Saturday, February 7, 2015

Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (Metropolitan Opera, October 18, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “movie” last night was Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro, in a new production by Sir Richard Eyre that updated the setting to the 1930’s but was otherwise blessedly free from some of the horrendous distortions inflicted on classic operas by Regietheater directors at the Met and in Europe. The Marriage of Figaro is an extraordinary opera but one that isn’t easy to produce — the music is lovely, and given a cast of people who can sing it properly (as it got here) it’s going to make some sort of effect, but like a lot of other comic operas it’s hard to stage because it’s hard to decide just how far to push the comic “business.” Eyre’s approach was to do it subtly — though the opera is based on a French farce (in both the literal and the genre senses of the term), and Eyre resorted to a few obvious gags (like Cherubino, the Count Almaviva’s rowdy and randy page boy — he’s supposed to be an ultra-horny straight teenage kid but he’s actually played by a mezzo-soprano in drag — literally turning himself into part of the sofa to hide from the Count, the sort of thing the Marx Brothers used to do), for the most part he kept the humor subtle and dry, which is how I like it. The Marriage of Figaro started as a play by Parisian author Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799), described on his Wikipedia page as “playwright, watchmaker, inventor, musician, diplomat, fugitive, spy, publisher, horticulturalist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary (both French and American).” He wrote three plays in the Figaro cycle and first introduced the two key characters — the Spanish nobleman Count Almaviva and his manservant, barber and factotum Figaro — as an “interlude” he wrote around 1765 called The Sacristan. In 1775 Beaumarchais wrote a full-length play called The Barber of Seville, dealing with Count Almaviva’s infatuation for the young noble girl Rosina and the attempts of Figaro, on his behalf, to defeat the “useless precautions” (also a subtitle for the play) set up by her guardian, Dr. Bartolo (who wants her for himself), and marry her.

The play was an enormous hit, so in 1778 Beaumarchais wrote a sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, and got it performed privately at the French court in 1781 before King Louis XVI slapped a ban on it, which stood until 1784 despite the attempts of his wife, Marie Antoinette, to get him to lift it. Beaumarchais wrote one more play in the Figaro cycle, The Guilty Mother, which premiered in 1792 (post-Revolution) and was also a hit, though it’s hardly as well known because, while The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro were turned into operas almost as soon as they were written, The Guilty Mother wasn’t adapted for the operatic stage until French composer Darius Milhaud did it in 1964. The first opera based on The Barber of Seville was written by the Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello in 1782 and was not only a hit, it had such long “legs” that when Gioacchino Rossini’s version premiered in 1816 it was booed off the stage by outraged fans who thought Rossini presumptuous for daring to compete with the great Paisiello. (Eventually, though, Rossini’s version swept Paisiello’s off the stage and became a standard repertory opera, while Paisiello’s reverted to historical-curiosity status.) In 1786 Mozart had recently been appointed official composer to the Vienna Court Opera — replacing Christoph Willibald Gluck, who had been lured away to Paris by Marie Antoinette (he’d been her favorite composer and she wanted him in Paris to continue to write operas for her court), but only making half the salary Gluck had been paid. According to one version, Mozart was asked by the court to write his own opera based on The Barber of Seville, but begged off because he didn’t want to compete with Paisiello’s version, so he suggested that he compose an opera on The Marriage of Figaro instead — even though the Austro-Hungarian government had banned the play. Mozart promised the court officials that he and the court opera’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, could tone down the original’s anti-aristocratic satire enough to make it politically acceptable, and the opera finally made it to the stage on May 1, 1786. It was a modest success in Vienna but an enormous hit when it was revived in Prague — enough that the Prague Opera asked Mozart and da Ponte to write a work for their company, which became Don Giovanni — and eventually became part of the standard repertory.

One of the most interesting things ever written about The Marriage of Figaro is an article by Joan Bernick in the summer 1983 issue of The Opera Quarterly, in which she attempted by comparing da Ponte’s libretto to Beaumarchais’ original play to reconstruct the decision-making process da Ponte had gone through in his adaptation — and though Bernick didn’t make this point herself, it occurred to me that if she was right, da Ponte had approached his task very much the way a screenwriter does in adapting a novel or play for film: he looked for which elements of the original he could use as they stood, which he would have to leave out, and which he would have to change. (Indeed, Bernick’s article inspired me to analogize the opera libretto and the screenplay, both of which are dependent sorts of writing waiting for another artist — a composer in the case of the libretto, a director in film — to bring them to life. The so-called Schreiber theorists who have attempted to dethrone the director as the auteur of a film and put the writer in his or her place ignore the fact that, unlike a stage play, which is a work of art that exists independently of any particular production, a screenplay is not a work of art itself but the blueprint for one — the final work could not exist without it, but it becomes art only when a producer, a director and a cast and crew breathe cinematic life into it. By my analogy, a director who writes his or her own scripts is similar to a composer, like Wagner or Leoncavallo, who writes his or her own libretti.) Bernick also makes the point that da Ponte made the original far more emotionally intense and moving; he cut out a lot of the social commentary — not only to get it by the Viennese censors but also he was an experienced enough librettist he realized it wouldn’t work on stage — and deepened the raw emotion of a story that, especially in his adaptation, turns (as do his two other libretti for Mozart, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte) on the clash between love and sex, between commitment to a single partner and the pursuit of physical pleasure no matter what the emotional cost, and also the class conflict between the (relatively) honest servants and the corrupt aristocrats who regard servants as little more than furniture.

When the story opens, Figaro is measuring the room the Count has offered him and his betrothed, the Countess’s maid Susanna, to make sure their bed will fit in it. He’s pleased that the Count has given him a room right next to the Count’s own but Susanna, considerably sharper than he, has realized the actual reason; since the rooms are adjoining, it’ll be easier for the Count to slip into the room and have sex with her if both Figaro and the Countess are away. The Count has officially rescinded the jus primae noctis — the once-sacred right of an aristocrat, after the wedding of any of his female servants or serfs, to spend the first night with her himself before turning her over to her husband — but in Susanna’s case he wants his shot at her before Figaro gets it. The Countess, meanwhile, has caught on to her husband’s roving eye (and somewhat lower part), and in a marvelous aria, “Porgi amor,” which begins the second act, she laments her loss of her husband’s love. Meanwhile, the randy page boy Cherubino is at that stage of teenage straight male-dom when he wants to fuck everything that’s alive, human and female, including the Countess, Susanna, and Barbarina (another maid on the Count’s home staff). The Count catches Cherubino in Susanna’s bedroom and as revenge orders him to join the military, though Figaro tells him to hang on for a while. The Countess concocts a plot to gain her revenge on the Count by having Susanna write him a letter arranging an assignation in the garden of his estate; they will then disguise Cherubino as Susanna and send him there in her place. There’s a subplot in which Figaro’s upcoming marriage to Susanna is temporarily derailed when Marcellina, a middle-aged widow, shows up in the company of Dr. Bartolo and the music-master Don Basilio (also a character from The Barber of Seville who carries over) and claims to have a signed contract from Figaro to marry her as repayment for 2,000 silver pieces she previously lent him. But Figaro doesn’t have to marry Marcellina because it turns out she’s really Figaro’s mother — and Bartolo is Figaro’s father — so the wedding of Figaro and Susanna can go on as scheduled. Only it doesn’t because Figaro learns that Susanna agreed to meet the Count for some hanky-panky in the garden, and after a long succession of arias for Barbarina, Basilio, Figaro and Susanna, the “rendezvous” takes place but with the Countess herself disguised as Susanna (and vice versa), so the Count realizes he’s “cheating” with his own wife.

He asks her to forgive him, and she does so — in Beaumarchais’ play that was a simple two-line dialogue exchange but Mozart and da Ponte turn it into an extended final ensemble in which the Count and Countess reconcile, as do Figaro and Susanna, and though we don’t actually see the wedding take place, the “normal” monogamous order of things is restored — at least for now, since in The Guilty Mother (set 20 years after The Marriage of Figaro) the Almavivas have had a son, he’s been killed in a duel, and a young man named Léon shows up at the Almaviva estate and the Countess instantly takes a dislike to him because she suspects he’s the Count’s son by one of his paramours — though it actually turns out that it’s not Léon but his girlfriend Florestine who’s the Count’s child, while Léon is actually the fruit of an affair the Countess had with Cherubino. When the Met’s current Marriage of Figaro started I briefly feared for the worst when director Sir Richard Eyre began with a pantomime scene, taking place during the opera’s magnificent overture (a lovely five-minute piece that’s had an independent life as a curtain-raiser for symphony concerts), that begins with a young woman hurriedly putting her clothes back on after she’s spent time with the Count in his bed, and spirals from there to try as much as possible to expose (so to speak) the characters’ sex lives before the actual opera begins. (I reminded Charles that in 1786 opera overtures were just that — opening music during which the audience members were still filing into the theatre and taking their seats.) The Met did one odd thing to The Marriage of Figaro that surprised me — instead of presenting it in the original four-act structure they combined Acts I and II, then combined Acts III and IV, so instead of four short, compact acts they ended up with two long, sprawling ones. I have no idea why they did this (though I suspect it’s because musicians’ union regulations charge overtime based on the time the musicians have been in the theatre, not how long they actually play, so fewer intermissions probably mean less overtime charges), though they may have justified it because the other two Mozart/da Ponte operas, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan Tutte, are both in two acts. It certainly makes an ironic contrast to the 1930’s, when the Met rewrote Wagner’s Das Rheingold to insert an intermission into an opera Wagner had intended to be performed as one long (2 ½-hour) act — they played Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in three acts, though at least for that work Wagner had created an alternative version for opera houses that didn’t want to stage it as a single continuous act — apparently because their contract with the concessionaire who ran their bar specified that every show at the Met had to have at least one intermission.

Once we get into the opera proper (a rather inappropriate adjective), though, Eyre’s direction settled into an effective groove in which the comedy was played simply and without the obnoxious hammery that has marred previous productions — in his treatment Figaro is much more rom-com than slapstick or farce — and the 1930’s setting becomes less bothersome than most similar time transcriptions. Indeed, the main difference having it take place in the 1930’s made was that the singers could wear reasonably familiar-looking clothes instead of the preposterous (to today’s sensibility) outfits of the 1780’s. Where this Marriage of Figaro scored was in Levine’s conducting — he seems to have been working at the Met my entire lifetime (he made his debut there in the 1960’s and became music director in the 1970’s) and he’s acquired a level of experience and calm that makes his performances magisterial — and a quite well integrated cast. I wasn’t that thrilled by the acting of Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro (I’d really liked him in the title role of Borodin’s Prince Igor in a Met Live in HD presentation Charles and I had actually seen in a theatre, but obviously he’s the sort of actor who’s much more turned on by a dark, conflicted character like Igor than by Figaro) but he sang the part well enough, as did Peter Mattei as the Count — who acted quite well; during one of the intermission interviews host Renée Fleming (who herself has sung the Countess at the Met) asked him if he thought the Count was a villain, and he hemmed and hawed about that one (my answer would have been, “No, he’s not a villain — just a typical male who’s thinking with his dick!”), but his performance portrayed the Count as a bit befuddled himself by his sexual obsession with Susanna and torn between trying to be a decent guy and wanting to get his rocks off no matter how many people he hurts in the process. But it’s the women who really stood out in this cast — as they do in the story; through most of the plot it’s the women who are the voices of sanity in this “day of madness” (Beaumarchais’ subtitle for the original play), at once trying to hold on to their menfolk and deal with their mates’ sexual desires. Both Amanda Majeski as the Countess and Marlis Petersen as Susanna brought young, fresh voices to their roles, and both showed a real understanding of the drama and the emotional lives of their characters.

As for the Cherubino, Walter Legge would have been pleased by Isabel Leonard’s costuming and makeup — he said that part of the appeal of casting a woman as a man (what opera buffs call a “trouser role”) is that there should be a sense that it is a woman; he didn’t think producers and costumers should make the drag look too convincing, and Rob Howell came up with an outfit that made Leonard look credibly butch but still showed a bit of breasts and womanly hips — making the double-drag in which the Countess and Susanna dress Cherubino as a woman (the woman-playing-a-man-playing-a-woman bit has turned up all sorts of places since, including Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier — a work both Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, admitted was strongly inspired by The Marriage of Figaro — and the three films of the Victor/Victoria story) that much more amusing. If the production had a flaw it’s that all the subtlety of Eyre’s direction, Levine’s conducting and the singing made it seem a bit undramatic — the down side of not letting it become hammy is that it also tends to get dull — and I don’t think that combining the acts and thus reducing their number from four to two really worked (100 minutes is a bit long to listen to anything, even the glorious music of Mozart at the peak of his talents!), though at least it wasn’t as insanely unbalanced as the Met’s recent version of Verdi’s La Traviata, which reduced the original three acts to two by combining the two scenes of Verdi’s (and Francesco Maria Piave’s) Act II and Act III into a single 85-minute act (if they had wanted a two-act Traviata it would have made more sense to spot the intermission between the two scenes of the original Act II, which would at least have kept the two acts of roughly equal length). Still, the Met’s Marriage of Figaro was an excellent production of a truly great opera, and Eyre’s revolving set allowed the scene changes to take place in full view of the audience without spoiling the illusion — though I was amused, given the usual practice of having the secco recitatives accompanied by harpsichord, to read on the Wikipedia page for the opera a quote from a review of the Vienna premiere which specified that Mozart himself played them on an early piano!