Inventor of Modern Opera


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

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…

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