The Marriage of Figaro
by Nicholas Payne
Figaro should be aged about thirty, if we are to believe Beaumarchais. Mozart was also thirty in 1786 when the opera was first performed. It is not too fanciful to see an autobiographical element in Beaumarchais's creation of the multi-faceted Barber of Seville, A step or two further finds some parallels with Mozart in the rather too able servant on rather too familiar terms with his social superiors.
It must therefore be a mistake to portray him as stupid in this opera, as is sometimes the case. Admittedly, he is prone to act even faster than he thinks, but that is his function in the plot. Figaro is the motor of the drama. It is his urgency which drives it forward, despite the delving tactics of the other characters. By contrast, the others are an relatively passive, awaiting the outturn of events, it is, after all, his marriage, as the title of the opera reminds us.
And Susanna's, although one would not know so from the title. It is Susanna, presumably some years younger than her bridegroom, who shows him up. She sees through the 'convenience' of the room they have been allotted and the Count's plan to take them with him on his embassy to London. She finds the means to pay off his debt to Marcellina, and she aborts his plan by disguise to dupe the Count in the garden, in favour of her better plan. Susanna's native wit complements Figaro's acquired ingenuity.
Indeed, and despite the title, it s difficult not to see Susanna as the central character of the opera. One of the most wonderful aspects of Mozart's genius, not only in this opera, is his ability to draw women as convincingly as men. It is a skill not shared by many other male composers, or writers for that matter. The idealized woman is the bane of the 19th century. In our own century, Janácek and Berg possess the gift, but not many more.
Too much can be made of the pre-revolutionary aspects of The Marriage of Figaro. Figaro's Act I cavatina. Se vuol ballare, may seem the toxin for battle. and his confrontation with Count before the dances in Act III may presage the collapse of the social order. But not yet. It is too facile to be wise after the event, as was Napoleon in describing Figaro's 'You have taken the trouble to be born, nothing more' as the revolution in action. Beaumarchais, and Mozart after him, are playing with fire, but it is still a play.
The counter-revolutionary argument, eloquently put by Joseph Kerman among others, is that the true hero and heroine of the opera are the Count and Countess. Although the thesis does not entirely convince, it is true that the opera is as much an examination of their two-year-old marriage as of the marrying of Figaro and Susanna. The Count, although ostensibly the 'villain' of the piece, should remain sympathetic. The Countess, despite her early passivity and weepiness, regains her strength in Act III and is the catalyst for the drama in Act IV. It is her glorious forgiveness of the Count at the end, which provides the resolution.
Peter Hall once memorably described the healing effect of the great forgiveness ensemble following the Countess's intervention, and the short orchestral passage between the ensemble and the final chorus of jollification, when all the characters stare into the abyss of tragedy. Faithlessness and betrayal may so easily destroy these marriages. There is an awful realisation of self-knowledge, and then they choose to ignore it for the pleasures of the moment. The border between tragedy and comedy is so narrow.
This balance is Mozart's supreme gift, the special insight which unites La Finta Giardiniera and The Marriage of Figaro. It is most finely held at the drama's resolution, but it appears throughout the opera. It is most beautifully, half-humorously exposed in Cherubino's Act I aria, Non so piů, cosa son, cosa faccio ('Is it pain, is it pleasure that fills me' in Dent's translation). And it should be there in the pages half-painful, half-pleasurable reaction to Figaro's military aria at the end of Act I. The glories he anticipates are not strictly martial.
The long finale to Act II is perhaps the most extended example. From the moment when the Count and Countess return to the bedroom the outcome could as easily be tragic as comic. In the event, the humour keeps surfacing, sometimes hilariously, but it remains a matter of life and death. In a good performance one should not dare to breathe.
Walter Legge described the Act II finale thus: 'Musically this is the most masterly ensemble, not only in this opera out in all Mozart. For nearly twenty minutes the music flows unbroken, responding to every turn and twist of the complicated and fast-moving comedy. illuminating, reflecting, commenting upon the action and the widely differing emotions of the participants. Step by step with the action, the music intensifies the surprises, adds point to the subtleties, and yet casts over the whole rather sordid play of intrigue a magical cloak of the most enchanting music that, while it is always faithful to the incident, transmutes it into the purest gold of beauty.'
Everyone will choose a favourite section of this sublime finale. Mine is the temporary truce of the combatants (albeit hardly shared by the plotting Count) before the incursion of Antonio. Countess. Susanna and Figaro sing Deh signor, noi contrastate ('Grant us now, my lord, your favour' in Dent), and. as the Count mentally searches for Marcellina, horns and basses emphasize their plea forte, The brief moment of hoped for reconciliation anticipates the end of the opera.
According to Michael Kelly, the original Basilio and Curzio. Mozart's favourite number in the opera was the sextet in Act III. It can certainly be one of the funniest moments with its surprise revelations and reversals; yet again Susanna's fury and discomfiture are in deadly earnest. There is a beautiful touch after it has finished and the Count and Curzio have retired in disarray, Susanna asks the others who remain 'Could anyone be happier in all the world than I am?', and Figaro, Bartolo and Marcellina each reply 'I am'. Then together and in close harmony the quartet sing pianissimo 'And if the Count is furious, so much the better'. This moment should not be played for comedy.
Act IV is the most difficult act to bring off in performance. The garden should breathe the freedom and licence the open air after the three interior acts. Once the finale proper begins, all's well, but the first half of the act sees a build-up of reflective arias which do nothing to progress the action. Figaro's diatribe and Susanna's love song are of course essential, but Marcellina's and Basilio's numbers can appear marginal. In fact, they are interesting pieces. Marcellinas aria fleshes out her character with some of the feminist indignation of her great speech in Act III of Beaumarchais's play. Basilio's 'donkey's hide' number is a conventional simile aria, but with a sadly ironic twist in its tail. Both add extra dimensions to the drama, but they come too late. Towards the end of the evening, one is impatient for the plot to be resolved. So, in Opera North's performance, they will be cut.
This advances Figaro's own moment of tragic repose, when his optimistic nature threatens to be overwhelmed for once. Grander still than his angry aria is the short section, well into the finale, when the tempo broadens to larghetto in 3/4 time bright G major gives way to Eb major (the key of the Countess's Porgi Amor), and the clarinets return. Under the tranquil and peaceful night sky, with Venus and Mars locked in embrace, Figaro once more gathers the threads of his own drama. This magical moment takes only twelve bars, before he is again pulled into the breathless unravelling of the denouement. But despite what happens after and the Countess's dramatic revelation, it is enough to give him back his opera — and his marriage.
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Last modified: 2012-03-15