Susanna, Rosine, Marcellina, Barbarina and the rest
It was barely two years after the opening night of The Marriage of Figaro, six years after its publication, that Mozart and Da Ponte transformed Beaumarchais’ lively ideological offering into a much more subversive musical work, transforming the play into a veritable act of life and bridging the gap between stage and audience. Indeed, after the Marriage, opera was never the same—from the opening notes of the Overture, which, rather than anticipating the opera’s key themes, conveys the spirit, the energy, the extraordinary agility of the musical experience that lies ahead.
The frantic imbroglio that follows captures our world, yours and mine: the world of men and women in search of love and equality. A world conveyed through music that expresses our reality, our truths, while Susanna, Figaro, the Countess and the Count have to peel away disguises and camouflage to reveal what is real. Lest we forget, Mozart liked to use masks as a way to portray—music as a mirror of the soul—the important questions, the existential acts that pave the way to freedom (Seraglio), equality (The Marriage of Figaro), brotherhood (The Magic Flute), and most of all love, always love, and its true essence, forgiveness.
And of course, at the heart of the Marriage beats the work of Beaumarchais ... the work that caused Danton to declare that “Figaro killed aristocracy,” while Napoleon, not to be outdone, noted that “Figaro is already the Revolution in motion.”
But Mozart and Da Ponte, in order to maintain the frantic pace they wanted to impart to their slice of life, couldn’t afford long ideological monologues. Thus, Figaro’s speech in the play’s closing act becomes, in the opera, the cavatina where Figaro “will make the little Count dance to the tune of his guitar”—and in the second scene of the first act. You could hardly be more efficient. Yes, the work addresses equality: between servants and masters, and also, perhaps especially, between women and men; equality among individuals: Mozart, a Freemason and a child of the Age of Enlightenment, exulted in his creation.
As in all masterpieces, Mozart–Da Ponte define the opera’s “space” and “time.” In the opening scene, as Figaro measures the dimensions of the bridal chamber, we enter the Marriage Space: a crucial spot in the love between Susanna and Figaro, but also in that of the Count, who has designs on the hymen of that very same Susanna. The Marriage Time is indeed the duration that “solo amor piu terminar,” the length of a “crazy day” that will be resolved only at dusk, in the night garden of shadows and disguises, where the truth will finally be revealed ...
Yes, over the course of that crazy day (which the Overture sets up so well), the three couples (there are also Figaro’s forgetful parents, Bartolo and Marcellina) reunite, for good or ill, while a marvellous “odor di femmina” pervades the work from beginning to end, thanks to the natural chain formed by the female characters. Susanna clearly calls the shots, while the Countess gradually frees herself from her nostalgic self-image as a woman abandoned and forms an alliance with her maid.
Mozart’s music brings them together better than any dialogue, so that in the end, beneath the disguises of the final act, they become one another.
Marcellina is the prototype of feminism for centuries to come. Beaumarchais gave her wonderful speeches, Mozart not so much. But don’t be fooled. The male characters are reduced to reacting to the women’s initiatives; they are reactionaries in the true sense of the word, Figaro as much as the Count.
Finally, and this is very important, there remain the questions of the poetic character of the adolescent Cherubino, searching for love, with his vague, anxious and unfocused desires; a Cherubino who is almost a man, paired with Barbarina, a child who is almost a woman. Ah! Barbarina, much more interesting than Fanchette, her counterpart in the play, because Mozart gave her the opera’s only aria in a minor key (F minor) ... to recount in her short cavatina all the terror of leaving childhood behind, of having to start at the bottom of the female ladder leading to a life of probable humiliation ...
But in the end, it is forgiveness that concludes the vertiginous swirl of Mozart’s music, which, interweaving light and shadow, reality and illusion, guilt and innocence, captures better than any character the unfathomable revelation of the human soul, freed from the intervention of myths and gods. And that forgiveness is granted by a woman: the Countess.
By Jean-Jacques van Vlasselaer