Based on the play by Pierre Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro is a brilliantly witty and enduring study of household dynamics that is as punchy today as at its premiere, nearly 250 years ago. The friendships, partnerships, love affairs, tensions and pure comedy of the topsy-turvy story are brought vividly to life by Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte. The contrasting relationships at the core of our story – the disintegrating marriage of the once blissful Count and Countess and the impending union of Figaro and Susanna – are characterized with supreme sensitivity and insight, movingly portraying the trials and tribulations that can befall any of us in our pursuit of love. As a composer of opera, Mozart has never been surpassed and there are moments in this opera that rival his finest. This music is a joy to perform and a joy to listen to. I hope you enjoy every moment!
“Is there any music in all the world as fresh as the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro?” asks Edward Downes in his New York Philharmonic annotation. From the first quiet murmur of the cellos and double basses to the last brilliant fanfare of horns, trumpets and timpani, the Overture represents the kind of music of which Salieri, aghast in wonderment, spoke in the film Amadeus: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment; displace one phrase and the structure would fail!” Introducing this great opera of mirth and truth is a four-minute Overture of scintillating brilliance, irrepressible charm and formal perfection.
The plot covers a single crazy day at a palace in eighteenth-century Spain. Operaphiles will recall that in Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, Count Almaviva wooed and won the hand of the pretty young Rosina, an arrangement facilitated by the town barber and general factotum Figaro. In Mozart, Rosina is now the Countess, and Figaro is the Count’s valet. When the curtain goes up on Act I, Figaro and his fiancée Susanna are seen measuring the room the Count has allotted them, discussing furniture and their upcoming nuptials. When Susanna informs Figaro that the Count has amorous designs of his own on her, Figaro bristles and sings that if the Count wants to “dance,” Figaro will play the tune so that things go his way, not the Count’s (“Se vuol ballare”).
Next we meet Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo. The latter is another carryover from Rossini’s opera, where he served as the guardian of Rosina (now the Countess) and attempted, unsuccessfully, to become her husband as well. This failure still rankles, so he is more than willing to assist Marcellina in her claim to marry Figaro, a long-standing claim that Figaro agreed to in exchange for a cash loan from her, still unpaid. In the aria “La vendetta,” Bartolo exults in his expected revenge against Figaro for “stealing” his intended bride.
A bit later we meet one of the most endearing characters in all opera. This is the sixteen-year-old page boy Cherubino (a “trouser role,” in which a male character is given to a female voice). Cherubino has arrived at that magical age when the whole new world of love is suddenly blossoming all around him and he is chasing every skirt in sight. In a breathless dialogue with Susanna, he relates how just yesterday the Count caught him making out with the gardener’s daughter (Barbarina); today he thinks he is in love with the Count’s wife; he is at this very moment flirting with Susanna. The visual image of his aria “Non so più cosa son” is something akin to a butterfly flitting from one beautiful flower to another.
The moment Cherubino finishes his aria the Count enters. Cherubino dives behind a large armchair. While the Count and Susanna are chatting, the crafty old snoop Basilio, the music teacher, makes his way in. Now, the Count does not want to be discovered in private with Susanna (he has a reputation to uphold), so he heads for the very same hiding place Cherubino is in. Students of physics know that two objects cannot occupy the same space, so as the Count goes behind the chair, Susanna deftly maneuvers Cherubino into it and throws a dress over him without the Count noticing. (You can do these things in opera!) Basilio, thinking he is alone with Susanna, makes some insinuating remarks about the Count, whereupon the latter emerges from behind the chair and confronts Basilio. This initiates a trio in which each gives vent to his or her thoughts of the moment (“Cosa sento!”). Among other things, the Count informs the others that Cherubino’s unabashed, amorous behaviour is getting way out of hand. Why, only yesterday, he discovered the boy in a compromising situation with the gardener’s daughter. “There he was,” says the Count, “hiding in an armchair under a dress, much like this one”… and the Count demonstrates the events of yesterday by lifting the dress from the chair in front of him. Voila! History repeats itself. Needless to say, Cherubino has a lot of explaining to do at this point.
To break the tension, a chorus of peasants from the estate arrives to sing the Count’s praises. Afterwards the Count agrees to pardon Cherubino for his indiscretions by making him an officer in his regiment. Figaro sings a cheerful and amusing parody on military life and heroism (“Non più andrai”).
Here we meet the Countess, a gracious, dignified woman, in her boudoir. Her husband (the Count) has become a philanderer and has left his Countess to pine away. Yet rather than turning into an avenging fury, as would happen in most operas, she is willing to forgive and forget if only the Count would return to her waiting arms, a sentiment she expresses in the ravishingly beautiful aria “Porgi, amor.” Figaro and Susanna enter. The plot thickens: Figaro has a plan to thwart the Count’s designs on Susanna and trap him in his own intrigues. He will send the Count an anonymous letter, via Basilio, informing him that the Countess is planning to meet an admirer in the garden this evening. Susanna will ask the Count to meet her in the same garden at the same time, but Cherubino, disguised as a girl will go in Susanna’s place. The Countess will then surprise the Count and put him to shame.
Cherubino enters, all puffed up with pride over the little song he has just composed, a paean to love as a life force (“Voi che sapete”). That done, Susanna advises Cherubino of the role he is to play that evening and teaches him some feminine mannerisms (“Venite inginocchiatevi”).
Susanna leaves the room for a moment just as the Count arrives, banging on the bedroom door for admittance and demanding to know why it is locked (Susanna had done so just after Cherubino arrived). Now matters really heat up! The partially dressed Cherubino scurries into a closet and locks it from the inside. The Count confronts his wife with accusations. She barely manages to explain herself when Cherubino knocks something over in the closet and she is again on the defensive. The Countess claims it’s Susanna in there, but the Count suspects otherwise. The Count orders “Susanna” to come out, the Countess insists she stay put. Furious, the Count orders his wife to accompany him while he goes to get the key for the closet. He locks all the bedroom doors so no one can enter or exit, and they leave. However, during the previous scene, Susanna has slipped back in, unseen. The moment the Count and Countess are gone she rushes to the closet and helps Cherubino escape by the only means possible – an open window. Their little duet flies by like two birds frantically darting about the room (“Aprite, presto aprite”).
Susanna takes Cherubino’s place in the closet. When the Count and Countess return, one can only imagine the surprise and confusion of both when Susanna emerges from the closet. Further complications involving Cherubino’s commission (still unsigned), the origin and meaning of the anonymous letter the Count received from Basilio, the drunken gardener Antonio’s claim that someone jumped out the window, and Marcellina’s demand for Figaro to marry her at once are exposed and argued over as the act comes to a tumultuous end.
In Act III, we observe the Count once again thwarted in his plans to seduce Susanna. Until a moment ago, he had thought that he had her in his clutches. But an overheard remark to Figaro reveals the truth of the matter – he is being led down the proverbial garden path. He rages that punishment is now their due, that Figaro and Susanna will never be allowed to marry, and that mere servants shall never stand in the way of his pleasure (“Hai già vinta la causa… Vedrò mentr’io sospiro”). In stark contrast to his raging and bellowing, the sedate and refined Countess sings another exquisite soliloquy about her unhappy marriage (“Dove sono”).
When Marcellina and her lawyer Don Curzio arrive to demand Figaro marry her, it comes out in the conversation that Marcellina is actually his long-lost mother and Bartolo his father. Susanna enters to see mother and son embracing and is understandably miffed, but all is set right in the ensuing sextet. The Countess tells Susanna to write a letter to the Count fixing the time and place of their rendezvous in the garden. This is the occasion for the lovely “Letter Duet,” in which the Countess dictates and Susanna repeats as she writes (“Che soave zeffiretto”).
Flower maidens enter and sing while presenting bouquets to the Countess. More awkward discussions regarding amorous involvements are followed by a wedding march that accompanies the Count placing the wedding veil on Susanna.
Act IV takes place in the palace garden at night. Barbarina sings her only aria of the opera in which she laments the loss of a pin (“L’ho perduta”). The significance of this loss can be understood only the in context of the highly convoluted plot, but the music has direct appeal and is of haunting beauty. Shortly thereafter comes Basilio’s only aria (“In quegli anni”). It has little to do with the plot, but it does give this character a chance to show off his voice. Figaro sings a stormy aria (“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”) in which he vents his rage over conniving, deceitful women. The Countess and Susanna, dressed up as each other, enter along with Marcellina. Knowing that Figaro is concealed nearby, Susanna sings the aria “Deh vieni, non tardar,” a reposed and sincere love song. Susanna knows Figaro can hear her, but he doesn’t know she knows. Matters become even more complicated. Figaro is led to believe Susanna has been unfaithful to him (not true), the Count is caught making love to his own wife disguised as Susanna (true), and half the count’s household becomes involved in an elaborate intrigue designed to temper his philandering ways. Many in the cast are in disguise, misunderstandings abound, tempers flare, but by the end everyone agrees to forgive and forget. In a rousing chorus they observe that “only love can resolve this day of torments, caprice and folly into joy and happiness.”
— Program notes by Robert Markow
Born in Salzburg, January 27, 1756
Died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
“I looked on with the greatest pleasure while all these people flew about in sheer delight to the music of my Figaro… they talk of nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing audiences like Figaro.” Thus did Mozart report while visiting Prague during a run of performances there in 1787. The Marriage of Figaro had received a lukewarm reception at its premiere at Vienna’s Burgtheater the year before (May 1, 1786), but it was Prague that truly took this comedy of love and manners to its heart. Before the end of the century most major European cities had seen it. Figaro soon made its way to the New World. The date of its Canadian premiere is uncertain, but Montrealers saw Figaro as early as 1840, and possibly even before that.
The operatic repertoire is full of great tragedies, yet when you stop to think about it, there are few really great comedies. The Marriage of Figaro is incontestably one of these. But it is more than mere comedy. It is an inexhaustible work of art that delivers greater depth of beauty, new layers of meaning and different angles of interpretation with every encounter. It is an opera with a credible story (well, most of it anyway!) involving characters we can relate to and whom we care about. Their emotions, joys, frustrations and difficulties are ours too. There are no gods, heroes, villains or archetypes in Figaro.
The consummate character delineation Mozart created through music contributes in no small part to the enduring success of Figaro. The characters’ traits, foibles, shortcomings and strengths are as richly illuminated in tone as they are in word. These characters seldom remain still for long. The story teems with action, incident and detail. In fact, The Marriage of Figaro may be described not only as an opera depicting the marriage of two people (Figaro and Susanna) but as the marriage of music and drama. By the clock the opera is long – about three hours of music (plus intermissions) – but the pace is almost always rapid. Most of the musical numbers are short, and in fast tempos.
The plot covers a single crazy day within a palace in eighteenth-century Spain and is based on a play by the French author Beaumarchais, first seen in 1784. Lorenzo da Ponte, in the first of his operatic collaborations with Mozart, devised the libretto. The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy of love and manners, but love is not a joke in Mozart’s opera. The story follows the attempts of Count Almaviva to obtain the sexual favours of Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna, a droit du seigneur that traditionally allowed the lord of the manor to take to bed the fiancée of any of his servants on the night before she is to be married. Our Count Almaviva, in the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment, has officially renounced that distasteful privilege, but he still tries to contrive ways to exercise that privilege without actually appearing to do so.
Love, flirtation, seduction, jealousy, loyalty, revenge, honour, dirty tricks and even a dash of lechery all impinge on the opera’s characters. There are moments of heartache, nostalgia, veiled threats and danger, but overall the music exudes a spirit of joy and youthful vitality. The plot is complicated – there’s no denying that; even many long-time operagoers still can’t tell you exactly what is going on in Act IV, but that’s hardly surprising. No single character in the story ever knows all the elements of the plot by him- or herself, leading to innumerable misunderstandings, embarrassment and subterfuges. Yet even concert-goers with little or even no knowledge of the storyline can still enjoy the opera for the music alone. There is scarcely a single musical number that exists on less than the highest plane of beauteous appeal.
— Program notes by Robert Markow
Supplementary rehearsal pianists:
Rosemary Cairns Way