Opera in my Pyjamas: The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro 1993 pic 3
CD cover for the music of the 1993 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.

Having finally upgraded my internet to a whole 40GB a month, I have more data than I know what to do with. So, what does an admittedly slightly odd person do with so much data? Why not Google a list of the world’s most famous operas and see what YouTube can produce?

Of course, watching an opera on my computer screen is nothing like watching it live on stage, but there are a few advantages. Like being able to watch it in my pyjamas. And not having to pay a small fortune for a ticket. And being able to watch the world’s greatest operas not one day, when they reach my little corner of the world, but here and now from the comfort of my own living room. With sub-titles.

I started with The Marriage of Figaro for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s one that I’d heard of even before beginning the Culture Project. Secondly, because it’s one of the earlier operas on the list, and I figured I might as well start somewhere close to the beginning. Thirdly, because it’s a comedy, and I didn’t want to start with anything too heavy.

The Marriage of Figaro was composed by Mozart in 1786 with a libretto (text) written by Lorenzo da Ponte and based on a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais. The version I watched was produced in Paris in 1993 and starred Bryn Terfel as Figaro, Alison Hagley as Susanna, and Rodney Gilfry as the Count of Almaviva. It was directed by Olivier Mille and the orchestra was conducted by  John Eliot Gardiner. You can watch it here.

Although the opera is called ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, to my eyes the true hero is Susanna, Figaro’s fiancée. The basic plot is very simple: Susanna and Figaro both work for the Count, she as a maid to his wife, the Countess, and he as a valet. But the Count is a notorious womaniser and has set his sights on Susanna. To this end, he intends to bring back droit du seigneur (the ‘right’ of a feudal lord to have sex with the bride of a vassal on their wedding night), which he had previously renounced. Susanna knows only too well what the Count has in mind, and has no intention of submitting.

The Marriage of Figaro 1993 pic 1
The Count is determined to have his way with Susanna.

Inequalities of gender and class, therefore, give a serious, and still relevant, meaning to the whole opera, and while it is ‘comic’ in the sense of having funny moments and ending happily, Mozart does not minimalise or trivialise the seriousness of the situation or the magnitude of the Count’s wrongdoing in attempting to claim a ‘right’ which in reality he doesn’t possess. Indeed, while several characters act as enablers to the Count’s lechery, others explicitly state that droit du seigneur violates ‘natural law’ or ‘natural rights’, and the fact that it is only the Count’s class which allows him to think otherwise is highlighted in the final act when the skirt-chasing young page Cherubino asks “why shouldn’t I do what the Count is permitted to do?”

Nonetheless, Susanna is in no position to simply refuse the Count’s advances. But that doesn’t mean that she’s willing to sit passively and await her fate. Susanna is a very, very clever woman and is determined to foil the Count by hook or by crook. Not only this, but she is clever enough not to try and deal with the situation alone – an often-fatal weakness common to many heroes. Instead, she leverages a number of key relationships to her advantage. First there is her fiancé, Figaro, whom she informs of the situation in the opening scene of the play. He is incensed and, being every bit as resourceful as his bride-to-be, immediately begins to set the first of a number of schemes in motion.

The Marriage of Figaro 1993 pic 4
Susanna is more amused than threatened by Cherubino.

Next, there is the young page, Cherubino who, as mentioned above, is every bit as lecherous as his master (if significantly more charming) but, being younger and of more lowly status, is more easily handled. The Count is endeavouring to send him into exile for putting the moves on the Countess, so he’s in.

Then there is the Countess herself, who craves her husband’s love and fidelity and is only too happy to assist Susanna in foiling him, especially as Susanna, who has a positive relationship with her mistress, is keen to push her employer back into his wife’s arms.

And finally there is the Count who, being utterly convinced of his own charm and rights, is easily deluded into believing that Susanna has had a change of heart when it becomes necessary to her plans for him to think she has.

To cap it all off, she also gets my favourite line in the whole opera:
Figaro [pleading]: Susanna, listen to me!
Susanna [furious]: Listen to THIS! *slaps him*

The Marriage of Figaro 1993 pic 2
At this point, Susanna’s had it up to here with the lot of them.

There are several sub-plots involving the elderly Doctor Bartolo and his housekeeper Marcellina, to whom Figaro owes money, and the gardener’s daughter Barbarina, who has designs on Cherubino.

I can’t really tell you much about the music beyond the fact that it’s opera, very hummable, and all sung in ‘foreign’ (in this case Italian), which makes the sub-titles a must for me. I really enjoyed my first taste of internet opera, and definitely intend to enjoy a few more in the same way – which is not to say that I’d pass up the opportunity to check one out on stage.

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