusion of real people. Mozart achieved this for the first time with Figaro, and he continued with Don Giovanni: it is in the ensembles that an elderly commendatore is murdered, a peasant girl seduced, a funereal statue invited to dinner, the hero consigned to hell.

Even the way to construct an act was shown to Mozart by Beaumarchais, who was unrivaled at building excitement by bringing more and more people onto the stage. This was a principle of operatic construction that held sway for more than a century, and it is basic to Verdi’s technique. The second-act finale of Figaro, which ends with a septet, is the greatest example, and the libretto follows Beaumarchais’s original very closely. The tension rises steadily as people of different stations of life and opposing interests gradually enter to create fresh difficulties. For the first time in opera, an act becomes a tightly organized, complex dramatic structure.

We might say that Beaumarchais invented modern opera with some assistance from Mozart. Mozart never surpassed the second-act finale of Figaro, and it influenced the rest of his operatic career. I should imagine, however, that Beaumarchais did not like Mozart’s operas very much: he almost certainly thought that they “stank of music”: unlike any of his contemporaries, Mozart gave interesting lines to play even to the violas and the second violins. Perhaps Mozart had misgivings about Beaumarchais’s play: after all, his father, Leopold, wrote: “It is a very tiresome play and the translation from the French will certainly have to be altered very freely if it is to be effective as an opera.” It was, however, Mozart who proposed the play to Da Ponte.

On one point, Mozart and Beaumarchais were in accord. The latter declared: “Music will be employed seriously in the theater when we realize that one should sing only to speak.” Mozart similarly answered the elderly tenor who complained that in the quartet of I domeneo, he could not produce the sustained, even tones for which he was famous: “In a quartet, the notes should be much more spoken than sung.” It was paradoxically in the ensembles, which are the most elaborate structures of pure music, that Mozart perfectly realized Beaumarchais’s operatic ideal.

This Issue

October 27, 1988