This past Saturday as the first snow of winter fell upon New York, and most of the east coast I was fortunate enough to be warmed inside and out by the Metropolitan’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”. Before the performance I enjoyed a lovely Holiday, party thrown by the Met for the Young Associates, of which I am a part. During the days in which I am bundled up in my pajamas eating candy and watching cartoons I sometimes remind myself that I am a part of the Metropolitan Opera Young Associates. It is during those moments that my membership among the Metropolitan Opera Young Associates reminds me that I am a fully fledged adult. Socializing in formal wear, Christmas Carols with some of the Met’s own chorus members as well as the sparling holiday mimosas garnished with pine and pomegranate seeds given at the holiday party brought a sense of comfort from the frosty wind along with the few great opera master works in which all ends well with no death. The night gave way to a stunning production of “Figaro” letting the audience know, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well”. During these rough political times in this world, I believe we all need a little bit of reassuring of this phrase, even if some class war fares are thrown into the mix
When “Figaro” first premiered in Vienna in 1786 it was wildly successful even as it turned heads for its commentary on class structure. The story revolves around the house of the Count and Countess Almaviva on day of the marriage between the servants Figaro and Susannah. The opera opens with Figaro measuring the bedroom to see if the marriage bed will fit as Susannah sews her own wedding veil. They engage in witty banter and you can tell they are truly in love. The Count is a sleaze ball that agreed to give Susannah a marriage dowry hoping to reclaim his feudal right, a law which he banned. The “feudal right” was a law that allowed the lord of the house to sleep with the bride of his servants on their first night of marriage. Even in 1786 this was seen as an old law and of primitive societies and was not commonly acted upon but it was still a law. This is something neither Susannah nor Figaro want. Figaro want the count to stay away, the Count wants Susannah, Susannah wants peace, the Countess wants the love of her husband, Marcelina the lady in waiting wants Figaro as her husband, and the troublesome pubescent page wants love. It is a twisting comedy of lovers in which all ends well, accompanied with the music of Mozart brings delight to those who watch it.
The Sir Richard Eyre’s production which the Met showed this past Saturday and for the rest of December takes place in a Spanish style villa just outside of Seville in the 1930s. There were four “rooms” which looked like bronze gilded art deco towers which spun on a turntable that made up the stage. One of the biggest sets on the turn table was the large tree that made up the pine grove where lovers meet in the last act of the opera. As the overture played, the lights lowering and the tiny sputnik chandielers of the metropolitan opera rose the tables began to turn. The set began moving with the opening notes bringing both the audience’s ears and eyes into the world of Figaro.
The open set design gave a sense of freedom to the production even adding elements of playfulness. At the end of one scene where the count jealously chases Cherubino we see the characters dodging between the gilded towers of the set. With such an open set it lay the foundation for the blurred lines of the different classes that is noted both in the score and the story. The open set gave way to an open mindset that fit so well with the story. I believe the updated version and costumes also truly did help connect to audiences better. The life and look of 18th century Europe is so far removed from 21st century lifestyle that although it can be interesting, even comical, at times to look at, that lifestyle can be hard to relate to. Given that many people have preconceived negative notions of how “they could never like opera” I think a more relatable setting is appropriate. There is still the sense of the original world, Susannah and Figaro are still both servants, with the Count and Countess are both seen as aristocrats, but they aren’t wearing corsets which for some modern audiences is spectacle enough. Through the more modern adaptation it is easier to see the characters as relatable humans.
The plot plays with deception as well as constantly questions who is the true fool. What is nice about Figaro is not one true character is seen as 100% a fool this gives way to the sense of equality between the characters even though it is servants and their masters. When the opera first opened the political implications which shocked audiences we no longer blink an eye at. In the first act when Figaro learns that the Count wishes to seduce Susannah he angrily sings his first, and most well-known, aria “Sel voul ballare”. This is a servant openly plotting against his master while singing in a “minuet” which was a court dance never meant for servants. In the duet in the fourth act “Sul Aria” where the Countess and Susannah plot against their husbands Susannah’s voice begins by merely mimicking the Countess. As the music progresses she gains her own voice full and equal to the Countess’s voice. In the last act of the opera as part of their deception Susannah and the Countess have swapped clothing. This is when Susannah gives her last aria. This aria is not a simple song but a powerful one where even past the deception Susannah’s voice sounds regal enough to pass as the Countess. The visions of the servants having the same power as the aristocrats is what caused unrest in France but Mozart hid well beneath his beautiful music and tale of love.
In modern times I believe it is important to look at the dynamic between Susannah and the Count. He is a man of power who holds both her job as well as her betrothed’s job in the palm of his hands. This is a man who is not used to hearing the word “no” and not getting what he wants. Susannah refuses to give in to his advances, she is the one women to put her foot down to say “No! You cannot have me”. She will not let this man’s power take over her and in the end, she wins! During this time where sexual assault is being revealed I believe it is important to look at this dynamic. This story could have easily been how the Count won’t take no for an answer and Susannah unfortunately ends up the victim. But Susannah turns out to be one of the few women who do get out of this situation with the support of her husband and friends! In that way it reflects a Cinderella story. Many women who are in similar situations have no way of escaping which is a true tragedy but I believe it is empowering to see how the story of one woman was able to escape with a dash of wit and much support.
The friend that came with me actually had an interesting point about Cherubino. The character of Cherubino is a lovesick fourteen year old page boy. His character is played by a woman mezzo-soprano as a “pants woman”. My friend brought up an interesting point that Cherubino is actually a lesbian or even Trans-Man. Which I think is such a cool way of looking at this character! By the other characters Cherubino is assumed to be male and as a trick the women think of dressing him up as a girl which to them is hysterical. Even just the idea of Cherubino dressing as a woman is ridiculous because he is accepted as a masculine character. This fits with all interpretations of Cherubino as a teenage boy, “butch lesbian”, and Trans Man perfectly. It is not a conventional way to look at the character but there is nothing that objects to these interpretations. The defining characteristics of Cherubino is that he is a young sick lovesick trickster who is passionate and fancies every woman in the villa for the most part. The character does use masculine pronouns to describe him, but it is not cis gendered men alone who use these pronouns. Through this you have a teenage boy who is not afraid to show emotions and would rather flirt than fight, a Trans Man who is accepted by the household and is only run out because he was flirting with the Countess not because of his identity, and a “Butch Lesbian” perhaps is in hiding and does not want to be kicked out of the house. I think these are all interesting story interpretations that the text does lay a sturdy foundation for. In the music Mozart did add some funny moments where it seems that Cherubino’s voice is cracking such as in “Voi che Sepete” or perhaps that is a side effect of mere nerves or even hormone therapy. Art is in the eye of the beholder so it is up to the audience member.
In the end it is truly the music that makes this opera so powerful. Mozart’s score is nothing short of perfection. The music of this opera runs through western culture more than we know. There was rarely an aria which did not feel familiar or seen as home. The music transcends in it’s hidden complexity how the notes seem to fit perfectly into place. At the end when during “Countessa Perdona” I was brought to the edge of my seat with tears in my eyes. It is an easy listen that echoes utter perfection from the opening notes of the aria to the last notes further proving what we already knew, that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a true master.
Figaro comes to a welcome conclusion. For those out there who do have a subscription to the Met Opera on Demand this production is on there. I highly recommend Figaro both as a first or even fortieth opera. During these winter months it will be sure to warm your heart.