The Classical opera

The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro)

Cast:

Count Almaviva Bass
Countess Rosina Almaviva Soprano
Susanna, the countess’s maid Soprano
Figaro, personal valet to the count Bass
Cherubino, the Count’s page (dressed as a man (en travesti)) Soprano
Marcellina, Doctor Bartolo’s housekeeper Soprano
Bartolo, Lawyer and doctor from Seville Bass
Basilio, Master of music Tenor
Don Curzio, Judge Tenor
Barbarina, Daughter of Antonio Soprano
Antonio, Gardener for the count’s estate Bass
Chorus of peasants, villagers, and servants

The Marriage of Figaro, the comic opera (Opera Buffa) composed by W. A. Mozart (27/01/1756 to 05/12/1791) with a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (10/03/1749 to 17/08/1838) was first performed at the Burgtheater in Vienna on the first of May, 1786.

Based on the second of three plays by Pierre Beaumarchais, Da Ponte took the original text and rewrote it in around six weeks, removing political references from the original work and giving greater depth to the characters, highlighting the issues of social tension between the sharply defined classes of the time and in doing so, raising the level of literature of Opera Buffa to a new high.

Mozart’s enduring masterpiece has become a standard for operatic performance around the world and with his extraordinary talent for musical characterisation and orchestration, especially the use of the wind section in this particular work, the composer matched Da Ponte’s achievements in breaking new operatic ground.

The opera is delivered in an overture and four acts, each act being played out in a different part of the palace of Count Almaviva near Seville on the wedding day of Figaro and Susanna. The licentious count has designs on the bride to be and makes no secret to her of his desire and the possibility of his reinstating the recently prohibited right of droit du seigneur, that of feudal lords to “know” subordinate brides on their wedding night.

Act one finds us in the newly allocated room of Figaro and Susanne where Figaro is measuring the space available for the bed of the betrothed couple. Susanne arrives and isn’t happy about the proximity of the new room to that of Count Almaviva and a heated discussion ensues between them, Susanne eventually having to explain her concerns to her betrothed which results in Figaro announcing in his first major solo piece “If you want to dance, Sir Count, I’ll play the guitar for you (“Se vuol ballare Signor Contino, il chitarrino le suonerò”). Figaro leaves and the scene unfolds with the introduction of further core characters, Bartolo, Marcellina, Cherubino and the Count. Look out for the splendid exchange between Susanne and Marcellina, trading thinly-veiled insults while smiling through gritted teeth.

Act two is set in a well-presented room with an adjoining dressing room. The Countess tells us of her sorrow at her husband’s infidelity (“Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro” – “Oh Love, give me some remedy”) and is joined initially by Susanne, then Cherubino. An active scene is played out whereby the three of them plan to ensnare the count in a constructed tryst, laying bare his betrayal. A vibrant exchange is developed between the count and the three ladies as they try to conceal the whereabouts of Cherubino, resulting in his escape by jumping out of the window!

Act three gives us greater insight into the wiles of the count and when he is assured by Susanna that she will meet him in a pine grove that evening, later to be confirmed in a letter secretly written by Susanna and the countess. His satisfaction turns to greater frustration when he overhears Susanna telling Figaro that the battle is all but won and that the count has been fooled. Count Almaviva becomes determined to make Figaro pay and marry Marcellina who holds Figaro under contract of marriage over a loan of money.

During Figaro’s hearing regarding the loan it becomes apparent that Figaro is in fact the lost son of Marcellina with Dr. Bartolo! The act comes to a close with a double wedding, Susanna and Figaro alongside Marcellina and Bartolo. During the celebrations Susanna slips the count the letter, sealed with a pin which must be returned to confirm understanding of the missive.

In act four we are in the garden. Barbarina had been charged by the count with returning the pin to Susanna but she has mislaid it. While searching, Figaro approaches and becomes enraged after learning that the pin is from Susanna and that infidelity is afoot. Marcellina advises caution but Figaro is set in his intent. Marcellina’s aria queries why the beasts can resolve conflict but humans can’t.

The deceit is underway when Susanna and the countess arrive, each dressed as the other and the count attempts seduction of “Susanna”, unaware that it’s the countess in disguise. Figaro, also initially fooled by the trickery of the two women begins an explanation of the count’s duplicity to who he believes to be the countess until he recognises Susanna and start to play along. Confusion ensues with the return of the count and his misunderstanding, believing that Figaro is seducing his wife! He calls for arms and men and all concerned beg him to forgive the unhappy groom to his continued shouts of “No!”.

The return of the countess reveals her true identity and Almaviva’s fraudulence is there for all to see. Ashamed, he pleads with his wife for forgiveness and she consents to the satisfaction of all.