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James Conlon on The Marriage of Figaro

Posted on: May 19, 2020

“Come lo sono i moderni mariti: per sistema infideli, per genio capricciosi e per orgoglio, poi tutti gelosi.” (“That’s the way it is with modern husbands: unfaithful on principle, capricious by nature and out of pride, jealous.”) 

So speaks Rosina (now the Countess) about her husband Count Almaviva (a name that means “Lively Soul”). 

The Marriage of Figaro
, the second play (1784) in the Figaro trilogy by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, and its operatic adaptation (1786) by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, stand as two masterworks of their respective genres. They can be analyzed from a host of perspectives, none of which can fully plumb their depths. I propose, in this article, to look at these works from the perspective of class struggle (master against servant, aristocracy versus the serving class), pertinent to the Age of Enlightenment, and the battle of the sexes, germane to all times and ages. The first holds that there is an inevitable tension between rulers and the ruled, and the second that the confrontational magnetism between the sexes drives the species, society and personal relations forward and, at the same time, holds them in an unending gridlock for dominance. 
 
The Barber of Seville, the first of the trilogy, is pure comedy. The Marriage of Figaro is a more sophisticated and nuanced comedy of manners that charts marriage’s bumpy road from feudalism to post-Enlightenment liberalism, with the action taking place in one day (La folle Journée, "The Crazy Day," being the work’s subtitle). The final work is no comedy at all. La Mère coupable (“The Guilty Mother”), which has thus far eluded a universally convincing operatic adaptation with a straightforward treatment of its plot, is a melodrama (one of, if not the first in classical theater). Co-incidentally, it is the only play of the three featuring a truly evil character. All the works are, to a degree, autobiographical. But their substance and influence are universal. 

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Photo Credit: Vincent Pontent

The plot of The Marriage of Figaro revolves around the practice, use and abuse of the feudal droit du seigneur (also referred to as jus primae noctis, right of the first night). It holds that lord of the manor is entitled to pass the night with any woman in his domain on the eve of her wedding or to demand a monetary or material recompense to waive this prerogative. This term, drawn most immediately from a comedy by Voltaire (Le Droit du Seigneur, 1762) and included in his Dictionnaire philosophique, was never codified into law. Though the origin of the exact term is debated, it was applied in a multiplicity of unspecified forms. Crudely put, privileged men took advantage of “unprivileged” women. This practice stands at the spoke of the whirling wheel of La folle journée as it is emblematic of both class struggle (in the ancien régime) and the Battle of the Sexes (universal). 

 
First, class struggle. On the eve of the French Revolution, The Marriage of Figaro sets out a competition for power between the aristocratic Count Almaviva and his valet Figaro. The playing field is not equal; it is defined by rigid class distinction. But the game of one-upmanship between these men is locked in a lifelong codependent relationship (a theme which will be explored again in Mozart’s next opera, between Don Giovanni and his servant Leporello). This competition affords the servant a chance to beat his master on his own terms. Beaumarchais, Mozart and Da Ponte hint at the possibility of a more equal society, one that certainly didn’t exist at the time.  It will be a better one where the individual will not be controlled by autocracy but will relate to other self-governing and (hopefully) morally edified persons inspired by Age of Enlightenment principles. The distance between humans is not to be measured by birthrights, but by their essence. 
 
The relationship between the Countess (Rosina in The Barber of Seville) and her servant Susanna is theoretically just as formal. But in fact, the women are more enlightened—as they usually are in Mozart’s operas—and relate to each other as if in a world of equals. 
 
The Battle of the Sexes is the other, more powerful dynamo behind the plot’s churning wheel. Here the struggle for dominance is not limited to rank. The Count tries—and fails—to make his wife, her servant and even the daughter of the drunken gardener bend to his will. The women all employ their intelligence and charms to maneuver around the men. Figaro, eternally outfoxing the world, is finally outwitted himself by his future wife Susanna, whose name—drawn from the Book of Daniel—identifies her as a model of chastity and fidelity. 

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Photo Credit: Vincent Pontent

Mozart is clearly a champion of women, faithfulness and the institution of marriage. He portrays them as morally more evolved than men. The Countess’ forgiveness of the Count touches on the divine. In a 1778 letter, Mozart rejects the notion of economically or politically advantageous marriages, writing: “But we humble people can only choose a wife whom we love and who loves us…because we are neither noble nor highly born, nor aristocratic, nor rich.” (For more, see Nicholas Till’s Mozart and the Enlightenment). 
 
Importantly, despite the title, it is not just Figaro’s marriage but Susanna’s as well. Their union represents Mozart’s view of the reciprocity of loving vows and the right of individuals to choose their mates. That right was only gradually to emerge in history, but the composer’s convictions are evident, as he will definitively demonstrate in The Magic Flute. 
 
None of this is to suggest that Mozart’s characters are angels or one-dimensional. Part of his genius resided in his ability to portray human beings with all of their complexity and imperfection, to accept them as they are, and to bind them all together in a harmonious universe at the end of his operas. And yet in none of the three Da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni) are we left with the impression that all will live happily ever after. It is more likely that things will not change in the future. The characters most likely will continue to live, love and operate in the same manner they have demonstrated in the course of the opera.   
 
Cherubino is at the vortex of the Battle of the Sexes. Mozart and Da Ponte’s choice to assign his role to a woman (as did Beaumarchais in the original play) have feminized him. He exhibits all of the future characteristics of a rake: a budding Almaviva at best, a Don Giovanni at worst. His future liaison with the Countess is hinted at in Act Two, prescient on Mozart’s part because that story would only be told by Beaumarchais in La Mère coupable, written after the composer’s death. 

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Photo Credit: Vincent Pontent

The Countess bemoans the infidelity of the Count, but schemes to teach him a (probably short-lived) lesson and then forgives him. Susanna claims her right to marry Figaro without surrendering her virtue to the Count. Marcellina, discovering that Figaro is her long-lost son, withdraws her petition to marry him, and turns around to identify Doctor Bartolo as Figaro’s father and to claim him for a husband. Even young Barbarina, enamored of Cherubino, manages to cajole the Count not to banish the young page. 
 
The jealous Count, feeling the entitlement that the ancien régime accorded the aristocracy, philanders with the women and belittles the men around him. Figaro resists the Count in almost all things but shows himself to be equally jealous until Susanna admonishes him. Cherubino, amorously flits from flower to flower, wanting to pick all at once. Bartolo is pompous and vindictive while Basilio, habitually intriguing, lives parasitically between the worlds of men and women, aristocrat and servant. 
 
All of this reflects the culture of the droit du seigneur, around which the crazy day unfolds. The Marriage of Figaro conjures up the world of pre-revolutionary France. The aristocratic men—unfaithful, capricious, vain and jealous—rule their political and domestic worlds. The Ancien Regime still reigned in 1786, when Mozart introduced Figaro to Vienna. It was to unravel in France three years later and, gradually, over the next century, in the rest of the Western world.