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 this world, and that’s that everyone has his reasons”—can serve just as well as an approach to the uneasy equipoise Figaro maintains among its principal characters.
This juxtaposing of epochs sparks some interesting side effects. Beaumarchais had trouble getting his play staged in part because it challenged, however wittily, the birthrights of the nobility, in lines that da Ponte discreetly omitted from his libretto:
Because you are a great lord, you think yourself a great genius! Nobility, fortune, rank, position, all those sources of pride! What have you done to deserve them? You went to the trouble of being born, and nothing more. For the rest, a rather ordinary man!
Yet even Beaumarchais could hardly have foreseen how rapidly the world as he knew it in 1778 would be turned upside down. Da Ponte may have softened the play’s political edge, but Mozart deepened its radicalism through what might be called the evenhandedness of his music.
His main characters exist on the same plane, each with his or her own worldview and each immense. Each in turn is brought into view through the prism of an aria, and for a moment becomes the dominant influence, never more vividly than in the soliloquies of the count and countess in the third act, juxtaposed on either side of the most broadly farcical scene in the opera, the comic revelation of Figaro’s birth identity. Peter Mattei performed the count’s enraged vow of vengeance with such energy as to suggest Verdian melodrama at its most darkly turbulent, while continuing to establish a real sympathy for the count if only for the depth of the emotions by which he is ruled; rather than manipulator or predator, he stands revealed as a man in the grip of inescapable feeling.
Posed opposite this, the countess’s “Dove sono” (“Where are they now, the happy moments of sweetness and of pleasure?”) emanates from a different realm of responsiveness, parsing infinitesimal shades of tenderness and regret in an underlying tone of pain distilled into something like a whisper. (Amanda Majeski, whose singing had seemed somewhat cautious and attenuated earlier in the evening, here found the center of her character.) Together these arias constitute the double portrait of a marriage sundered into two separate and incompatible spheres, one dominated by rage and suspicion, the other by resentment and frustrated longing.
However much the outward traits of the traditional comical master–servant pairs of Molière or Goldoni are evoked in The Marriage of Figaro, those ritually observed disparities are in fact dissolving into a new order of relations. As expressive voices, Figaro and Susanna claim an equal place with the count and countess, nor are their implied motives in any way inferior or more contemptible—the contrary if anything. This is perhaps part of why The Marriage of Figaro seems to emanate from the very beginning of a sensibility on which we still draw, and thus continues to be a work with scarcely a trace of the archaic or antique. It describes one epoch with what is already the tone of the next, or more precisely it is creating with youthful energy the tone of the next.
Many much more recent works ultimately derived from it are far more antique in effect, including a fair number of high comedies from the twentieth century whose casts sported the same smoking jackets and maids’ bonnets with which Eyre has adorned his characters. On a superficial level the Thirties high society trappings of his production create an anticipation of elegant naughtiness upstairs and downstairs, a mood encouraged by having a half-naked chambermaid dart across the stage during the overture, while the count strides in her wake in silk pajamas and with an air of satisfied prerogative. After a slow swirl providing quick movielike flashes of the castle’s denizens, we fix on the opening scene between Figaro (Ildar Abdrazakov) and Susanna (Marlis Petersen), as he measures the bridal chamber the count has offered them while she attempts to tell him of the latter’s lecherous intention to reassert the (historically doubtful) feudal privilege of jus primae noctis by bedding her on her wedding night.
Here for a moment there was the sense of a false start. Abdrazakov’s bluff inattention to his fiancée seemed to signal a deeper indifference, and Petersen’s insistence seemed almost, if only by comparison to her partner’s disregard, a harbinger of future nagging, as if the impending marriage, or at least the performance, was already under an ominous cloud. An inert Figaro certainly would not do. It had been announced from the stage that Abdrazakov wasn’t feeling well but had decided to go on anyway. At any rate, as he launched into a sprightly and eloquently sung “Se vuol ballare,” accompanied by appropriate parrying of an imaginary sword, the energy level rose palpably. From the moment of Figaro’s declaration of his intention to outmaneuver the count, it became an evening where everything, musically at least, flowed and pulsed as it was meant to.
The peculiar perfection of Figaro can create an uncanny illusion that it is not the singers bringing Mozart’s music to life but rather the music—or the seamless interstitching of text and music—that is giving life to the singers. The measure of the degree to which the opera has made the performers its creatures is an unmistakable sense of gratitude on all sides.
When the force of the work is established so satisfyingly, shortcomings have a more peripheral effect. If John Del Carlo managed a deft vaudevillian turn as Doctor Bartolo despite some ragged vocal stretches, Greg Fedderly’s Don Basileo was a bit too broadly effete. The comic set pieces of Act II, from the page Cherubino hiding on the sofa to the count attempting to break down the closet door, were energetically executed, but not all the comic business was on the same level of inspiration. At the end of the first act, Figaro kicking the conscripted Cherubino about the stage like a drill sergeant and imposing a set of push-ups had the unfortunate result of muffling the effect of “Non piu andrai” rather than abetting it. In Figaro, any comic touches in the staging can add little to the comedy already fully present in the music; they can at most accentuate it. Likewise, Abdrazakov’s insertion in the wedding scene of some anachronistically modern dance steps seemed like a wrong move. Having already made the effort of transposing the 1780s to the 1930s, why bring the 1970s into it?
More fundamentally, the proper pitch of eager desire held in check was never quite established between Figaro and Susanna, so that the teasing edge of their mutual deceptions in the last act was not fully felt. Petersen asserted a commanding enough presence that she seemed quite capable of fending for herself without any partner at all, while Abdrazakov, looking like a comfortably ensconced majordomo, lacked the defiant independence of an incipient rebel.
By contrast, Mattei as Count Almaviva managed to be both genuinely menacing and, as he begins to feel his authority melting away, genuinely funny. In this interpretation it was the count, not Figaro, who emerged as the great comic character, all the funnier because he cannot help taking himself with deathly seriousness; and then, in his final volte-face, the most unexpectedly moving of all with his abrupt “Contessa, perdono.”
That last turn only affirms the current of unpredictable change underlying every aspect of the opera from the beginning. Figaro registers a world of instabilities barely propped up by divisions of rank and codes of etiquette and law. Cravings and dissatisfactions ensure that nothing sits still or comes to rest before the final chorus. The secret exchange or purloining of incriminating objects—a love ballad, a letter of commission, a ribbon, a pin, more than one anonymous note—provides the most visible punctuation of that restlessness.
Hiding and evading and spying on one another all the way to the final masquerade, those caught up in this world describe spiraling patterns of seduction and entrapment. If there is a hidden paradise it is the bedroom of the countess where, until the count comes knocking at the door, the countess and Susanna and Cherubino can surrender to free-floating erotic play, as the two women transform the boy into a girl. The ethereal singing of Isabel Leonard, and her convincingly androgynous appearance, made Cherubino, as he should be, the symbolic center, the figure of unformed desire pouring out freely despite encroaching forces of control.
Figaro’s classicism is unsettled. A precariously maintained balance suggests at each moment the possibility of a collapse into disorderly assaults or irretrievable melancholy. Whatever harmonies arise seem to be forced out by the tension of that effort to keep things from falling apart or spinning into chaos. The moment at the beginning of the fourth act when Barbarina, looking for a pin gone astray, performs her brief and anxious cavatina can be, when sung as beautifully as it was by Ying Fang, a small asymmetric detail—a minor character singing about a tiny lost object—that can suddenly seem crucial, as if finally that pin were binding everything together.
To be rapt in the opera’s unfolding is to come at moments to the irrational belief that the persons on stage are speaking rather than singing, and speaking spontaneously, making up everything as they go, from the heart. The orchestra under James Levine’s direction was likewise constantly alive, sinuous and surprising, capable of abrupt changes, conversing with the singers, prodding them, establishing the borders of the world in which they move. Even a few moments of interjected silence took their place as part of the music.