FIRST — NEWS ABOUT 2014! Watch for our new series of posts beginning in January. We have been interviewing lovers of music of all kinds for several years. They have told us about the music they like to listen to most and how music has affected–sometimes even saved–their lives.
We want to begin sharing their stories and music with you in the coming year. If you have music to share too, please contact us. This is an ongoing project we want to turn into a book that will help readers become aware of the role music can play in changing lives for the better.
Forgiveness is not an especially common occurrence in opera. Vendettas–revenge plots–are more typical dramatic devices. So it is fascinating that Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro can be used to illustrate this character strength. We would be interested in your reaction to the context in which forgiveness appears here.
Power and the hubris of sexual prowess has a very long history, going back to the exploits of the gods in Greek mythology, and even earlier. But Mozart’s 1786 operatic masterpiece has an especially rich sexual resonance. It offers an intricate interplay of disguise and intrigue, intensified for us by the dark rumblings of the oncoming French Revolution.
The outsmarting of Count Almaviva by his valet Figaro, Figaro’s fiancee Susanna, and his own Countess makes for a delightful farce. At the same time, the notion of a Count getting his comeuppance at the hands of his social inferiors because he has designs on his servant’s fiancee was a frightening thought to the contemporary ruling class.
Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, based his narrative on a 1784 play by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, La folle journee ou Le Mariage de Figaro— a story so controversial that it famously prompted Napoleon to call it “the revolution in action.” In fact, da Ponte had to delete or drastically change seditious lines in the original before Emperor Franz Joseph would sanction the production of the opera. It soon became a hit, as Mozart discovered when he visited Prague in 1787, a year after it opened, and attended a ball. In a letter to his father, he wrote: “I looked on …with the greatest pleasure, while all these people flew about in sheer delight to the music of my Figaro.”
Among the most remarkable features of Figaro is not only the upending of the social order, but also the way in which women are depicted, serving notice that they are much more than sexual objects and in fact can heighten men’s awareness of injustice and move them to act for good.
In the opera’s opening duet, Figaro is busy measuring the room to see how the bed the Count has so generously given them will fit. Susanna, however, is not impressed by this supposed generosity. She points out to Figaro that the proximity of their bedroom to those of the Count and Countess has little to do with their positions as personal servants–Figaro to the Count, Susanna to the Countess.
She adds: “and supposing one morning the dear Count should ring, ding ding, and send you three miles away. Ding dong, and the devil should lead him to my door.” In fact, the Count does indeed expect from Susanna “certain half-hours”–that is, he has invoked the feudal privilege of droit du seigneur. When Susanna leaves to answer a call from the Countess, an enraged Figaro sings an aria where he makes clear that he is the one who intends to call the tune from now on, not his master.
In Act III, the heart-broken Countess, warned by Susanna of the Count’s evil intentions, reveals her deep pain in one of the opera’s most memorable arias, “Dove sono i bei momenti, di dolcezza e di piacer; dove andaro i giuramenti” (‘Where are those happy moments of sweetness and pleasure? Where have they gone…?”)
The Marriage of Figaro is the supreme example of opera buffa–comic opera with serious undertones. In its closing moments, the Count’s plans for his highly anticipated tryst with Susanna are foiled by Susanna and the Countess with the help of Figaro. Shamed and “betrayed” by them, the Count summons help (“Ho there! Bring your swords!”). Secondary characters like Basilio, a music teacher, and Antonio, the Count’s gardener, run onstage, bewildered. Finally, the Countess ends the confusion by explaining what has transpired. The Count, now fully exposed, pleads for forgiveness from the woman he has so badly betrayed. She responds magnanimously: “I am kinder [than you]. I will say ‘yes’.”
What do you think about this ending? Here is what Mozart’s arch-rival, Salieri, thinks about it in the film Amadeus, as he first watches the Forgiveness Scene from The Marriage of Figaro. Brilliant!