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A Writer’s Guide to Figaro

The librettists behind Five:15 are back to bring you their takes on the operas the Company will be performing during the 2010/11 Season.


Margaret McCartney, who wrote White with composer Gareth Williams, starts off the series with a look at the radical undertone to the plot of The Marriage of Figaro.


‘Romance, hats, flowers and song. Sure, this wedding is all of that, but with the addition of lust, seduction, intrigue and money. The Marriage of Figaro is farcical and fabulous entertainment that makes you laugh then makes you think. How could it fail to do so, when the themes it deals in are such eternal draws?


And indeed, we have a well-worn plot. Boy loves girl, Susanna, and is engaged to be married. But another girl is owed money by that same boy. So she – Marcellina – wants him – Figaro – to marry her instead, in a settling of arrears. But then there’s another boy – the Count – who wants Susanna, even though he’s married to someone else. However, Susanna quite likes her fiancé Figaro and would really rather get hitched to him. Complicated? Utterly. And it gets worse, with people who shouldn’t be hiding in cupboards, dressing up as each other and meeting in cosy little arbours and jumping out of windows to avoid detection; in all of this, the servant Susanna is the manipulator extraordinaire, ordering, bossing and beguiling whoever she needs to eventually get her man.


This isn’t an opera which puts those above stairs centre stage. Here the maids are stars. Cherubino, for example, is a hormonally charged teen, panging with desire over most of the women he meets. Recently fired as the Countess’ pageboy after indiscretions with ladies, he is fodder for Susanna’s wiles. She has no problem persuading him to put on a dress to tempt the Count, with a plan to lure him in and test his faithfulness. When that set-up doesn’t come off, Cherubino jumps out of the bedroom and onto the flowerbeds in order to avoid being caught.

It’s high farce, and no soap opera can compete with the twist in Marcellina’s tale: she wants to marry Figaro, as payment for an old outstanding loan. Instead of getting what she is owed via a marriage contract with Figaro, she discovers, thanks to a birthmark, that gosh! He is, in fact – her son!


Perhaps this does stretch the tale to incredulity, but it’s all in a good comedic cause. It amuses, and when our guard is down, a darker tale is slipped in under the high notes.


The moneyed Count is a priapic menace. Having bored of his wife, he is enthusiastically seeking youthful pleasures elsewhere; simple, for a powerful man to be so fickle in choice. A mere servant girl – for that is what Susanna is, being maid to his wife – is portrayed as an easy picking for a man of his class. In the first act, indeed, Susanna complains that her marital bed will be too close in the castle to the master’s bedrooom. For the Count wants the ‘droit de seigneur’ – the lord’s feudal right to sex with a servant woman before her husband – reinstated. The Count is jealous and temperamental, led by sexual impulse and not intelligence. We are invited to laugh at his incontinent sexual urges, but then one feels slightly appalled at his use of power.


The libretto is based on the second in the Figaro trilogy (the first being The Barber of Seville and the last being The Guilty Mother), which were written as plays by Pierre Beaumarchais. In 1778, it was censored in Vienna because of its supposedly scandalous treatment of the aristocracy. One might, however, regard Figaro as speaking the plain truth when he says: ‘What have you done for such a fortune? You went to the trouble of being born, and nothing else. Otherwise, a rather ordinary man: while I, good grief! Lost in the obscure crowd, I had to use more skill and planning just to survive than has been put into governing all of Spain for the last hundred years.’ When one considers that heads have been lost for saying less, basing an opera on this social divide – when the audience would be expected to be part of those ruling classes – could be considered fairly radical.


This is the genius bit: this isn’t just a funny play about a marriage day gone badly wrong. It’s a plot with subterfuge and substance. Lorenzo da Ponte, who wrote the libretto for Mozart, replaced Figaro’s climactic speech with a tirade against unfaithful wives. Perhaps this was the reason that the opera was never banned like the play was, but the change does not diminish the portrayal of the Count as a fool and Susanna and Co. as a class act. True, modern-day lords do not now bed their maids as their right, and princes can hardly expect to escape the hurly-burly of the chaise longue without extensive ridicule in the tabloids. But there is still a need to acknowledge entitlement as nonsense: it wasn’t too long ago that the hereditary system of the House of Lords was being defended with the idea that intelligence was an asset only owned reliably by hereditary peers. The Marriage of Figaro is a nuptial with a social good cause. The best bit, of course, is that this opera also comes with entertainment value and music that’s as famous as it is fantastic; for The Marriage of Figaro, RSVPing early is advisable.’