Monday, April 13, 2009

Interpreting FIGARO: Mars vs. Venus

It turns out that Le nozze di Figaro isn’t really about social politics, either for or against revolution. The reason people have found this opera irresistibly entertaining, for 223 years, is that it’s about men and women, about the eternal war of the sexes. In Figaro this war is waged on three fronts: in the relationship between our aristocrat protagonists, the Count and Countess (the Countess wins, in the final scene in which her husband kneels down before her and begs her forgiveness); in the relationship between our servant protagonists, Figaro and Susanna (Susanna wins, beating Figaro at the end when they’re alone together--which he seems to enjoy); and on what could be called “the Cherubino front.” The other characters all project their fantasies about men and women onto everyone’s favorite oversexed teenage androgyne, as they repeatedly transform him into whatever they need him to be. Sometimes he is Mars, sometimes he is Venus; always, he is Cupid.

Those classical allusions, by the way, aren’t mine; they are Figaro’s, from the Act 4 finale, in one of my favorite moments: the quiet ‘eye of the hurricane’ of this finale. Between the lively, comic scene in which the Count woos the Countess-disguised-as-Susanna (in which Cherubino accidentally gives the Count a passionate kiss intended for Countess-as-Susanna, whereupon the Count, trying to slap him in response, ends up slapping Figaro by mistake) and the delightful scene in which Figaro wooes Susanna-as-the-Countess in revenge, the ‘lovers’ dash into a pavillion, the tempo slows down to a lullaby and Figaro--who’s apparently had a good, classical education--sings the following (the clip also includes a little of the two quicker-tempo movements on either side of Figaro's line):
Tutto è tranquillo e placido;
entrò la bella Venere;
col vago Marte a prendere
nuovo Vulcan del secolo
in rete la potrò.

All is calm once more.
Lovely Venus has entered in.
To catch her with handsome Mars
I, a modern-day Vulcan,
can take them in my net.
(Alfred Poell; Kleiber, Vienna Philharmonic, Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

By comparing the cavortings of four silly people in a sex-comedy to mighty ancient gods, and using such powerful, pensive music to do so, Figaro elevates the ridiculous plot of this opera to something more profound. So I hope you’ll allow me, following his lead, to point out a couple of other carefully observed points encoded in Mozart and Da Ponte’s brilliant musical drama.

For example, the tiny little opening duet of the opera, which, I’m convinced, gives us the relationship between Figaro and Susanna in microcosm. When the curtain goes up, we see Figaro and Susanna doing normal, everyday human activities in an unusually naturalistic (for opera!) dramatic language: he’s measuring the space on the floor for their bed, and she’s primping her new hat and admiring herself in the mirror. As the music of the opera gets going, we hear the violins play one tune and the oboe another:

(Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

When the singers enter, we learn that these two melodies are characterizing their activities: Figaro sings (actually, he just counts) while the violins play that slow, jerky, ‘measuring’ melody and then Susanna sings that more graceful, decorative oboe melody to the words “Oh, my new hat is just perfect! I love it so much!” For Figaro’s music, scroll down to Wednesday May 8 on this blog (the entry entitled “Interpreting FIGARO: Revolution!”). Here’s Susanna, singing that oboe tune:

(Hilda Gueden; Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

Then, over the course of this tiny little duet, we witness a brilliant piece of musico-dramatic psychological characterization. “Look at me, Figaro darling!” sings Susanna. He continues measuring. “Look at my new hat!” He still ignores her. Tension builds, harmonically, and she starts repeating herself: “Look, dear Figaro, look, now, at my hat, my hat, my hat!” Her insistence pulls him up off the floor: he stops being interested in what he’s doing, gives her the admiration she so craves, and even demonstrates to her that he was listening to her all along by singing her melody back to her. The duet concludes with the two of them singing simultaneously; and of course it’s HER music they sing together, since in this relationship, we now understand, she gets to call the shots.

(Poell, Gueden; Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

Photo by Gary Smith
Mary Mills, proud of her hat, played Susanna to Richard Bernstein's Figaro in Seattle Opera's 1997 production.

As for the battle of the sexes waged in Cherubino, the transformations are demonstrated very obviously onstage, first in the scene following the Count’s sending Cherubino off to join the army, the scene in which Figaro makes a man of the boy/woman; and then in the scene in which the Countess and Susanna make a girl out of him/her. The second scene, in which a woman playing a boy is then dressed as a girl, happens to the accompaniment of the opera's only ‘action’ aria, Susanna’s “Venite, inginocchiatevi.” (An ‘action’ aria is one in which the stage action ends up overpowering the music; at the end of the aria, the audience has always paid much more attention to Cherubino’s drag-transformation than to Susanna’s singing.) It happens again, offstage, in Act 3, when Barbarina and her friends again dress Cherubino up in drag. The ladies of Le nozze di Figaro keep trying to make Cherubino into a girl, in order to demonstrate their power over the border-zone he/she represents in the war of the sexes.

Photo by Rozarii LynchIn Seattle Opera's 2005 YAP Figaro, the Countess (Edlyn de Oliveira, left) and Susanna (Maria d'Amato, right) dressed Cherubino (Sarah Heltzel, center) up in drag.

The Count and Figaro for the same reason, want to make the boy into a man. Such a transformation concludes Act One, to the accompaniment of Figaro’s celebrated aria “Non più andrai.” I don’t know where the tradition of Figaro improvising a little fake soldier’s uniform for Cherubino (usually with a pail for a helmet and a mop for a rifle) came from, but I can’t remember seeing a performance where it didn’t happen. Certainly it happens in Mozart’s music, which begins by illustrating the delicious words “No more fluttering about all day and night disturbing the ladies’ rest, you great big lovesick butterfly!” with a brilliantly foppish little tune:

(Poell; Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

...which then metamorphoses into an extremely catchy march. Listen, in this clip, to Alfred Poell continuing to tease the foppish boy-man with the names “Narcisetto, Adoncino d’amor!” (You little Narcissus, you cute little Adonis of love!) before he sings “Cherubino, on to victory! On to military glory!”

(Decca “Legends” 466 369-2)

At San Diego Opera in 2007, Richard Bernstein as Figaro sang "Non più andrai" while turning Sarah Castle's Cherubino into a soldier.

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