Today, Le nozze di Figaro as political revolution. That’s how the show first made the news, back in the 1780s. That was the age of Revolution, and the idea that the lower classes might rise up in rebellion against their anointed rulers was everywhere in the air, the way today everyone intuits the connection between driving a hybrid, buying organic, and using your own cloth grocery bag when you go shopping. When Beaumarchais wrote his Marriage of Figaro play, the American colonies had just risen up in rebellion against the king of England, whom they called a tyrant, and the playwright’s homeland of France was spiralling toward the fall of the Bastille and the French Revolution. The Marriage of Figaro is very obviously about class conflict.
It’s there in the very stage directions. The opera opens and closes with the same iconic image, a man down on his knees; but at the beginning it’s a servant who’s kneeling, Figaro, whereas in the last scene it’s the master, Count Almaviva. This move from humble servant to humiliated master embodies the deepest fantasy of the revolution generation.
When the curtain rises, actually, Figaro is on his knees because he’s measuring a space on the floor for his bed. Mozart gives him an oddly repetitive little “counting” melody, played by the violins, for the words “Cinque, dieci, venti, trenta” (Five, ten, twenty, thirty):
Alfred Poell, Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca “Legends” 466 369-2
And in the final scene, Count Almaviva kneels in order to abase himself before his wife, whom he has wronged. It’s a private moment, and only the two of them understand its real significance. But the entire cast of the opera is onstage, representing all of society gathered to witness the public shaming of the guy who WAS in charge. After violently denying everyone else's plea for forgiveness ("Perdona!" "No!") the Count kneels and begs his wife's forgiveness in the famous phrase, “Contessa, perdona”. She responds and pardons him with a melody which is the sound of love itself:
Cesare Siepi, Lisa della Casa, Decca “Legends” 466 369-2
Said Napoleon of Beaumarchais’s play, “The Marriage of Figaro was the Revolution already in action.” In fact, the play was banned at first by absolutist rulers like Emperor Josef II of Austria and his brother-in-law, King Louis XVI of France (who was guillotined during the Revolution). The revolution these rulers feared was in fact so successful, modern audiences may need to use their imaginations a little bit in order to understand the social structure of the world of The Marriage of Figaro.
All the characters in the show live in dread of Count Almaviva. The men fear the Count because they are his servants and he is their master; the women fear him because not only are they his property (or property of men who are his property), but he also has designs on most of them at some point. In play and opera, the Count has just renounced his droit de seigneur-—a ancient law which gave noblemen the right to have sex with the wives of their vassals and servants on their wedding night; first dibs, as it were. But it turns out he’s only renounced it because he feels it’s unsporting; he still wants to deflower all the virgins, but it’s more appealing to him if he uses seduction instead of compulsion.
Now, this law probably never really existed. Beaumarchais included it in his plot because in its very exaggeration it captured the essence of how people felt about the aristocracy. As Beaumarchais has his Figaro say in the play (in lines cut from the opera’s libretto by the politically cautious Da Ponte):
No, my Lord Count, you shan’t have her, you shall not have her! Because you are a great nobleman you think you are a great genius.... Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more! For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century! Yet you would measure yourself against me....
Above, a political cartoon drawn in Paris in the late 1780s, depicting the French King (Louis XVI), a bishop (representing the First Estate) and an aristocrat (representing the Second Estate) who brutalize a figure that represents the common man (the Third Estate). The caption reads "Le peuple sous l'ancien régime" (The people beneath the former rule).
In the opera, Figaro makes this point much more slyly, when he brings a bunch of local villagers into the Count's castle, toward the end of Act One, to sing a chorus thanking the Count for NOT deflowering Susanna (the virgin who’s to be married that day). Below, a video of this scene from a 1985 Metropolitan Opera telecast of Le nozze di Figaro. In the recitative following this oddly passive-aggressive little chorus, Figaro goes so far as to ask the Count to crown “the one whom your gift has rendered immaculately pure with this symbol of chastity, the white wedding-veil.” The Count gets Figaro's message, loud and clear; but he also vows, in an aside, that he won't let his servant get the better of him. Well, good for him; it's still Act One!
A note about the music in this scene: it was typical, in eighteenth-century opera, for theaters to employ a small chorus which would sing the same piece twice in quick succession, entering and exiting. Since these are all peasants and they're theoretically scattering flowers, Mozart gives them a 6/8 time signature, like a peasant dance, and a very simple, rollicking harmonic language.