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“Marriage of Figaro"
An Opera for Our Time

by Susan W. Bowen

November 2007

Review: The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (1749-1838)
Michigan Opera Theater, Detroit, November 2007
Jane Glover, Conductor

Detroit's Michigan Opera Theater performed the poetical and musical masterpiece "The Marriage of Figaro" opera, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte in November, 2007. It first premiered in Vienna in1786, and although its popularity at the time was overshadowed by much lesser works, operas which are long forgotten, "Figaro's" universal importance has withstood the test of time. Identified as a  "light, comic opera", there is much more here than meets the eye. Mozart and Da Ponte conspired to transform the opera-going population of Europe, as part of a grander revolutionary mobilization - to win support for the American Revolution in Europe: for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The "Ideas of 1776" were not just "talk" in the salons of Europe's capitals: Beaumarchais, the author of the Figaro trilogy (Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother) was a spy for and an arms supplier to the American Revolution, known as a political activist, pamphleteer, political prisoner, as well as author. That Mozart was in the circles of the American Revolution has been amply documented in Fidelio Magazine articles (1), and DaPonte himself became an American citizen in 1828, and was involved in both the American Philosophical Society circles of Philadelphia and New York, and later, with the younger generation of patriots around James Fenimore Cooper.

It is little wonder that such passion for truth, justice, and the inalienable rights of man, should resonate so concordantly with the creative impulse in classical poetry and music. Mozart was insistent that the revolutionary play, the banned "Marriage of Figaro," be the work that he and DaPonte set to music, to demonstrate to the world what they could do with opera. Italian opera was all the rage, even in German-speaking Europe, and until then, operas were limited to set piece presentations of aria, duet, trio, and finale, around a basic storyline, in both opera seria (serious) and buffa (comic).

Mozart had written to his father in 1782 that "...The best thing of all is when a good composer, who understands the stage and is talented enough to make suggestions, meets an able poet, the true phoenix; in that case, no fears need be entertained as to the applause of even the ignorant...". Mozart first met his librettist when Da Ponte was a very busy Theater Poet in 1783, and by 1785 they began work in earnest on "Figaro", both cognizant that they were fathering something entirely new. Here was Mozart's opportunity, with a "true phoenix", to elaborate the stunning breakthrough he had made in motivic thorough composition, expressed in 1785 with the German Lied. He employed the full palate of orchestral and vocal colors to add another dimension to the many ironies already written into the rich Italian libretto, which DaPonte had transformed so well from the French play. "Figaro" transformed opera forever, and a revolutionary breakthrough was realized with the marriage of drama, music and poetry under the arc of a unifying concept.

Musically, Mozart played with the themes of vengeance and forgiveness, freedom and wisdom, love and trust, and courage, bringing the audience into little conspiracies, flanking maneuvers, and counter conspiracies throughout the four acts, expressed differently by each character and combination of characters. Mozart scored the part of the Count specifically for the baritone voice, a first in opera, and he created ensembles with six and seven voices, new kinds of recitatives which move the complex action, often unrealized at the first moment of hearing.

Mozart and DaPonte's biting polemics against the sophist thinking predominant in Europe, in the conjunction with the power of the musical-poetic "unity of effect", succeeded in creating a very paradoxical situation for many of the nobles in the 1786 audience, who found themselves both uplifted and insulted at the same time!

The Story

Right from the opening scene, having the courage to change and to reject the axioms of the society is placed before the audience. The curtain opens to Figaro, (Daniel Okulitch, bass baritone) servant and right-hand man to Count Almaviva, measuring to fit the bed in the new bedroom that he and Susanna have been given by the Count as a wedding gift. Susanna, (Ailyn Perez, soprano) servant to the Countess, enters happily singing about her lovely new bridal outfit, but immediately smells the rat that had eluded Figaro, and points out to her betrothed that the Count's intentions in placing their new bedroom in between the Count's and Countess's chambers would be very convenient for the Count, especially if Figaro is sent to London on business! Figaro is aware of another plan to force him marry an older noblewoman, Marcellina in lieu of old debts he owes her and cannot pay, but this ruse by the Count is just too much!

The Count had officially abolished the barbaric practice of the "right of the first night" (2). However, he was plotting the seduction of Susanna, asserting his noble right to be above the law. Count Almaviva (Kyle Pformiller, baritone), is a nobleman who, some years earlier with Figaro's help, "broke the rules" to marry his own wife for true love, but now, bored with her, he seeks to share his royal pleasure elsewhere.

The bridal couple realizes that in this feudal situation, they have only their wits and love as weapons, and must deploy them to outsmart the Count and his coterie, while bringing others into their plan to "win their cause." What subsequently unfolds are various conspiracies planned from all sides, which are launched, which fail, are reconfigured, all interwoven with divine music which heightens both the drama, and the often-ironic reactions to the conspiracies. In a direct challenge to the bestial, oligarchic conception of man prevalent in European cities in the 1780s, what they pose is the necessary emotional development of a population, which is required to achieve a republican form of government, as that represented by the ideal of the American Revolution.

The One and the Many Voices

In this Michigan Opera Theater Production, the singers were all quite fine, and well matched in vocal color. Mozart always listened to each singer before he finished writing, so he had particular voices in mind for each role. But even without that advantage, the MOT did well. Special mention must be made of the delivery of especially the trios and the other ensemble pieces and finales, because all the different voices of the chorus and orchestra could be heard, individually, and as a unity, which is no easy task.

Okulitch's Figaro sang well and warmed into the part as the opera progressed, but the character he (or the director) created was too enraged throughout, rather than a Figaro who developed the capability to turn the tables on the Count - his master -- to defeat his vile intention, and have him "dance to his tune." Although he isn't quite as smart as he thinks himself to be, he and Susanna do find joy in uplifting others--both the other characters and the audience, in diametric opposition to the "Joy of Vengeance" expressed by Bartolo, the Count and their cabal. This must be transparent, or it dampens the irony at the end of the opera, where Susanna, in a flanking conspiracy with the Countess (Caitlin Lynch, soprano) turns the tables on an untrusting Figaro, who in turn, plays a trick on her, teaching and learning lessons of trust, lessons which are fundamental in the institution of marriage, and also the institution of self government.

Perez's Susanna, Pformiller's Count and Lynch's Countess worked especially very well together, and with Okulitch's Figaro, they presented real Mozart. Cherubino, (Stephanie Woodling, mezzo soprano) seemed to enjoy her role. Other commendations go to Don Basilio, (Torrence Blaisdell, tenor), Antonio the gardner, (Seth Carico, bass) and Barbarina (Kelly Holst, soprano) and the peasant girls. It was unfortunate that, for this production, the arias of Marcellina, (Kathleen Segar, mezzo soprano) and Basilio, were not included, though they performed crisply in the recitatives and ensembles.

Conductor Jane Glover's rendering of their work was excellent, especially the way in which she brought out certain musical colors, like the winds against the strings, for example. In the few places the orchestra was less than perfect, the idea nevertheless prevailed. Overall, the performance was enjoyable, but could have been much better, had the issue of the emotional quality needed to rule, so clearly intended by Mozart and DaPonte, not been virtually swept under the rug in an attempt to keep the audience's attention with sensual effects.

Sense Certainty Vs Real Ideas

Photo: John Grigaitis, Michigan Opera Theatre
Kathleen Segar as Marcellina, Peter Strummer as Doctor Bartolo, Ying Huang as Susanna and Robert Gierlach as Figaro. (Shown here, in this scene from Act 3 are different cast members than the ones in this review, in the role of Figaro and Susanna. )

In this regard, it must be said, most emphatically, that petting onstage is never necessary to show lust, or love. Sensual effects blunt, rather than enhance, the impact of drama of the music itself, and this is the main complaint with this MOT production.

Unnecessary activity and extra motion in many scenes, as when Marcellina throws her legal papers all over the stage for Dr. Bartolo (Peter Strummer, bass-baritone), to pick up, is a distraction which undercuts the power of the very polemical aria he sings. The great buffo aria about the "Joy of Vengeance" develops one of the oligarchy's "dirty tricks" method of battle, but if not grasped in all its irony, then the musical and poetic idea is not clear in the mind when it is heard again, but as in a transformed way, later in the opera. Other extraneous additions to the staging, with extreme over-acting during arias, as well as the addition of a background scene where two peasant girls fight over the Count's affection in front of the all the characters in the chamber, have a similar dulling effect. We needed to really hear the wonderful aria by Figaro," Non piu andrai" without all the extraneous movements on the stage by other characters, to hear him tell Cherubino about the "glories of war," Were the audience able to concentrate on the ironies in this catchy aria, they might reflect a bit, just as in 1786, when many young men were fighting at the front.

That the directors didn't trust our minds enough, and rather "worked the senses," is a characteristic problem we face in society today, and requires that we learn to think more like Mozart and DaPonte. Economist Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr., in his article "Music: Science or Fantasy?" (3) identified that paradoxes, though seen with the eye or heard in the ear, are solved in the mind, and that this uniquely human quality of discovery separates us absolutely from the beasts. "...Each of our senses presents us with a certain, specific kind of image of the concurrent experience of the same event actually experienced by two or more senses, in terms which are qualitatively in contradiction to all among the other particular modes of sense-perception as such. Therefore, truth is that which must be recognized as not the image of reality as presented as the evidence of any type of sense-perception as such. Truth lies not in perception as such, but in ironical forms of changes within the whole of the lapsed physical space-time of that which we must discover, experimentally, is to be perceived as a relevant quality of change in state. It is the existence of a qualitative change of state, especially an inducible change of qualitative state, which reflects the kind of quality of experience to which the conception of perceptions must be subjugated."

The challenge for performances today is to master the unity of effect and deliver the IDEA intended by the composers in the most beautiful way possible. For the thinkers, musicians, poets and policy makers in 1786, the burning issue was the "inalienable rights of man", as identified in the Declaration of Independence, as it is for us today. The condition of our own adolescent society can be compared to Cherubino's situation, the Count's young hormonal page, whose path to his adulthood is not yet determined: he can follow either the example of nobility of Susanna and Figaro, or the "nobility" of the Count.

Which concept of the "nobility of man," will prevail - that of the creative, loving, sovereign individual in a free society, or that of those of "noble birth" in the financial elites, who say that man is just a beast? In our modern video-killer culture, with the Dick Cheney policies of torture, permanent war, and the danger of a New Dark Age, the same question of the future of society is posed to us. We can learn some lessons of statecraft, as well as much about the science of music from "The Marriage of Figaro", making it thus a very important opera for our time.


[1] Mozart and American Rev. FIDELIO ARTICLE by David Shavin  Fidelio Magazine, Winter, 1992 ...

[2] One of the most most brutal practices of the nobility was the “droit de seigneur,” or “right of the first night” where an oligarch would sleep with a newly-wedded bride on his domains before permitting the bridegroom to do so.

[3] Music and Statecraft: How Space Is Organized, by Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr.


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