Available from Glyndbourne online until 5pm, Sunday 31 May
Le Nozze di Figaro. A breakthrough that became a staple.
I have never been a fan of ‘favourites’. But if I had to choose a favourite opera it would have to be The Marriage of Figaro. Not only for what it represents historically and my personal experience with it but mostly because I really, really like it. It’s the opera that keeps on giving, no matter how many times you watch it or direct it or sing it. Nowadays of course it is a classic – and it sounds like one. But back in Mozart’s time it was the opera that shook the grounds and changed the course of the art form.
What’s so special about it then? Opera up to that time mostly consisted of grand, unapproachable themes or light-hearted comedy. Mozart played by the rules for many years. When he moved to Vienna he was given the opportunity to write a Singspiel – a comic opera – and so came The Abduction from the Seraglio. But in the next four years he was greatly uninspired by the thematic confines and role opera played. Between the Seraglio and Figaro he only produced another little Singspiel, The Impresario (Der Schauspieldirektor) and started to write two operas he never completed: The Goose of Cairo (!) and The Deluded Bridegroom.
The game changer was when he met the librettist who helped him shape the new world of opera: Lorenzo Da Ponte. Their creative relationship led to three masterpieces – the other two being Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte – and it is the most celebrated in the world of opera. The story of how Figaro came about in short is: Le Mariage de Figaro, the play by Beaumarchais, had been banned in Vienna because the way it portrayed nobility was considered dangerous (remember, we are in the years leading to the French Revolution). Mozart was adamant he had to make an opera out of the play, so Da Ponte used all his charm and conviction on Emperor Joseph II, praising the quality of the music and assuring him that their operatic version omitted anything that could possibly insult his royal highness.
The reason Mozart wanted so badly to write this opera was simple: moving the plot and the characters from mythology and fantasy to every day life. In doing so he got rid of many operatic conventions, like the extremely florid passages and da capo arias that characterised much of his previous output and that of Baroque and early Classical opera. The marriage of Figaro is a perfect marriage of music and drama. No longer does one happen to the expense of the other; they go hand in hand and inform each other. The Act II finale, with the endless succession of scenes and accumulative dramatic and musical tension, is the best indicator of that and extremely ground-breaking for its time. It is also one of the hardest things for an opera pianist (repetiteur) to present for an audition where they have to play AND sing the entire thing, which is why it very often is the set piece!
Letters, papers and the lord’s right
There are a few things you need to know before attempting to watch The Marriage of Figaro. The first is: no matters how well you know the plot, how many times you’ve watched it and whether you wrote your PhD thesis on it, you always need to think twice if someone asks you ‘what paper was that?’. Having musically directed the piece for St Paul’s Opera I can totally attest to that: there are two letters (or notes), one contract, one song and one commission. Things get even more confusing when you try to discern who knows what at each given time and how much of it is true.
In order of appearance, the papers are:
1. a contract drafted between Marcellina and Figaro that binds him to marry her if he can’t repay an old debt, which she shows to Bartolo and then to the Count;
2. a song written by Cherubino for the Countess but found by Basilio in Susanna’s chambers;
3. an anonymous letter written by Figaro and given to the Count by Basilio in which he falsely accuses the Countess of having an affair as part of their plan (more on that below);
4. a commission that Cherubino drops in the garden when he flees from the Countess’s chambers and is found by the gardener, Antonio, and finally
5. a letter written for the Count by Susanna on the Countess’s instructions to arrange their assignation that evening, as part of the updated plan 2.0
Another pivotal point for the story is the feudal right or droit du seigneur (if you like your French) or jus primae noctis (if you are a nerd like me). There is strong debate on whether it ever existed in real life or not but that’s beside the point. What it means is that the lord had the right to spend the wedding night with any female subject that got married. This being The Marriage of Figaro you must be thinking that this doesn’t bode well for the poor lad. You will be relieved to know that the Count had renounced this right as part of the first play of the trilogy, The Barber of Seville. Does this stop him though from exercising it on his wife’s maid and Figaro’s bride-to-be? No, of course not. Whatever Da Ponte told Joseph II to convince him, the portrayal of the higher classes of society in the opera is far from flattering.
If you have made it this far you might now want to know what happens in the opera. I recommend that you don’t and you get immersed in the story as it unfolds, but if you do here goes:
Figaro is thrilled that the Count has given him and his bride-to-be, Susanna, the ‘best’ room in the palace as a wedding present. Susanna informs him of the Count’s advances and reveals that the reason he gave them this room is so he can be near to her when Figaro is away. Figaro is furious but decides that with the right plan he can outsmart the Count. Figaro exits, Marcellina and Bartolo enter. They both have reasons to wish Figaro’s demise and are very much on the Count’s side. Marcellina shows Bartolo a contract that binds Figaro to marrying her unless he can pay her back for an old debt. As Bartolo exits with a triumphant smile of revenge – you see, Figaro fooled him in the previous play – Susanna enters and a royal stand-off between her and Marcellina ensues. The latter leaves and the teenage Cherubino, the Countess’s godson, enters (Cherubino is traditionally played by a female singer – for roles en travesti refer to previous blog post about Cendrillon). He tells Susanna about his awakening… sensations regarding the ladies and as he does so he hears the Count’s voice coming nearer. In his panic he hides behind an armchair. The Count tries to make a move on Susanna but is in turn interrupted by the voice of Basilio, the court’s music teacher and known meddler. He also hides behind the same armchair while Cherubino managed just in time to change hiding place. Basilio enters and accuses Susanna of having an affair with Cherubino, at which information the Count reveals himself. He recounts the story of how he found Cherubino hiding under the table when the Count visited the gardener’s daughter, Barbarina (what on earth he was doing there is left up to the audience’s imagination). As he re-enacts the story he lifts the sheet under which Cherubino is hiding and is dumbfounded to see the boy again. Figaro enters with a troupe of peasants hoping to push the Count into giving the couple his blessing. The count buys himself some time by promising to prepare a grand feast and do the honours that evening. Cherubino assures the Count he won’t say anything he knows (wink wink nudge nudge) if he shows lenience to him, so the Count appoints him officer in his regiment, effective immediately, in order to get rid of him. Figaro sings of the glory of the armed forces and sends Cherubino away, but not before he whispers he’d like to have a word with him. And so the plan begins.
The Countess is alone in her chambers, pleading the God of love to either bring her back her husband’s affections or else let her die. Susanna, her maid and confident, enters and unwillingly admits the Count’s advances. Figaro enters full of joy and energy and explains his rather complicated plan: he sent an anonymous letter to the Count accusing the Countess of infidelity, so that he is disoriented and stops busying himself with stopping his wedding with Susanna from happening. Of course there is the obstacle of Marcellina and her contract, so they decide to convince the Count that Susanna is willing to have an assignation with him in the garden. Except, instead of Susanna, Cherubino will be waiting for him dressed up as a woman – that’s what Figaro wanted to discuss with him earlier! The Count would thus be ridiculed and would do anything they asked him to. Cherubino is sent in to be dressed up as a woman, and, after he sings the Countess his song mentioned above, they set out to dress him up. As Susanna runs off to fetch a couple of things they need, the Count, mad with jealousy having received the letter, knocks on the locked door. Cherubino hides in the wardrobe and the Countess tries to keep her cool. When a sound from the wardrobe is heard the Countess says it’s Susanna but she can’t come out because she’s trying on her wedding dress. Susanna meanwhile comes back in unnoticed as the Count is screaming at ‘her’ to come out of the wardrobe. He eventually leaves the room with the countess, locking all the doors, in order to fetch tools to bring the door down. Susanna quickly asks Cherubino to open and in an agonisingly fast duet he decides to jump out of the window. She takes his place in the wardrobe and the couple returns. When it comes to opening the door, both the Count and the Countess are lost for words seeing Susanna. The two women decide to teach the Count a lesson for his cruelty and lack of trust in his faithful spouse. But right at the moment he repents Figaro enters to announce that the wedding musicians are already outside. The Count calls him out on sending the letter, which the two women admitted, but he hasn’t quite caught up and denies it. And then Antonio, the gardener, enters, furious that the person who jumped out the window ruined his carnations. He claims it was Cherubino but Figaro tries to disprove him as an alcoholic and says it was himself that jumped. Antonio produces a paper that was dropped by the jumper. The Count tries to call the bluff by asking Figaro what it is but with the help of the ladies they avert catastrophe yet again. As everything sems to be settling down, Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio enter for the rumpus finale.
The scene opens with the Count talking to himself and trying to make some sense of the happenings earlier that day. Susanna comes in on command of the Countess, who wants to go through with Figaro’s plan. The Count is dismissive at first but Susanna turns this around and they agree to meet in the garden after the wedding. The moment he was appeased, he overhears Susanna talking to Figaro and becomes confused and angry again. Marcellina, Bartolo and Figaro enter, accompanied by Don Curzio, the judge. As evidence and people conspire against Figaro and it seems like the game is lost, it transpires that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother and Bartolo his father! No need for a lawsuit anymore and Figaro embraces his long-lost mother, the moment that Susanna enters with a purse full of money (which to this day I cannot answer whence she acquired) to pay off Figaro’s debt. Seeing the unexpected embrace, she starts hitting Figaro and calling him names but is soon to rejoice at the truth after her initial incredulity. After this wonderful sextet, the following things happen, though not necessarily in this order (depending on the production): Barbarina and Cherubino are shown to plot how they can keep the latter in the palace when he was supposed to have gone away– the answer is yet another disguise in female clothes. The Countess is looking for Susanna and, in one of the most incredibly transformative arias of all times, goes through guilt, fear, anger, reminiscence, hope and resolution to take destiny in her own hands. Antonio convinces the Count that Cherubino hasn’t left for the army as the Count commanded but is still very much around, dressed up as a woman. Susanna is instructed by the Countess to write a letter for the Count, arranging their evening tryst. They seal it with a pin that he is supposed to return to her as proof that he has read the letter and understands its content. Everyone joins for the double wedding – Figaro’s to Susanna and… Bartolo’s to Marcellina! Before they get on with the festivities Cherubino’s disguise is blown by the Count and Antonio but Barbarina convinces the Count, who has always been ‘kind’ to her, to show mercy to the young lad as she’s in love with him. During the wedding dance Susanna discretely passes the letter on to the Count and Figaro is amused to notice that he pricks his finger with the pin. The act finishes on a celebratory note.
As if all this was not enough, the day gives way to night and we find ourselves in the garden where even more complications arise. At first Barbarina laments that she has lost the pin that the Count gave her to return to Susanna. Then Figaro sees her and tries to console her, cunningly extracting all the information from her. He now thinks that Susanna is actually going to cheat on him with the Count. With him is his mother Marcellina, who has turned from Susanna’s sworn enemy to an outright feminist. Her aria about the relationship between men and women, brilliant though it is, is nowadays usually cut, as is Basilio’s aria that follows later on. Barbarina comes back looking for Cherubino whom she is supposed to meet and hides in a gazebo waiting. Figaro returns with Basilio and Bartolo and asks them to stay nearby waiting for his signal when he catches Susanna and Count in the act, and then gives the audience a piece of his mind about the opposite sex. As he assumes his hiding place, Marcellina enters with Susanna and the Countess and explains to them what Figaro believes is happening. They decide to teach him a lesson for doubting Susanna so she sings of her impatience to meet her lover. The Countess, dressed in Susanna’s clothes (as dictated the new form of the plan) takes her place and waits for the Count at the agreed spot. And here starts another brilliant finale: Cherubino comes looking for Barbarina, notices ‘Susanna’ and decides to try his luck with her. The fake Susanna tries to get rid of him as the Count is heard approaching. In the way that only theatre can achieve, both suitors try to kiss ‘Susanna’ at the same time and they end up kissing each other, which makes the Count give Cherubino a good old slap, except he misses him and hits the passing Figaro instead. Cherubino flees and the Count comes back to claim his prey, giving her a ring as her dowry and asking her to follow him in a dark place where they can… have some privacy. Figaro comes out from his hiding place and is about to ruin everything when Susanna, who was also hiding all this time, comes out dressed up as the Countess. Figaro tells her about the Count’s infidelity hoping she will side with him but halfway through their conversation he realises she is actually Susanna in disguise. He then decides to get his own back pretending he is in love with her (the Countess) and trying to convince her that getting together with him is the best way to avenge their spouses. Susanna bites the bait and starts beating him again, until he explains he was teasing her. The count approaches looking for ‘Susanna’ who seems to have disappeared and they decide to play a last trick on him: Figaro and the fake Countess overtly proclaim their love for one another. The Count calls for the guards to seize the traitor but is ridiculed when it turns out that it was Susanna all along. The Countess appears, wearing the ring the Count gave to her earlier when he thought she was Susanna. The Count apologises in front of everyone, the Countess forgives him and they all sing together of the crazy day they went through. And of course they lived happily ever after….until the sequel!
NB I really tried to keep it short…
The Glyndebourne production is not the most traditional one but it is extremely well played and sung and full of humour. Here are some links to other excellent productions you can find on youtube:
La Scala, Milan, 2006
The movie version from 1976
They all boast star-studded casts and incredible orchestras, conductors and directors – you won’t be disappointed!
Finally, below I am unashamedly sharing a piece I wrote last year on Mozart’s Recitative, which was included in the programme for St Paul’s Opera’s production of Le Nozze. If you are wondering what on earth recitative is or why it is important then go ahead and read it – I think it will increase your appreciation and enjoyment of the opera. If not, well, thank you for reading and enjoy the opera!
Panaretos Kyriatzidis – Musical Director
Mozart and Recitative
When I was in my early teens I was lucky enough to meet a musician of the sort that change your life forever. George Hadjinikos, pianist, conductor, music philosopher and pedagogue, remains to this day my biggest and deepest influence. Fittingly, of the two books he wrote in his lifetime, one is called ‘Recitative in Mozart’s operas: A compass for the rebirth of music perception’ (catchy, I know).
Before we even go into what this is all about you would be justified to ask yourselves: what on earth is recitative? (If there is an opera buff in your midst this is your opportunity to test their knowledge.)
According to Amanda Holden’s The New Penguin Opera Guide, recitative is the ‘free setting of speech in which the music follows the rhythms and inflections of the spoken language’. There you go, you now know.
Hadjinikos’s book, much like his lessons were, is full of anecdotes and interesting stories; how the conductors that taught him were all too keen to skim over the recitatives in rehearsals (which I shamefully admit occasionally guilty of) and he would not understand why; how people who watched his productions often told him that they felt like they understood every word the singers were saying though they couldn’t speak a single word of Italian; how said people would be at best sceptical when they asked him to reveal his secret and received the answer: ‘there is no secret, it’s all Mozart’!
My first contact with Mozart’s recitative (or recit as it’s called among musicians) was about 7 years ago, when, intrigued by all the masterclasses I had attended and the aforementioned book, I offered to help out a friend who was struggling with the Countess’s second aria. In the true Hadjinikos fashion (time keeping was not his strongest asset…) we ended up spending 3 hours on the recitative only. After that the aria just poured out of her. Which of course left me in awe, but also made me realise that Mozart’s recitative is the key to understanding his operas – or even, as Hadjinikos believed, the whole universe of classical music.
I find that the Marriage of Figaro is Mozart’s most humane opera. All of the characters go through an incredible transformation in the course of this one day (except perhaps the tenors; you can’t really change a tenor). However beautiful the arias, however genius the ensembles, the real emotional journey and the secret to discerning it lies in the recitatives.