Saturday, April 18, 2009

Interpreting Figaro: COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE

I’m afraid I’ve been taking Le nozze di Figaro way too seriously on this blog, subjecting it to lengthy analyses as incendiary political manifesto or psychological self-help handbook for Martians and Venusians who find themselves at war with each other. No, Figaro is really just a silly sex comedy, with all the slamming closet doors, hiding behind chairs, ridiculous disguises, and cockamamie excuses you’d expect from a Feydau farce—or an episode of Three’s Company.

The three rules of comedy, dating back to the days of ancient Rome, are drag, disguise, and dummies, and Figaro has all three in spades. These three magic ingredients were the backbone of the ancient Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, which is best understood as live-action Looney Tunes. In real commedia, there’s isn’t really much of a plot; instead, there are stock characters and scenarios or situations which provide a framework for jokes, buffoonery, and rampant silliness. Drag and disguises afford the audience the joy of watching foolish characters get taken in by the hopelessly lame disguises and excuses of equally foolish characters. Figaro features both the character-in-drag gag (that’s Cherubino, prince/princess of gender confusion) and the master-and-servant-switch-clothing gag (in this case, the Countess and Susanna, mistress and chambermaid, switch clothes). As for dummies, the famous stock characters of commedia include the inamorati, a pair of young people suffering from a wildly exaggerated, suicidal passion for each other; any number of bumbling, incompetent servants; and most of all the old men, the greedy old misers and pompous old professors who stand in the way of the young peoples’ love.

A: Harlequin (progenitor of Figaro); B: Pantalone (Bartolo's spiritual father); C: Punchinello (the original Andy Capp); D: Columbina (ancestress of Susanna)

Dr. Bartolo is probably the purest commedia character in Le nozze di Figaro; at one point Mozart even has him sing good old fashioned commedia patter, in which the singer tries to spit out tongue-twisters as fast as humanly possible. You’ve heard it before in Gilbert & Sullivan, who stole it from Mozart:

(Fernando Corena; Erich Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

Another classic commedia figure is the dim-witted judge. (In commedia, the more you can make dignified patriarchal authority figures look absurd and incompetent, the better.) In Le nozze di Figaro this is Don Curzio, who traditionally has a stutter. I’ve never heard where this tradition arose, but it gives his recitative a particularly distinctive sound:

(Hugo Meyer-Welfing; Erich Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

That judge only appears in the completely crazy, surreal scene in the third act in which Marcellina and Bartolo recognize Figaro as their long-lost son. The other day we talked about how that scene hearkens back to the tearful pastoral reunions of the ancient Greek Odyssey; it also emerges straight out of the commedia tradition, particularly the running gag in the middle of the sextet. A ‘running gag’ is something which isn’t particularly funny the first time, but if you repeat it enough, eventually the audience can’t help but laugh. (Watch Sideshow Bob whapping himself in the forehead with a rake nine times, from the classic Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” episode, for more information.) Here, when Marcellina tries to explain to Susanna that she’s really Figaro’s mother, Susanna has to go to each person in the room in turn, asking for confirmation of this astonishing fact: “Suo madre?” “Suo madre!” they say, and then she repeats the joke when Figaro tries to tell her Bartolo is his father:

(Hilde Rössl-Majdan, Hilde Gueden, Corena, Alfred Poell, Cesare Siepi, and Meyer-Welfing; Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

Antonio the gardener is also a standard commedia bumbling servant, one whose unfathomable stupidity gives rise to some of the opera’s funniest lines. Marcellina and Susanna both derive from commedia’s typically wily female servants. And Figaro and the Count both used to be stock commedia figures, back during Barber of Seville; but in the years that have passed since, both have matured into more psychologically real human beings. Beaumarchais was following the lead of his Italian contemporary Carlo Goldoni in writing plays about real people who live in a commedia world. Those of us who love this opera benefit because we can both probe the psychological depths of these wonderfully rich characters, and simultaneously laugh at how absurdly silly it all is.

To conclude, a scene of the purest commedia influence on music theater, from Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. The 1966 film directed by Richard Lester starred (in this particular scene) Buster Keaton as the dim old man, Jack Gilford as the nervous servant, and the incomparable Zero Mostel as the crafty servant:


  1. You mention that Gilbert & Sullivan stole one of the passages from Mozart. I can almost place it. Can you post it next to the Mozart for comparison?


  2. G&S, like all composers of comic opera, use a vocal technique called PATTER, in which many repeated syllables on the same note sort of 'patter' on the voice like light raindrops. It always sounds kind of silly, and talented comic actors with limited vocal ability can usually still delight an audience with a tongue-twister patter song.

    I'm afraid I can't post music clips within this comment, but encourage you to go to and zap ahead to 5:15 within that clip to check out Rossini's greatest patter song, for Dr. Bartolo in THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, brilliantly performed at the Met a year or so ago by John Del Carlo (who is in fact a great singer).

    Then, why not listen again to the most famous Gilbert and Sullivan Patter Song at, from a film version of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE? My all-time favorite is the Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song from IOLANTHE, but YouTube has a better clip, with a professional G&S patter guy, of "I am the very model of a modern major general."

  3. I adore opera based on comedia del arte! it always looks and sounds like something authentic and real which is very important I think to produce the necessary impression!