The Marriage of Figaro
The Met’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Sir Richard Eyre, begins with a view of some impressive architectural machinery designed (along with the costumes) by Rob Howell: we see the model, on a revolving stage, of Count Almaviva’s mansion near Seville, designed to reveal successive interrelated interiors as the set turns. These are high-vaulted chambers dense with arabesque marquetry and latticework, often oppressively dark unless the parted slats permit some afternoon light to find its way in. Although it is not at once apparent, this is the Spain of the 1930s, but a corner of Spain evidently still closely bound to the hierarchies of its past. This might be the country estate of some belated hidalgo, openhanded by custom, predatory and jealous by long habit, modern in wardrobe but otherwise living in the past.
It’s a way of updating Figaro without really updating it—without, that is, doing any fundamental injury to the aesthetic intentions (as nearly as they can be surmised) of Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. (I am thinking of a certain Berlin production of The Magic Flute in which the followers of Sarastro wore costumes evoking Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and a Don Giovanni whose hero was constantly flanked by a silent mob of lookalikes and whose central action took place in the dungeon of a contemporary S&M club.)
Spain can easily be conceived, even in the early twentieth century, as a last bastion of die-hard feudalism—just as it was for Beaumarchais in the late eighteenth as he wrote the play so promptly adapted by da Ponte and Mozart. Within the hermetic precincts of the count’s abode the acknowledgment of social superfluousness can be staved off just a bit longer. One might imagine such a count as being on his way to becoming the sort of character Fernando Rey played in some of Luis Buñuel’s studies of aristocratic Spanish decadence, preserving old usages with jaded bravado.
The cinematic reference point that was chiefly on Eyre’s mind, it appears, was Jean Renoir’s 1939 film The Rules of the Game, a natural choice given Renoir’s declared debt to Beaumarchais and Mozart. The framing of certain scenes, and much of the costuming, are almost an homage to Renoir. The countess’s haute couture radiates, in the midst of this stodgy Iberian backwater, a 1939 sophistication straight from Paris; at least one of her gowns, a sleek red-and-pink number, had a line graceful enough to complement Mozart’s melodic line. The Renoir film has just the right mix of surface elegance and underlying roughness to describe an ancien régime long outliving its supposed demise, living on in an unnaturally extended eighteenth-century domain of private balls and hunting parties. Its key line of dialogue—“There’s one thing that’s terrifying in…
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