Monday, April 27, 2009

FIGARO’S Friends, Lovers, and Spouses: Count Almaviva

In our countdown, now, to opening night, I’d like to consider the great characters of Le nozze di Figaro in a little more detail. Because while the complications of the plot alone are enough to intrigue and amuse a first-time Figaro attendee, it’s the incredible human richness of the characters--their psychological complexity--that keeps many of us coming back to this opera, fascinated time and again.

Mariusz Kwiecien as Count Almaviva at Opera Colorado:

Today, let’s focus on the Count. He’s on my mind because we were up late last night, after a long technical rehearsal, rewriting the supertitles (as we generally do after midnight!) and we ended up working for a while on the Count’s great moment of self-awareness, in the recitative opening Act 3. I’d never noticed it before, but this thoughtless, narcissistic, gullible and deluded character does have one great moment of clarity, as he’s thinking about what happened at the end of Act 2 and wondering whether his wife is cheating on him. “Ma la Contessa...ah, che un dubbio l’offende,” he sings. “Ella rispetta troppo sè stessa: e l’onor mio...l’onore...dove diamin l’ha posto umano errore!” We’ll see if we can arrive at a concise supertitle for this wonderfully rich line, which really means:
“But the Countess...ah, how doubting her offends her! She respects herself too much, and my honor...honor? the devil if my honor isn’t riddled with human frailty!”
I love this moment because it’s the only time the Count comes anywhere near acknowledging his own considerable imperfections.

Ordinarily he can’t let on that he has problems (like many an American politician!) because he’s supposed to be the boss, the big cheese, il padrone, the MAN. In terms of eighteenth-century theatrical types, he’s what’s known as “the tyrant”--the bad guy in the plot. The story consist of the protagonists’ attempts to defeat him. But the Count is not a scary, wicked tyrant, like Alberich or Baron Scarpia. Indeed, when he is welcoming everyone to the wedding and toasting the newlyweds with a beautiful accompanied recitative, the Count is all that is handsome, noble, heroic, and glorious about the eighteenth-century aristocracy:

(Cesare Siepi; Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic; Decca "Legends" 466 369-2)

Handsome, noble, heroic and glorious--but not virtuous, and without that the other attributes don’t count for much. The Count’s virtue is compromised by his lechery and his jealousy, his failure to trust the Countess--a graver sin, according to the Catholic theology behind the opera. He gives vent to all his “human frailty”, his narcissistic pride, lust, and envy in his great Act III “rage” aria, “Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro:”

(Siepi; Decca "Legends" 466 369-2)
This is music that vividly -- even sympathetically -— portrays a man writhing in agony he’s created for himself. If the Count were only capable of mastering his passions, perhaps he’d have a chance of mastering his household.


  1. Very interesting post! I like how you put the characters in context of opera in general. Good for newbies like me that don't know all that background yet. :)

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