Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
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Synopsis of The Marriage of Figaro

The libretto was adapted by Lorenzo da Ponte from the well-known comedy of Beaumarchais (Paris, 1784), a biting satire on the privileges of the nobility. The Marriage of Figaro continues the story of The Barber of Seville, which tells how Count Almaviva succeeded in marrying Rosina, a young heiress, in spite of her guardian. Doctor Bartolo. who intended to marry her himself. The Count was assisted in his intrigue by Figaro.

Three years have passed, and Almaviva is living with his new Countess at Aguas Frescas, nine miles from Seville. Rosina has brought with her Marcellina, formerly her governess but now installed as housekeeper at the castle, and Basilio. her music master; Figaro has been given the post of Steward. After three years of married life, the Count and Countess are bored. The Count occupies his time by touring his estates and pursuing as many girls as possible. Indeed the day before the action of the opera he went to call on Barbarina, the twelve-year-old daughter of his Head Gardener, and on finding the young page Cherubino there before him, dismissed him from his service. Cherubino, who is in love with women in general but especially with the unobtainable Countess Almaviva, hopes that she will intercede to get him pardoned. She is well aware of his infatuation, and is sorely tempted to try a little infidelity herself. (In a third play by Beaumarchais about the Almaviva family, the Countess has an illegitimate child by Cherubino.)

Until recently, the Count enjoyed the privilege of an ancient custom: 'Le Droit du Seigneur', whereby a lord had the right to sleep with any of his dependants on her wedding night. However, he has recently been persuaded to abolish this custom, and Figaro and Susanna (The Countess's maid) announce their intention of getting married. Immediately, the Count focuses his attention on Susanna. When she refuses his advances, he threatens to support a claim which Marcellina has over Figaro, and which will prevent the impending marriage.

Figaro has borrowed two thousand silver pieces from Marcellina, and signed a promissory note by which he will repay the money by a certain date—or marry Marcellina as penalty. The term has now expired, and Marcellina presses Figaro to marry her. She summons from Seville her former employer and one-time lover Doctor Bartolo to support her case.

Bartolo is pleased at the plan: it will mean getting his own back on Figaro for robbing him of Rosina, and disposing of his old mistress once and for all.

Figaro seems blithely unaware of the Count's intentions until Susanna tells him of them. He then hatches a series of counterplots, all of which come to nothing. His first stratagem is to make the Count publicly confirm that 'Le Droit du Seigneur' has been abolished by plating a white veil on Susanna's head as a symbol of virtue. When this plan is foiled, he decides on two further courses of action: to distract the Count's attention by means of an anonymous letter warning that the Countess has a lover; and to let Susanna agree to meet the Count in the garden that night, but to send a substitute: Cherubino in disguise. The Countess will then appear from hiding and shame her husband into contrition.

When these plans misfire, the Countess devises a secret plan of her own: Susanna is still to agree to meet the Count, but it is the Countess herself who will be there in disguise. The Count will then make love to his own wife, believing her to be Susanna. Even when Susanna and Figaro are safely married and this trick is no longer strictly necessary, the Countess still pursues it.

But Figaro discovers that his wife has agreed to meet the Count, and watches from hiding. Both Figaro and the Count believe the hooded figure to be Susanna: the lady who keeps the assignation is in fact the Countess wearing her maid's cloak. Susanna is watching too, at first with amusement—but then with dismay as she realises Figaro really believes she could be unfaithful to him. She tries to trick him by putting on the Countess' cloak, but he quickly sees through this disguise, realises the truth, and they embrace; at this moment, the Count returns and believes he sees his own wife in Figaro's arms. He publicly denounces them both and refuses to forgive them, but then the real Countess appears. Understanding the extent of the deception, the Count has to beg forgiveness from his wife. The day of madness ends in wild merrymaking.


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Last modified: 2012-03-15