Friday, April 10, 2009

Interpreting FIGARO: Utopian Pastoral

Forget what I said the other day, Le nozze di Figaro isn’t about political revolution at all. If you want a revolutionary play, try Ibsen’s Doll’s House, which ends with the doll leaving the house and going off to live her own life as a full human being. If Le nozze di Figaro were truly revolutionarly, at the end of the opera the Count would fall down on his knees, sing “Contessa, perdono,” and look up at his Countess imploringly; and she’d shake her head, say “Good luck to you,” and walk away from him forever. Plus, Figaro would assemble a mob of angry peasants and they’d storm the castle and drag the Count off to the guillotine.

Really, Le nozze di Figaro is a reactionary fantasy about an ideal ancien rĂ©gime feudal system under the old medieval ethos of the ‘Code of Courtly Love,’ which defines a real man as one who always gives women the upper hand. The opera confirms and endorses a social structure in which the Count rules the county and the Countess rules the Count. We may chuckle at the shenanigans brought about by uppity servants and horny, androgynous teenagers, but at the end, we all know the servants will continue to serve their masters and the women will continue to submit to the men publically (while subtly manipulating them in all things). Figaro gets slapped, in the Act 4 finale, first by his boss, the Count and later by his wife, Susanna. It’s a good thing he’s got a sense of humor about it, because he’ll always be the bottom guy on the totem pole.

The sunshine in this opera’s music presents this old-fashioned rural universe as a great good place, a utopia. Sometimes it feels to me like Mozart and Da Ponte are saying to Beaumarchais, and other would-be revolutionaries of the 1780s: “Look, the system isn’t perfect, but with a few minor adjustments it could be. Don’t throw out the baby with the bath.” Certainly the world as represented in Figaro is not a place either Mozart or Da Ponte knew. Although Mozart was born into something of a feudal system, fated to replace his father in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, as a young man he rebelled against that fate by abandoing his rural, feudal home and moving to the big city to try his luck as a Bohemian artist. (Famously, he mooned his herditary lord and master as he was burning the bridge behind him.) Da Ponte, who was born Jewish, was also outside ‘the system’ from the get-go. And yet these two artists give us a world in which the aristocratic Christian woman, in her great moment of forgiveness and mercy at the end of the opera, is the one who can channel divine grace and make earth into paradise.

It’s no accident that she does so in a garden. Le nozze di Figaro can be described as a ‘pastoral’ fantasy; this work of art presents an idealized natural world, a place where man and beast live in harmony and everyone is deliriously happy. Ever since the art and poetry of ancient Greece, the pastoral has fantasized about a Golden Age before pain, disease, war, and hunger darkened the joy human beings could take in the natural world. Mozart gives us the sound of the pastoral throughout the opera: in distant horn calls, droning bass imitating bagpipes, and any number of country dances in 6/8 time. Listen, for instance, to the gently rollicking rhythm of the chorus at their second entrance, when (in Act 3) all the local girls enter to demonstrate their feudal loyalty by offering flowers they’ve picked to their mistress the Countess:

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

In terms of storytelling, the pastoral goes back long before Shakespeare, whose clowns, lovers, and kings are always trotting off to fair Belmont or the Forest of Arden or the woods surrounding Athens, as we heard last week in Midsummer. It really goes back (doesn’t everything?) to the ancient Greeks, to Homer’s Odyssey, which set up most of the important characteristics of the genre. Pastoral storytelling has always been associated with tearful reunions between long-lost family members—which, of course, happens in a wondrous and amusing way in Figaro’s third act.

Above, Grecian urn of Odysseus and Penelope

To use the pastoral in a story, a writer needs to set up two locations: first, the normal, status quo, mundane setting where the characters pursue their unenlightened daily lives; and then the special pastoral world where their eyes are opened. In the pastoral, we learn the lessons of nature; or as Duke Senior puts it, in Shakespeare’s As You Like It:
This our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

When a character enters the pastoral world he or she is really embarking on a journey of growth and maturation. In Le nozze di Figaro, there’s actually a double pastoral. Figaro is a sequel. Part One, The Barber of Seville, takes place in downtown Seville. In Part Two, the characters have escaped the city to the rural world of Almaviva’s castle, Agua Frescas (literally “Fresh Water”), in the faraway countryside. The two worlds couldn’t be more different: in Barber, the oppression of city life, with each character trying to dupe and manipulate all the others; in Figaro, a (seemingly) happy feudal set-up in which everyone knows his duty to his lord and jolly peasants come scattering flowers before their lady.

But look carefully at the structure of Figaro. The first three acts of the opera take place inside the castle, in various rooms and hallways and audience chambers. But in the final act—-after the ceremonial marriage is complete and the real marriage about to take place-—the characters all head out to the garden beyond the castle, all of them hoping to fool each other. Each of them will learn something surprising about themselves and their spouse, and when they return inside, at the end of the act, the web of relationships between them will be justified at long last.

That magical final scene in the garden is set up by one of the most gorgeous pieces of music Mozart ever wrote, the famous “Letter Duet.” The Countess and Susanna are jointly writing a note asking the Count to meet his ladylove in the garden at midnight. The text couldn’t be more simple, or more pastoral: “The zephyr shall sigh this evening beneath the pine trees in the grove.” The music, which features the two soprano voices wrapping around each other over a gentle 6/8 rhythm, illustrates the essence of the pastoral’s magic: the ultimate garden of paradise can only be found in the imagination, in the mind.

(Hilde Gueden, Lisa Della Casa; Decca "Legends" 466-369-2)

Photo by Rozarii Lynch
Above, Robyn Driedger-Klassen and Maureen McKay sang the Letter Duet in Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program Le Nozze di Figaro in 2005.


  1. I'll bite at the bait, Jonathan. Nozze, reactionary? Hardly. Sure, it's a pastoral fantasy, and a delightful one at that. Mozart and Da Ponte were clever enough to sneak some revolutionary content into a pastoral form. If Figaro had incited the peasants to open revolution at the end, the opera would never have been performed, and Mozart and Da Ponte probably would have spent their remaining days in prison. And the Countess didn't have the option of walking out on the Count, unless she wanted to spend her remaining days in a convent.

    The world of Ibsen was radically different from the world of Da Ponte. For the time, Nozze is pretty darn revolutionary. Do you really want us to forget what you said the other day, or rather, to keep both aspects of Nozze in mind: the pastoral and the revolutionary?

    I'm also interested in your (and others') further thoughts on the Countess's moment of forgiveness at the end. I find that moment one of the most beautiful and moving in all of opera, not because I hanker for a more hierarchical society, but because Mozart's sublime music makes me believe that true forgiveness is possible.

  2. Hi, Alice!

    Thanks for reading, and posting, and--yes--calling me on teasing you readers. Multiple readings are, I hope, possible with so rich a piece. And you're right that Mozart wouldn't have gotten his FIGARO performed at Josef II's Burgtheater if he'd been as in-your-face with the revolutionary sentiment as Beaumarchais; but I also think it's possible that he didn't feel that sentiment as strongly as Beaumarchais, and so didn't mind creating a politically less revolutionary piece. And after all, what's the matter with a convent?

    Thanks, too, for drawing our attention to the opera's magical ending, and the questions it raises 223 years later. Is the Countess right to forgive the Count, or is she an indulgent wimp? Has the Count learned anything, or will he continue his bad behavior? Is a completely happy ending really possible, on our side of death?

    I'll do my best to keep asking these questions as we keep exploring FIGARO.

  3. Great answer and great food for thought, Jonathan. And good point about the convent. ;-)