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When I first encountered Le nozze di Figaro when I was a kid, I couldn’t make much sense of it. Characters jumped out windows, hid in closets, pretended that their feet were injured, and then to end the proceedings, they put on disguises and mistook one another’s identities in the last act.  It all didn’t seem too funny or too profound to me.
Later on in my early days as a performer, I contributed to the confusion. In student performances of scenes and acts from the opera when I was in conservatory, I went through the motions. I sang the role of Count Almaviva in a performance of the second act, without really knowing why I was doing what I was doing on stage. Later in some complete performances, I did some bellowing in the role of Antonio, the drunken gardener, again without knowing exactly why I was there. By the time I had switched to tenor and was singing Don Basilio with some smaller opera companies, I was starting to figure stuff out.

Like many people, I explored the political aspects of Figaro first. If you have spent any time reading about the opera, you already know what I discovered. First, that Figaro is based on Le Mariage de Figaro, the second of the so-called Figaro plays by the French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). That play, written in 1781, was revolutionary for many reasons. Figaro was a servant who outsmarted a nobleman, Count Almaviva, who expected to sleep with Figaro’s fiancée Susanna on the eve of her wedding to Figaro. (This right, the droit du seigneur, was a vestige of the old feudal system.)  Then there was the fact that in the last act, the philandering Count actually apologized to his wife publicly, before a group of commoners and servants.
Mozart’s operatic version of the play was premiered in Vienna in 1786. In creating their opera, Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (who also wrote the books for Così fan Tutte and Don Giovanni) toned down some of the vehement language that Figaro was given in Beaumarchais’s play. But the fact remains that the Beaumarchais, and the Mozart, have real political significance in the context of the history of eighteenth-century France.
Digging a Level Deeper
My explorations of Figaro’s political importance told me a lot about the opera’s significance. But I still couldn’t quite grasp why the opera was so immensely popular. (I mean, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra is a political opera too, but not nearly as popular as Figaro.)
I got an inkling of the reason during a run of performances that I was doing with a not-very-good small opera company in New York. The sets were virtually non-existent, we were performing with piano accompaniment, and most of us cast members were not really very good singers. Yet somehow in the last act, in every performance, something magical happened. When the Count knelt down to apologize to the Countess and swore to stop chasing other women, I felt that I was encountering something of ineffable, transcendent wonder. Even with the shortcomings of the performance I was in, I was in the midst of something sensational, something that embodied and expressed some great truth.
Where did this great beauty come from? After a while, I realized that Beaumarchais, Da Ponte, and Mozart had incorporated a brilliant structure in the play. Instead of creating a plot that follows one couple through the different stages of a love relationship, they created four different couples, each at a different phase . . .

  • Post-adolescent love: Cherubino and Barbarina. Cherubino, an oversexed teenage boy, wants to pursue just about every woman in the story. Barbarina, a servant girl who is about his own age, is calmer than Cherubino, wiser, and somewhat aloof. If you’ve ever been a pubescent boy in middle school, you know this territory pretty well and can see how accurately Mozart and da Ponte depicted it.
  • Young, promising love: Figaro and Susanna. One rung up from Cherubino and Barbarina, we find two people in their twenties – eager to marry, full of love for each other, yet (as we see in the last act) still harboring some doubts about each other’s fidelity. To get an inkling of how Mozart and Da Ponte depicted the eagerness of this about-to-wed couple, go to the 4:25 point in this video and see how they are measuring the dimensions of the bedroom that they will occupy as soon as they have exchanged wedding vows:

  • Fraying, mature love: The Count and Countess Almaviva. We can see that not too long ago they were full of love for each other, a lot like Figaro and Susanna are now. The Count, like men we have all met, has been unable to control his libido and is actively pursuing a younger woman, Susanna. The Countess, like women we have met, remains in love with her husband. As she discovers the truth of his philandering, her despair grows nobler and more profound. Instead of  turning her back on her husband, she steadfastly remains hopeful that he will change his ways and return his love to her. Remember, we are talking about a pre-feminist era here, for sure. In the final act, the Count swears to her that he will do just that. (In the third Beaumarchais Figaro play, La Mere Coupable, we learn that he has not reformed at all.)
  • Tired, old love: Marcellina and Bartolo. In a comic twist, we learn that these seemingly unconnected characters, many years before, parented Figaro. Yet the moment is not entirely comic. We now see that they are old, distanced, and disconnected in all ways save their warm feelings toward the child they bore.
I’m still thinking about Figaro – aren’t you? I keep discovering new facets in this gem of an opera, such as the fact that the Count, who is a nobleman, doesn’t get to start his role with an aria; he kind of wanders in and starts singing a recitative. Was that an intentional slap that Mozart and Da Ponte directed at royalty? I sort of think so. But that kind of question is what makes important music important. There are always new levels and questions to explore.