Vive la révolution in The Marriage of Figaro
The Marriage of Figaro is funny. Like, really funny. Some of its gags, wit, and mayhem are iconic and when done well, has us laughing the entire evening. But underneath its charming and clever shenanigans, The Marriage of Figaro has a revolutionary spirit. The opera has a fire that motivates its characters, and when done well, transforms its audience through the power of forgiveness, love, and societal change.
The opera is based on a play of the same title by famed French playwright Pierre Beamarchais, constituting the second play in his Figaro Trilogy. The trilogy begins with the zany The Barber of Seville (presented last season at Arizona Opera) in which we meet a young Count Almaviva who—with the help of the crafty barber, Figaro—wins Rosina’s hand. In The Marriage of Figaro, tensions between these central characters appear and battle lines are drawn.
To audiences at the time, Beaumarchais’s Trilogy was shocking. While satirical comedies about servants and their masters was nothing new, the veracity of Figaro’s ranting and the insidiousness of the Count’s hypocrisies were revolutionary, and it did not go unnoticed that the characters most subjugated by authority and marginalized by society won out in the end. So, the Figaro Trilogy was banned across Europe—including Vienna where Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte decided to adapt The Marriage of Figaro for the operatic stage.
But it wasn’t just the play itself that gave censors pause. Beaumarchais himself was an active revolutionary, helping facilitate arms deals between France and the American colonists. He actively campaigned for French intervention against the British in our Revolutionary War, and his lobbying efforts resulting in the French arriving at the nick of time for the Battle of Yorktown.
But despite these court bans, Da Ponte and Mozart were able bring The Marriage of Figaro to the stage in 1786. Through judicious editing and well-placed innuendo that obscured some of the play’s most incendiary critiques, they were able to both please court authorities while preserving in the musical score the revolutionary verve of the original.
Injustice is the motivating force in this opera, and while it is often dealt with in coded ways, these revolutionary themes are present and help elevate this opera from a delightful comedy into a rich and meaningful work.
At the end of the opening scene, Figaro sings an aria where he declares open war on the Count. He says, “If you want to dance, Count, I will join in.” This metaphor of a dance as a battle plays out throughout the rest of the opera, and whenever dance rhythms appear, Mozart is drawing attention to the war between servant and master. Veiled as light dance music, these dramatic moments fuel the fire and propel the opera forward.
But classism is not the only revolutionary war taking place. The Marriage of Figaro is also a battle of the sexes as the Countess and Susanna work to humble their respective husbands. And based on the music he wrote for them, Mozart is firmly on their side. After all, the most heartfelt music in the entire opera belongs to the Countess, and the wittiest music belongs to Susanna.
The Marriage of Figaro is filled with thrilling ensembles, that further the war’s progress. Mozart is brilliant as turning chaotic drama into clear music, and so when characters are in agreement, they begin to sing the same tune. Throughout the opera, we can hear the Count’s world turn upside down.
In the opera’s final act, this coded war bursts into the open in Figaro’s final aria where he directly addresses the audience and tells us to “Open our eyes” to what’s really going on around us. In the original play, this monologue is a passionate litany of the injustices that Figaro has faced. And while Da Ponte removes much of the ranting, Mozart preserves the energy of the original monologue musically, and Figaro’s inability to fully form a melody demonstrates his blinding rage. He no longer can keep himself together, and for the first time in the opera, he is at a loss.
And finally, after hours of alliances, treaties, battles, and schemes, the Count bows down before his wife and asks for forgiveness. The music Mozart writes for this moment is sublime. It is true. The orchestra cuts out, and we are left only with the fragility of the human experience. The Countess forgives him in turn, and then for the first time in the opera, everyone sings in beautiful, choral harmony.
Because The Marriage of Figaro does not merely depict just battles between master and servant, man and woman, those who are subjugated and those who have privileged; it doesn’t just depict the symptoms. It also depicts the cure. In the final moments of the opera when humility, acceptance, and love soften the hardened heart of the Count, we find the antidote to our own divided, unjust world. Mozart, Da Ponte, and Beaumarchais assert that forgiveness, humility, and an ability to admit mistakes are required to bring about a new world order. And through the power of reconciliation, we can all finally sing in harmony… and isn’t that a revolution worth fighting?