Sunday, April 19, 2009

Interpreting FIGARO: “I did my best not to listen!”

If Le nozze di Figaro is, as I asserted the other day, really a misty-eyed reactionary fantasy about a Romanticized feudal utopia, its world has at least this much in common with almost every Orwellian futuristic dystopia written since 1945: a world entirely without privacy. In works such as the wonderful Seattle novelist Jonathan Raban’s 2007 Surveillance, or movies of the same name released in ’06, ’07, and ’08, our current culture is demonstrating both an obsessive urge to find out and publicize everything about everybody, and simultaneously a perhaps hypocritical moral indignation that there’s no privacy left.

Was there ever any privacy? Or is that more Romanticized misty-eyed fantasy? Certainly in the village social milieu of Le nozze di Figaro, the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else and all their family history and sexual scandals, real privacy--the kind of anonymity we crave and achieve in huge modern megalopolises--would have been extremely difficult to come by. But in Figaro it goes way beyond that. If Così fan tutte is also known as “The School for Lovers”, then Le nozze di Figaro ought to be called “The School for Spies.” No one in Figaro is ever alone; whatever each of the characters thinks they’re confiding in private turns out really to be confessed in public.

In Act 1, that’s mostly cause for amusing embarassment. It begins with Cherubino, who (because he’s hiding behind a chair) overhears the Count coming on to Susanna. We’re to understand that this young apprentice rake is taking lessons in womanizing from an unwilling master; the day previous, we learn in recitative, Cherubino (hiding under a table) overheard the Count coming on to Barbarina. In the trio that contains the Count’s well-known (yet still funny) revelation of Cherubino-beneath-the-sheet, tenor Don Basilio (who’s so used to it he didn’t bat an eyelash when he found out the Count was spying on him as he oozed his slime on Susanna) concludes, as Da Ponte must have oft asserted: “Così fan tutte le belle, non c’è alcun novità!” (Everybody [female] does it, there’s nothing new here!) Is he talking about sex, or spying?

(Hilde Gueden, Cesare Siepi, Murray Dickie; Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic; Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

One act later, Mozart gives us an even more inspired invention, the second act ensemble in which the Count and Countess are bickering about who may be knocking things over in the closet (it's the klutzy Cherubino, despite the Countess's claim that it's Susanna). Unbeknownst to them, Susanna, spying on them from the back of the room, adds her voice so that duet becomes trio—without the characters in the duet realizing it has become a trio!

Photo by Rozarii Lynch
In Le nozze di Figaro at Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program in 2005, Edlyn de Oliveira was the Countess, Maria d’Amato Susanna, and Michael Todd Simpson the Count.

All the eavesdropping and spying grows more serious, or its treatment a little darker, in Acts 3 & 4. Act 3 begins with the Count’s aria “’Hai già vinta la causa’? Cosa sento!”, one of the most popular of all audition arias for baritone. But I can’t even begin to tell you how many young baritones sing that aria seemingly unaware that it begins because the Count has been eavesdropping on a conversation between Susanna and Figaro. Susanna’s line (which he begins by quoting) “Hai già vinta la causa!” has upset him so deeply he has to sing an aria about it. And then, Act 3 ends with the strange scene of public spying that happens while they’re all dancing the fandango at the wedding: Figaro watches the Count prick his finger on the pin sealing the letter asking him to a midnight rendez-vous in the garden, decodes the situation (except for the part where the assignation is to be with Figaro’s own bride!) and laughs at the Count for hurting himself with the pin.

You can see this little game in the following video clip of the Act 3 finale from the 1976 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle film of Le nozze di Figaro, about 3:40 into the clip. Ponnelle has the Count (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) sing his line as voice-over, instead of thinking aloud, although Figaro (Hermann Prey) whispers his explanation of what’s going on to his dance partner, (Mirella Freni as) Susanna:

If the guys, the Count and Figaro, are spying and eavesdropping in Act 3, in Act 4 the girls, Susanna and the Countess, take revenge by manipulating these strange games of public and private. Each sets up a situation in which their husband is SUPPOSED to spy on them, to see her cheating on him with another; both husbands are deceived; and the result is the wife achieves a moral victory. Susanna does all this in her amazing aria, “Deh, vieni” (right), sung obstensibly to torture Figaro (who she knows is eavesdropping) with jealousy. But the best Susannas find a way in this aria to communicate Susanna’s own sincere affection for Figaro, buried beneath so many layers of pretense, pride, and the twisted folds of the plot.

Figaro earns a beating for spying upon and doubting Susanna, one he gleefully accepts, in private, as the Act 4 finale hurtles towards its end. With the Count and the Countess, however, the same scene happens in public. The Countess has the opportunity to excoriate the Count in front of the assembled cast, the moment he kneels down and asks her forgiveness. They all think he’s asking her to forgive his jealousy and suspicion; but the private reality, understood only by the two of them (plus Figaro and Susanna, plus the audience) is that he’s asking her to forgive him for cheating on her. She could humiliate him in a big way, expose him as a faithless idiot who can’t even tell the women he’s seducing apart from each other. But in her magnanimity, she doesn’t say anything about it. The Countess, who embodies all the grace and dignity available to humankind, understands that even in an age of constant surveillance some things are better kept private.

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