The Marriage of Figaro

At Seattle Opera January 2016

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

The Story

Long Story Short:

Clever servants outwit arrogant masters, crafty women outsmart foolish men folk, and one crazy day ends in happiness and love.

Who’s Who, and who is with whom?

Pair #1. The Count & The Countess

Count Almaviva is a great ladies’ man, and extremely jealous of his wife.
Countess Rosina Almaviva adores her husband despite his philandering and his jealousy.

Pair #2. Figaro & Susanna

Figaro is the Count’s manservant and Susanna’s fiancé. He owes Marcellina money and must marry her if he doesn’t pay up.
Susanna, the Countess’s adorable chambermaid, hopes to marry Figaro.

Pair #3. Dr. Bartolo & Marcellina

Dr. Bartolo is an old codger with a grudge against Figaro. Imagine his surprise when he finds out he is Figaro’s father.
Marcellina is an old spinster who used to work for Dr. Bartolo. She calls off her wedding to Figaro when she finds out that she is his mother.

The Marriage of Figaro at New Zealand Opera. © Neil Mackenzie, photo

Pair #4. Cherubino & Barbarina

Cherubino is a teenage page-boy in the Count’s castle (sung by a woman), is having a hard time dealing with puberty.
Barbarina is a teenage peasant girl with a crush on Cherubino.

The Other

Don Basilio is a scandal-monger, busybody, pander, and music teacher.
Don Curzio is a humorless judge who works for Count Almaviva.
Antonio, a tipsy old gardener, is Susanna’s uncle and Barbarina’s father.

Where & When?

The castle of Aguas Frescas, outside of Seville, in the late eighteenth century.

What’s Going On?

The opera takes place over the course of one crazy day, the wedding-day of Figaro and Susanna. Early that morning, Susanna tells Figaro that although the Count has renounced his droit de seigneur — the right to have sex with any woman on his lands on her wedding night — he has nevertheless tried to seduce her. Figaro plots to foil and humiliate the Count; the Count plots to avoid Figaro’s traps and sleep with Susanna; Marcellina plots with Dr. Bartolo to prevent Figaro’s wedding; Susanna plots to avoid the Count, restore his love to his extremely patient Countess, and teach Figaro a lesson about who will wear the pants in their relationship. And any time anyone opens a window, closet door, or curtain in this house, out pops the hormone-addled androgynous teenager Cherubino, usually half-undressed.

Quartet from Act 2 Finale from Seattle Opera’s 2009 Marriage of Figaro

At the end, everyone turns up in the garden at midnight, all trying to keep clandestine rendezvous with whomever they love. The Count, hoping to make love to Susanna, ends up wooing his own wife by mistake. Then, when he thinks he’s caught the Countess making love with Figaro, he explodes with jealousy and tries to shame her in front of everyone. It backfires, and he’s the one who is humiliated. He falls to his knees and begs forgiveness; and when the Countess grants it, everyone rejoices that a long day of madness and folly has ended at last in love.

The Real-Life Figaro

Two of the greatest comic operas ever written, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, are based on plays by and about Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). The son of a middle-class watchmaker named “Caron”, Beaumarchais had the childhood nickname “fils Caron” (Son of Caron), which inspired the name of his greatest character. Like his fictional Figaro, Beaumarchais was a jack-of-all-trades, a guy who tried a little of everything, constantly got himself in over his head, and somehow managed to come out on top nevertheless.

Originally a watchmaker like his father, Beaumarchais went on to become a writer, a publisher, a courtier, a teacher, a financier and philanthropist, a famous litigant, an untrustworthy member of the French Secret Service, a playwright who wrote the biggest box-office smash of the century and an important figure in the American Revolution. He was an outspoken critic of the ancien regime in pre-Revolutionary France (although he became a pauper once the Revolution broke out) and an early crusader for women’s rights. The beautiful 1996 bio-pic Beaumarchais, l’insolent (Beaumarchais the Scoundrel) stars Fabrice Luchini as the mercurial Beaumarchais.

The Figaro Plays

Beaumarchais wrote three plays about a Spanish rogue named Figaro and his friends. The first such play, Le barbier de Séville, is a successful comedy based on the ancient model of the Italian commedia dell’arte: the wily servant Figaro helps the young and dashing Count Almaviva rescue the beautiful Rosina from the clutches of her tyrannical guardian, the old and foolish Dr. Bartolo. The second Figaro play, Le mariage de Figaro (first performed in 1784), was the most popular play of the eighteenth century. It was also political wildfire, because in the character of the lecherous, vain Count Almaviva Beaumarchais dared to show the corrupt nobility of the ancien régime as he experienced them.

Michael Todd Simpson (Count Almaviva) and Maria d'Amato (Susanna) at Seattle Opera in 2005. © Bill Mohn, photo
Ted Schmitz (Basilio) and Elizabeth Caballero (Susanna) at Seattle Opera in 2009. © Rozarii Lynch, photo

Although his wife Marie Antoinette loved the play, the French King Louis XVI at first banned Le mariage de Figaro. Mozart and Da Ponte were only allowed to present their opera after they convinced Emperor Josef II of Austria (Marie Antoinette’s brother) that they had removed all the incendiary political content. In fact, what they did was to make their opera as much about the war of the sexes as about the war of the social classes.

According to Napoleon, “The Marriage of Figaro was the Revolution already in action.” But Beaumarchais’ play did not really cause the French Revolution. Rather, Beaumarchais had his finger on the pulse of the fed-up serving class in those years leading up to 1789. His third Figaro play, The Guilty Mother, is a sentimental tragedy which has never become widely popular outside of France.

Mariusz Kwiecien sings the Count's Aria from Seattle Opera’s 2009 Marriage of Figaro

About the Composer

Johann Chrysostomos Wolfgang Amadeus (also called Theophilus and Gottlieb) Mozart belongs to a special category of artist; he was one of those rare individuals who forever changed the way we think about ourselves and our world. Coming at the climax of the Classical period, with its interest in logic, symmetrical structures, and formal perfection, Mozart’s music prefigures Romanticism in its sensuality, its fragrant delicacy, and its often violent passion. His music is both immediately accessible to the casual listener and, to a great extent, technically within the reach of the novice performer.

Joseph Lange's unfinished portrait of Mozart

Mozart’s unusual childhood has become the stuff of legends. The composer was born in 1756 and taught himself to play violin and piano by the age of 5. His father Leopold a musician eking out a living in the small town of Salzburg (in provincial Austria), recognized his son’s gifts early on and trained him in music. Leopold took his family on tour all across Europe when Mozart was between the ages of 6 and 10. The young prodigy delighted the nobility of Austria, Germany, France, and England by playing the keyboard blindfolded, sight-reading perfectly, and demonstrating his ability to memorize a piece of music upon hearing it once.

As a teenager, Mozart continued his travels. With his father, and then with his mother, he toured Italy, Germany, and France, hoping to find a job in a big city with a booming music business. He especially wanted a chance to write for the theater, and traveled to several cities following commissions for operas. Perhaps because of his age, perhaps because of his immature personality, he was unable to get a permanent job. He returned to Salzburg from this second round of tours a cynical teenager: unemployed, impatient, and altogether unhappy with his prospects.

Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, angering his father by insulting his father’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, and by marrying against Leopold’s wishes. The rift between father and son grew wider and wider as the years went on and Mozart became more successful; Papa Mozart seemingly never forgave his son for growing up and starting a new life independent of the man who gave him life, taught him music, and showed him off before the crowned heads of Europe.

The decade Mozart spent in Vienna was his most successful, both financially and artistically. But after Leopold died in 1787, Mozart’s fortunes (which up to that time had been mostly favorable) took a downward turn. He ran into debt and lost many of his patrons. He was turning things around and on his way back to financial stability in 1791, when he died of rheumatic fever.

Despite his early death, Mozart left us with an enormous amount of music: 41 symphonies, 27 piano concerti, vast amounts of chamber music, and five of the greatest operas ever written — Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte. His ability to write gracefully for every instrument then in use, and to write operas in a variety of languages and dramatic forms, makes him a unique phenomenon among even the greatest composers.

Oren Gradus sings "Non più andrai" at Seattle Opera in 2009.

Tom Hulce played Mozart in the film Amadeus


For a fun introduction to Mozart’s world and music, check out the terrific movie Amadeus, which swept the Oscars in 1984. Amadeus began life as a drama by British playwright Peter Shaffer, who also adapted his play into a screenplay. The film was directed by Milos Forman, and British conductor Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields contributed one of the greatest film scores of all time.

Although Amadeus is a work of fiction, it is firmly grounded in history. The movie features a great sequence at an early performance of The Marriage of Figaro, filmed in Prague in the very theater where Don Giovanni was first performed.

Lorenzo da Ponte

The man who made The Marriage of Figaro into an opera libretto lived a life that would make a great opera plot all by itself. Successively banished from his native Italy, Austria, and finally England, Da Ponte, who eventually settled in America, embodied so many contradictions it is hard to believe he was only one person: both Jew and Catholic, both playboy and family man, Da Ponte was a friend of emperors and a wagon-driver among pioneers, a benevolent teacher and a villainous intriguer, a mediocre poet and one of the most important opera librettists who ever lived. Although his fame rests entirely on the three great operas he created with Mozart — Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte — Da Ponte’s tireless efforts to introduce Americans to European art paved the way for much American high culture of the Twentieth Century.

The Music of The Marriage of Figaro

The operas of Mozart’s day featured three very different kinds of music: recitative, aria, and ensemble.

Recitative is musicalized dialogue, with the music less important than the words. Recitatives are accompanied by the harpsichord, which makes it easier to understand the text, and the words go by very quickly, often on just a few notes.

Image of the Act One trio

An aria is a solo—one character expressing his or her emotional state for several minutes. While the words to an aria are important, there aren’t too many of them, and the singer usually repeats the words many times.

Ensembles feature lots of characters singing at once, and are one of opera’s unique pleasures. Mozart was one of the first composers to develop the full potential of the ensemble, which he uses to express simultaneously the emotions of several characters. The Marriage of Figaro features ensembles of every shape and size—most famously, at the end of Act Two, a duet that becomes a trio, then a quartet, then a quintet, and finally a septet.

The music of The Marriage of Figaro is miraculous. Every note of the music reflects the drama, from the opening melody of the first act (which, amazingly, uses music to illustrate someone measuring a space on the floor) to the breathtaking sigh of the Countess’s unconditional love at the very end. Mozart uses music to paint every detail of characterization: music differentiates his sopranos (the gentle, noble Countess, the bold, sexy, manipulative Susanna, and Barbarina, who is a nervous kind of Susanna-in-training) and his various buffo basses (the earthy gardener, Antonio, the pompous Bartolo, and Figaro, the many-layered goofball). Mozart illustrates the setting by using the Spanish fandango in the wedding scene and describing the moonlit garden musically in the final scene.

Daniela Sindram sings "Voi che sapete" at Seattle Opera in 2009

Nuccia Focile sang the Countess at New Zealand Opera. © Neil Mackenzie, photo

Although Mozart’s music is inextricably bound to the drama, almost every number in The Marriage of Figaro has taken on a life of its own outside the context of the opera. The many great arias include the Countess’s gentle “Porgi, amor” and “Dove sono”, Susanna’s sexy “Deh, vieni”, Cherubino’s “Non so più” and “Voi che sapete”, and Figaro’s unforgettable “Non più andrai”. The three-minute overture to the opera is a breathtaking whirligig, beloved of every orchestra in the world.

The Marriage of Figaro & The Pastoral

The Marriage of Figaro is a pastoral, a drama about the natural world and people who live close to nature. Musically, Mozart uses every pastoral reference available to him: horn calls, droning basses which imitate bagpipes, country dances such as the gavotte, the bourée, the siciliano, and even a dance called the pastorale. Each time the chorus appears they sing a country dance in 6/8 time, as befits a group of peasants. And dramatically, Figaro contains a pastoral-within-a-pastoral.

Bedroom Scene from Seattle Opera's 2005 YAP Marriage of Figaro. © Rozarii Lynch, photo

The Barber of Seville, Figaro’s prequel, is a comedy of intrigue and slapstick set in downtown Seville. But in the sequel, the characters have relocated to the rural environment of Count Almaviva’s castle, Agua Frescas (literally “Fresh Water”), in the faraway countryside. The two settings 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 there’s another pastoral world waiting at the end of the opera: the first three acts take place inside the castle, in various rooms and hallways and audience chambers. But for the fourth act, after the ceremonial marriage is complete and the real marriage about to take place, the characters leave for the gardens beyond the castle, where Figaro, Susanna, the Countess, and the Count will each try to fool each other. Each of them will learn something surprising about themselves and their spouse, and when they return to the castle, at the end of the act, the web of relationships between them will be justified at long last.

Twyla Robinson and Christine Brandes sings the Letter Duet from Seattle Opera’s 2009 Marriage of Figaro

The ridiculous Act 3 sextet from Seattle Opera’s 2009 Marriage of Figaro

Recommended Recordings

EMI, 1959 (Carlo Maria Giulini, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Anna Moffo, Eberhard Wächter, and Giuseppe Taddei)

Deutsche Gramophon, 1996 (Claudio Abbado, with Cheryl Studer, Sylvia McNair, Bo Skovhus, Lucio Gallo)

Party at the end of Marriage of Figaro at Seattle Opera, 1997. © Gary Smith, photo

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