Last night I had the opportunity to see Acts III and IV of Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro after volunteering at the subscription renewal tables. I realized that even if I only ever wrote about The Marriage of Figaro on this blog, I’d probably never run out of material. And soon, of course, I will be writing about other operas (next up: Idomeneo) but I’d really like to linger a little longer on this subject.
The way I see it, one’s concept of Figaro – what kind of opera is it? What’s important about it? What does it have to say? – really hinges on the figure of La Contessa. Even within the confines of this single opera, she’s an incredibly complex character, and when you expand your frame of reference to include the other two plays in Beaumarchais’ trilogy and the operas they inspired (the first of which – The Barber of Seville – is very familiar to opera fans, the third – The Guilty Mother – much less so), things get even more interesting.
How does she fit within the paradigm of lighthearted-but-politically-and-emotionally-charged farce? First, she is undeniably a full participant in the comedy. To treat her as the “straight man”, at a regal remove from the hijinks, is to do her a disservice. In The Barber of Seville, she’s as much an engineer as Figaro of the comedic schemes; The moment when she produces the letter Figaro has just been urging her to write (Un biglietto? … Eccolo qua) is possibly my favourite moment in that opera. In The Marriage of Figaro, Figaro himself is pretty ineffectual and it’s the great lady herself who ultimately brings her husband in line. In the scenes with Cherubino she sparkles with mischief, an intelligent, worldly woman who knows exactly how to torment a naive young boy.
On the other hand, in The Marriage of Figaro she’s the only character who seems to be experiencing any sort of long-term anguish (apart from sexual frustration). Figaro’s feelings of betrayal in Act IV, while genuine and movingly expressed, are short-lived and based on a misunderstanding that is easily resolved. For the Countess, however, both of her arias (Porgi, amor and Dove sono) are sorrowful, expressing profound disillusionment with love and marital happiness. They are also absolutely necessary to the drama, and must be taken seriously if Contessa, perdono – the opera’s final moment of forgiveness and reconciliation - is to have any emotional impact whatsoever.
By the time we see her in The Marriage of Figaro, she can hear about her husband making a pass at her best friend without sobbing or flying into a rage in grand operatic style. Five years before, perhaps the first couple of times, she would have done those things. But she’s been entirely worn out. You can hear this, in Porgi, amor – the long ascending line on lascia, the let in the phrase let me die. She longs for release, relief, rest. And she still loves him!
So, how do you play the Countess? I recall seeing one Figaro on DVD a while ago that depicted her as the victim of physical abuse by the Count. This seems to me to be incorrect. Not that it wouldn’t be historically accurate – I’m sure plenty of 18th century Countesses were slapped around by their Counts – but it’s wrong for Figaro, which is first and foremost a comedy. This heavy-handed treatment seems to me to be symptomatic of the changing narrative about Mozart: starting with the early narrative of the perfect prodigy, composer of beautiful but somewhat sterile music; continuing to Shaffer’s Amadeus, the vulgar, dirty-minded boy with a direct line from God to his pen, unequal to his music; and then the current attempts to correct both of those narratives by emphasizing how hardworking and thoughtful Mozart actually was, and how much emotional richness his music actually contains. A Figaro that focuses excessively on the class and gender politics constitutes an effort to convince the audience that Mozart! Is! Serious!, and reveals the consuming fear of irrelevance that seems to continually plague the opera world.
And yes, Mozart is serious. And I’m as much in favour of ferreting out hidden subtexts as any self-respecting amateur critic must be. But, the truth is that The Marriage of Figaro really doesn’t need to be propped up the way that, say, Il Trovatore sometimes does. It works just fine on its own – marvelously, in fact. It’s funny, it has no longeurs, and it carries no problematic cultural baggage like Cosi fan Tutte or the Ring Cycle. The Countess can be sad and she can sparkle, just the way she does on the page and at the piano. And this is mostly how Opera Atelier approaches it – as a comedy that requires no gimmicks, where movement can be guided by the music and the audience doesn’t need to be browbeaten into laughing at the jokes.
I warmed up considerably to Peggy Kriha Dye’s performance upon a second viewing (although I still think Canzonetta sull’aria was way too fast). She moves with grace and agility, and is immediately believable as an astute noblewoman. During Dove sono she allowed her voice to break at strategic points, to give the impression of being on the point of tears, and the transition from sorrow to anticipated triumph was managed perfectly – with help from a few clear, very powerful high notes. She gives the impression of a great force just waiting to be unleashed. And Piu dolce io sono came, as it should, like the unfolding of a flower, or the exhale after a three-hour inhale.
An interesting choice was made in the final tableau, which showed the Countess in Cherubino’s arms with the other characters pointing and reacting with shock. This looks ahead, of course, to Beaumarchais’ third play, The Guilty Mother, that sees the Countess pregnant with Cherubino’s child after an impulsive one night stand. I like that Figaro’s “happy ending” is actually somewhat compromised – it gives me more fodder to ruminate endlessly on it.