Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker



Posted by leonardrosmarin on October 23, 2017 at 9:55 AM

When lecturing on a book or an opera with which I'm very familiar, I try to flush out of my mind everything I know about it and view it with fresh eyes. I also try to clear my mind of all the ideas other commentators have expressed about the work. I endeavour, in other words, to approach it as though I were experiencing it for the first time. Easier said than done, of course!

On perusing the libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and listening to Mozart's music in order to prepare this chat, I was immediately struck by the fact that this opera is all about hormones going ballistic. The Marriage of Figaro evokes erotic attractions and repulsions from one end of the score to the other. Susanna loves Figaro deeply, but can't help being titillated by the roguish presence of the page Cherubino. The Countess is heartbroken over her husband, the Count's, faithlessness, but is also drawn to Cherubino who worships her. The Count is genuinely fond of his wife but is a non-stop philanderer. Figaro adores Susanna but is devastated in the fourth act when he suspects she might be flattered by the Count's attentions. The elderly woman Marcellina is more than ready and willing to marry Figaro, despite his obvious disgust, until she discovers in the nick of time that he is her long-lost son! A comment my late mother once made is so appropriate for this context that I have to quote her for you right now, because it really illustrates what I am saying. Many years ago when a cousin of mine in his early forties married a young girl of barely 17, my mother gave the following interpretation: "It might have been sex that attracted them to one another. Some people go for it, you know."

Now various commentators, while agreeing with me, would still reproach Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, for toning down the original French play by Beaumarchais on which the opera is based. They regret that the composer and librettist de-emphasized the social criticism and the virulent attacks against the Old Regime in order to concentrate on the love/lust relationships instead. This criticism strikes me as very unfair. In the first place, Mozart and Da Ponte couldn't reproduce Beaumarchais' corrosive diatribes against the aristocratic order because the authorities in Vienna would not have allowed them to get away with it. The main reason why I disagree with them, however, is that retaining this social criticism in the operas was not at all necessary. Count Almaviva, the impenitent womanizer who thinks that deflowering the virgins on his estate is his God-given prerogative, is constantly mocked, bamboozled and even humiliated not only by his servants but by his own wife.

Let me give you some examples: Figaro kicks aristocratic ass in his first aria in the first act, "Se vuol ballare." (If you want to dance). The subversive second-beat accents cutting across the rhythms of the minuet are like a kick in the aristocratic rear end. Figaro hatches a plot to humiliate the Count. Even though it backfires, this plotting underscores the fact that he has no respect for his master. Indeed, his attitude towards his master is often so brazen that I wondered why Almaviva didn't demote him and assign him to cleaning the latrines! Susanna foils the Count's attempt to humiliate the Countess in the Second act; Figaro aids and abets her by lying insolently to him. When the Count accuses Figaro of lying, Figaro replies that it is his face that is lying, not him. Barbarina, the gardener's daughter, publicly and inadvertently embarrasses the Count in the presence of his wife in the third act by describing his attempts at seducing her. Susanna plays the Count like a yoyo in the third act when she seems to promise everything one moment only to withdraw her offer a second later. Finally, Susanna and the Countess successfully plot against him: he'll be taken in by the Countess disguised as her chamber maid and will be forced to beg her forgiveness in public.

It is obvious, then, that the action in The Marriage of Figaro is driven on the one hand by the Count's insatiable libido, and on the other by the determination of Figaro, Susanna and the Countess to thwart and re-channel it. The subtitle of the French play Le Mariage de Figaro that inspired the opera, is La Folle journée or The Crazy Day. But there would be no "Folle journée" or Crazy Day were it not for the Count's dogged determination to enjoy Susanna's sexual favours on her wedding night. When you bear in mind that all this frenzy of activity takes place within less than 24 hours, you realize how appropriate the subtitle is. Moreover the overture conjures up splendidly the whirlwind of activity, the feverishness and mayhem that have descended on the Almaviva castle.

As you can now surmise, the whole plot in The Marriage of Figaro is set in motion as a result of the Count's regret over having abrogated the "Droit du seigneur." (The nobleman's right). He is so fixated on deflowering his wife's chamber maid on her wedding night that he will use blackmail, if necessary, to achieve his ends, i.e., forcing Figaro to honour his contract with the elderly lady Marcellina to whom he owes money. And so, Figaro, Susanna and the Countess will strive through the course of the opera not only to prevent the Count from reaching his goal, but to rekindle the latter's love for his neglected wife.

As I mentioned, Figaro's initial strategy ultimately backfires: his plan was to send the Count an anonymous letter implying that his wife is carrying on an affair, get him agitated, destabilized, then get Cherubino the page dressed up as Susanna, delude the Count into believing that Susanna will agree to a secret rendezvous, and then expose the Count to ridicule. It fails because Cherubino has the knack of being in the wrong place at the right time (I say "the right time" because his inopportune presence always provokes mayhem). When the Count believes Cherubino is hiding in his wife's boudoir, he is all the more furious because he has already found Cherubino hiding in places where the young page could view his master's penchant for adultery.

The Countess, Susanna and Figaro thus have to practice damage control in the second act. The Countess first denies to the Count that someone is in her boudoir. Then she asserts that her maid, Susanna is there, trying on her wedding dress. Her husband, of course, is convinced she is hiding a lover there. Susanna is quick-witted enough to assess the situation instantly when she returns to the Countess's apartment. The conflicting emotions give rise here to a magnificent trio: we have a blustering, bulling Count; a Countess courageous and defiant even though she is terrified of the consequences for Cherubino; and Susanna astounded by the way her masters are going at each other.

The second strategy is infinitely more successful, and eventually brings the opera to its happy and moving conclusion. It works beautifully because here the women are exclusively in charge. They know how to master the erotic whirlwind that the Count had unleashed and re-direct this energy back to the Countess.

You will see for yourselves during the course of the opera that the women are more intelligent than the men. This will become obvious as we compare their characters. Let's begin with the men.

For Count Almaviva, amorous conquest is a fixation: In The Barber of Seville, the play and opera that preceded The Marriage of Figaro, he fell in love with Rosina, his future Countess, because rescuing her from the home of her elderly guardian where she was held a virtual prisoner implied an exciting adventure that inflamed his passion. He could imagine himself as a knight in shining armour saving a damsel in distress. Now that Rosina is his wife, the passion seems to have petered out. There remains, however, a residual tenderness that can be reactivated. This appears evident when, after reading the anonymous letter Figaro has sent him, he becomes convinced his wife may be dallying with someone else, In other words, he again takes an interest in her when he fears she may no longer be his exclusive possession.

Rather than being in love with particular women, Almaviva is enthralled by the prospect of new adventures. The individual women are the screens on which he projects his yearning for erotic excitement. Hence his infatuation with Susanna. Not that she lacks charm and vivaciousness. She possesses these qualities in overabundance. But Susanna is the goal of an insatiable erotic desire that always needs new incentives to get the Count aroused. This tendency of his nature is clear in the 4th act when he declares his passion to his wife disguised as Susanna. The features in his wife that no longer seemed to interest him suddenly become alluring and exciting when he is under the illusion of making out with her maid: "What slender fingers," he exclaims, "What delicate skin!/They pierce me through and through/And fill me with new ardour." This particular scene is very funny because the Count is projecting on his wife in disguise the sexual fantasies Susanna had aroused in him.

The Count is also a man of overweening pride. His mind is infected by the notion of entitlement. This pride is founded on a fallacy. As an aristocrat, he feels intrinsically superior to his servants, and therefore considers it his inalienable right to take what he wants even if the consequences might be very hurtful to them. His third act aria snarls with the powerless rage of a man who believes that his subalterns have taken control of his life. Despite his sincere attempts to act as an enlightened aristocrat, he remains a despot at heart. Why should Figaro, a low-class servant, have the right to enjoy the love of a beautiful woman whose possession should be his, Almaviva's, God-given right? Speaking to an imaginary Figaro, he explodes: "No, I will not allow you this enjoyment! You were not born, bold fellow, to cause me torment and to laugh at my discomfiture.

The target of Almaviva's wrath, Figaro, is a very cunning individual , an unshatterably self-assured man for the most part, used to living by his wits to survive. There is in Figaro resentment towards members of the aristocracy who have had it easy whereas for him life has been a struggle for survival. Hence the delight he takes in deriding Cherubino at the end of the first act when the Count orders the latter to join his regiment with a military commission.

Figaro has lots of chutzpah, as one would say in Yiddish. Although much more intelligent than the Count, he is not quite as brilliant and resourceful as he likes to think he is. Susanna has figured out by the first scene of the first act why the Count has given them a particular room in the chateau. Moreover the music assures us that Susanna is indeed the dominant partner in this relationship. At the end of their first duet in the first act, Figaro is singing her melody, too.

Despite his belief in his ability to dominate every situation, Figaro needs prompting by Susanna and the Countess to extricate himself from his jam in the second act. They are the ones who whisper the words "the Commission" and "the Seal" in his ears. At least he know how to react swiftly and appropriately when he gets the information. He can certainly think on his feet.

But he also shows a singular lack of lucidity in the fourth act when he jumps to conclusions about Susanna's willingness to commit adultery with the Count on her wedding night. He is so furious and despairing that in his great aria he depicts the nature of woman simplistically as uniformly deceitful, self-centered and heartless. In a sense he is paying them a supreme backhand tribute by depicting them in such powerfully negative terms. But Mozart disagrees with his self-righteously incensed hero. He show this by having the French horns in the orchestra whoop and chortle in light-hearted mockery. The notes they produce here are the musical equivalent of the sign of the cuckold. In the mythology of the time, the betrayed or cuckolded husband wore antler horns. We see here that Mozart in his infinite humanity can both love and make fun of a character. When Figaro finally figures out that Susanna has been masquerading as the Countess and had always been loyal to him, he is overjoyed to receive her physical blows, a sign of her love for him.

If I place Cherubino after Figaro, it's because for me he functions in an intermediary zone between the men and the women in this opera. He is in a transitional stage from adolescence to manhood. Although obviously enamoured of women in just about any size, shape and form, and brazen in his amorous enterprises, he still has a child-like, almost feminine sensibility and comeliness that gives palpitations to Susanna and makes the Countess's heart skip a beat. In Cherubino Mozart has drawn an entrancing portrait of befuddled adolescence. I use the term "befuddled" because his libido, fully aroused by feminine presence, is surging, whirling and racing within him, restlessly and ceaselessly seeking a place to land or a precise target to hit. As Cherubino himself declares, "I no longer know what I am and what I'm doing, every lady gets me excited." Freezing and burning almost simultaneously, his torment causes his rapture, and he wouldn't trade places with anyone. One wonders whether he will be one day as insatiably hooked on amorous adventure as the Count is now. Bold with Susanna, he is awe-struck in the presence of the Countess. Since his libido is constantly goading him on, it is not surprising he always seems to be where he shouldn't and that the Count would want to get rid of him.

It is obvious that Susanna is very attracted to this adolescent rogue with his mixture of innocence and insolence as well as sheer physical beauty. She comments to the Countess in the 2nd act on the sheer whiteness of his skin! If she is attracted to him, however, she is not invincibly drawn to the point of wanting to consummate their relationship. Far from it. What is significant to note here is that being aroused by this adolescent although she is about to marry Figaro doesn't perturb Susanna in the least. She is so solidly anchored, so well balanced, so sure of her identity that she can cope with any contradictions within her nature and resolve them without going into anguished soul-searching. Susanna assumes her whole being, including her sexuality, without any hang-ups, qualms, guilt or complexes. She is one of the most perfectly adjusted protagonists in all opera, along with the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She has remarkable presence of mind and so can react swiftly to difficult or potentially dangerous situations. We've seen in the second act how she adroitly defuses a very dangerous time-bomb, saving the Countess's reputation, and neutralizing the Count's vengeful fury.

In the fourth act she performs a tour de force. She succeeds in exciting both the Count and the man she loves simultaneously in her aria "Come now, Do not delay." This aria is a fascinating exploration of her soul. Although still ostensibly a virgin, Susanna depicts the joys of sensual love as though she were already an expert. In the enchanting nocturnal atmosphere of the garden, she evokes the erotic élan as coinciding with the very heartbeat of the cosmos. At the beginning, she sheds any timid scruples she might entertain about physical love, knowing that it is an integral part of life and is a fully appropriate expression of it. As her aria unfolds, her life force seems to expand in a voluptuous languor.

On the surface, the Countess seems far less self-assured than her chambermaid, so sorrowful and vulnerable is she during the whole second act. But this melancholy can be explained by her husband's non-stop philandering and his potential for violence. These have devastated her, and her poignant aria, "God of Love" attests to the state of her soul. Although she is not that much older than Susanna, she is suffering from disillusionment. Here is a woman who has been deeply wounded, because her idealistic vision of love with the Count has been shattered. Her vulnerability in the second act can also be explained by her compassion. She is anxious to protect Cherubino from her husband's fury, which, she knows, can be murderous. And, as I pointed out, she does stand up to him.

Yet despite her deep, aching sadness, she does not wallow in self-pity. In her aria, "Where have these beautiful moments gone?", one notices a remarkable progression at the end of which the old, determined, strong and enterprising Rosina of The Barber of Seville that she once was re-emerges, pulls her out of her sadness, and prompts her to action

In the first part of the aria, the Countess expresses her yearning to transform a beautiful past into a high octane fuel to revitalize a moribund relationship. Extremely lucid, she acknowledges the fact that despite her husband's multiple betrayals, she still loves him. Can she not do more than just evoke, through affective memory, the precious moments when he loved her sincerely and passionately? Is there no way to go beyond the heartbreaking recollection of precious moments that now seem to have been consigned to an irretrievable past? Has time swallowed them up in its irreversible flow? Is affective memory the only way for her to resurrect her love? Will it remain, then, an unrequited one?

Yet in the second part of her aria, she suddenly recaptures her old energy, self-confidence and optimism. She will use the love she still feels for the Count as a positive force that will transform their relationship. Mozart expresses this eloquently by having the Countess suspend rather than complete her long, slow, poignant phrase. The phrase stops dead in its tracks. Then the aria launches suddenly into a melody expressing jubilant determination and hope. The old Rosina has triumphed over the Countess' sorrow and will now take over.

The Countess succeeds brilliantly thanks to the help of Susanna. One senses a sisterhood between them that becomes obvious in the third act. The delicious duet in which they plot to shame the Count has their voices singing in unison to such a degree that one can barely differentiate between them. In musical terms, Mozart has made them absolute equals. It is significant to note that this idea of feminine solidarity or sisterhood applies also to Marcellina's relationship with Susanna. Once Marcellina discovers that Figaro is her son, all her bitchiness towards Susanna disappears. She embraces her son's future wife as her own daughter.

This time, the plot concocted by Susanna and the Countess to shame the Count works beautifully. Disguised as Susanna, the Countess finally arouses her husband to passion and forces him to acknowledge how utterly contemptible and delusional he has been. The sublime music with which Almaviva begs his wife's forgiveness, and her equally moving musical reply, persuades us, at that particular moment, that a reconciliation between the estranged partners has finally occurred, and that it will indeed endure. This is the way Mozart wanted it. He fervently believed in the superiority of woman as an agent of harmony and reconciliation. In the magical world that is his opera we can believe that Almaviva will finally cease being the impenitent skirt-chasing husband. Music doesn't lie, and the music here is overwhelmingly persuasive. Besides, the Countess has finally beat her husband at his own game and has rekindled her attractiveness for him.

But, realistically speaking, will this reconciliation endure? Not if we are to believe the sequel to the play The Marriage of Figaro (1784) that Beaumarchais wrote eight years later, La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), his third play dealing with the couple. There, we learn that the Countess has indeed had an affair with Cherubino and has born his illegitimate child.

Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro in its original Italian) is not, however, identical to Beaumarchais' play Le Marriage de Figaro, even though the action in both works deserves the subtitle, "La Folle journée." Mozart's opera represents a realm of enchantment. So let us be uplifted by the opera's sublime ending and believe that the Count and Countess Almaviva will really make their marriage work this time around.

Leonard Rosmarin

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1 Comment

Reply Opera Lover
1:40 PM on October 27, 2017 
What a perceptive study of this magnificent opera. You really got to the core of it. Erotic energy is coursing through everyone's body here, and you pointed this out beautifully!