The Marriage of Figaro makes love, not politics
Modernized interpretations of The Marriage of Figaro have recast the title character as a doorman at Trump Tower, a staffer for a member of the European Parliament, a migrant worker in California. But Michigan Opera Theatre is taking a less rebellious approach with its upcoming production of Mozart’s opera about a feudal lord who feels entitled to make amorous advances toward his valet’s bride, and the servants’ subsequent battle-of-wits resistance to his designs.
Director Michael Albano calls MOT’s version “a naturalistic piece” – and he couldn’t be happier with it.
“We have beautiful sets and costumes,” says Albano, “tremendously, cleverly designed. What especially pleases me is that it’s a romantic production, a wonderful kind of time machine, a chance to experience an elegant age.”
Albano tells singers they are welcome to read Pierre Beaumarchais’ original play, from which Lorenzo Da Ponte drew his libretto, but to really understand Figaro, he recommends Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.
“It’s about people who drift apart from each other and then find each other after that period of estrangement,” he says.
Here he’s not referring to the title character and bride-to-be, but to the other, more experienced aristocratic couple, whom he believes the story is really about.
“It’s something you have to be careful about with the cast,” he quips. “You might not want to tell the Figaro and Susanna that it’s actually about the Count and Countess!”
The increased focus on the Countess began with Da Ponte, who chose to emphasize loves, laughs and heartaches when adapting the original play with its disruptive sociopolitical edge. Da Ponte de-radicalized the message, simplified the story, removed characters and scenes, added beautiful poetry, and created space for the composer to exercise his genius.
“On top of everything, Da Ponte was a brilliant editor. I’m a huge fan,” says Albano, who has directed each of the Da Ponte-Mozart works numerous times. “He weaved a brilliant construction for Mozart.”
Mozart may have identified with the abused servants of the fiction. He was, after all, dismissed from his previous job with a literal kick to his behind, and the 450 florins he was paid for composing Figaro was approximately equal to the cost of a prime box at its performance. But he chose the play for its theatricality, deeming it – after copious searching – the ideal vehicle for the opera buffa he was eager to write.
At its Burgtheater premiere in 1786, The Marriage of Figaro got an eclectic reception; the musicians were unanimous in their praise while the audience was in disarray.
Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who created the roles of Bartolo and Don Curzio, described the company’s reaction at the first full rehearsal: “The whole of the performers on the stage, and those in the orchestra, as if actuated by one feeling of delight, vociferated ‘Bravo! Bravo, Maestro! Viva, viva grande Mozart!’ Those in the orchestra I thought would never have ceased applauding, by beating the bows of their violins against the music desks.”
But Vienna’s opening night audience was split between paid hecklers interrupting the performance and connoisseurs demanding encores. Other patrons, caught in the middle, were undecided.
Later that year, in Prague, there was no such confusion. The city’s seasoned opera-going public fell in love with Figaro en masse, selling it out for weeks. “Here they talk about nothing but Figaro,” Mozart wrote in his diary. “Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro.”
And today? Albano says “It’s extraordinary that the work still means so much to us and touches us.” The world’s love affair with Figaro hasn’t waned, now 230 years after the first date.
Now that’s romantic.