Tuesday, April 28, 2009

FIGARO’S Friends, Lovers, and Spouses: Countess Rosina Almaviva

The Countess is the only character in Le nozze di Figaro (well, maybe Marcellina is a runner-up) whose love-life isn’t complicated by her own narcissism. As a result, she’s the one character in the opera who sometimes seems a little too good to be true; if the Count’s honor is compromised by his self-confessed “human frailty,” then how does the Countess get off being so perfect all the time?

Speaking from the point of view of actor or director, the easiest way to humanize the Countess is to have her seriously tempted by the youthful ardor of Cherubino. After all, that’s what Beaumarchais was thinking. He even wrote a third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, about the child Cherubino will father upon the Countess. You can hear her supremely loving, sexual yet maternal, feminine warmth in the incredible music Mozart created for the Countess, particularly her entrance aria, “Porgi, amor“:

(Lisa Della Casa; Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic; Decca "Legends" 466 369-2)

We hear that aria immediately following Figaro’s "Non più andrai," and Mozart’s juxtaposition of that cheerful, extroverted bass aria with this slow, delicate soprano aria couldn’t be more brilliant. It does introduce the Countess as a character who’s prone to be passive, sad, and introverted; the perfect wife gazing out the window at a world to which she's denied access. And she continues to be mostly reactive, rather than proactive, for the balance of the scene in her bedroom--which makes Act 3 really her time to shine.

In Seattle Opera's 2005 YAP Figaro, Robyn Driedger-Klassen's Countess stood up to Andrew Garland's Count.

My favorite moment for the Countess comes in the recitative that opens Act 3, that same scene in which the Count admits (to himself) his own human frailty. The Countess finally takes her destiny into her own hands when she urges Susanna to ask the Count for an assignation, and not to tell Figaro. (Earlier, Figaro had advised the Countess to catch the Count in the act, as it were; but he had suggested Cherubino-in-drag as the false Susanna. When the Countess takes over the plan, she decides to play the false Susanna herself.) The rest of the opera flows naturally from that decision. The Letter duet, the business with Barbarina and the pin, even Figaro’s jealousy of Susanna and the two arias exploring that. Musically, we hear the Countess’s heroic resolve in the up-tempo conclusion of her Act 3 aria, “Dove sono”:

(Della Casa; Decca "Legends" 466 369-2)

Grace and beauty and maternal warmth and sexual allure are all well and good, but it’s her strength of character, her ability to figure out what it is she wants and to go get it, that makes the Countess an inspiring human being and the ultimate victor at the end of the opera.

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