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Originally published April 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 27, 2009 at 11:37 AM

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"Figaro" marries emotional depth, clockwork theatrics

Seattle Opera presents one of Mozart's crowning achievements, "The Marriage of Figaro," May 2-16 at Seattle's McCaw Hall. Peter Kazaras directs.

Special to The Seattle Times

The story of the opera

NOTE: Though "Le nozze di Figaro" is usually called in English "The Marriage of Figaro," "Figaro's Wedding" is a better translation of the Italian title.

The scene is Count and Countess Almaviva's palace and gardens near Seville. The time is the late 18th century.

Three years before the action begins, Figaro, in those days the Barber of Seville, helped the young Count Almaviva to marry Rosina, his countess -- in the process hoodwinking her guardian, Doctor Bartolo, who wanted to marry her himself. Two other events in the past have an important influence on the complications of "the crazy day": Figaro, borrowing money from Rosina's former governess, Marcellina (now the count's housekeeper), contracted to marry her if he defaulted in repayment; and the count, on his marriage, renounced the feudal droit du seigneur, the lord's right to sleep with any of his servants on her wedding night -- a decision that now, as a jaded husband with his eye on Figaro's fiancée, Susanna, he regrets. Further complications are supplied by the young page Cherubino, who flirts with Susanna but is also in love (or calf-love) with the countess, and who has a habit of being found in the wrong places.

In Act I, Figaro and Susanna are making plans for their imminent wedding. She warns him that the count is trying to seduce her, and he declares his determination to frustrate "little Mr. Count" in that attempt. Marcellina and Bartolo are on hand, planning to get the count to insist on Figaro's keeping his side of the bargain by marrying her instead. Various comic episodes lead to the count's discovering that Cherubino had overheard his advances to Susanna and, to get the boy out of the way, he "pardons" him with a commission in his regiment, ordering his immediate departure for Seville.

The countess makes her first appearance in Act II, pouring out her sorrow over her husband's infidelities and neglect. Counseled by Susanna, she agrees to Figaro's complicated plan to fool the count with an anonymous note promising an assignation in the garden with Susanna. To further this plan, they begin to dress Cherubino as the "woman" who will instead meet the count in the garden. They hide him in the dressing-room when the count unexpectedly arrives. The act concludes with a brilliant ensemble, the countess-Figaro-Susanna party arrayed against the count and his allies Marcellina and Bartolo.

In Act III, Susanna pretends to yield to the count's advances, agreeing to meet him that night in the garden, but as she leaves, her careless whisper to Figaro that "the cause is won" reveals her deception to the count, who vows to be avenged. In the sextet that follows, which was Mozart's own favorite number in the work, the lawyer Don Curzio, deciding in Marcellina's favor, stutters that Figaro must "either pay her or marry her." Figaro, however, declares that he was a foundling and cannot marry without his parents' consent -- and a telltale birthmark on his arm reveals that his long-lost parents are none other than Marcellina and Bartolo. To the count's fury, the reconciled parties plan a double wedding, Marcellina with Bartolo and Figaro with Susanna.

Act IV is set in the garden at evening. Figaro, who has not been fully briefed by his co-conspirators, hears Susanna's pretended joy over the appointment with the count that she actually has no intention of keeping, and believes for a moment that she is playing him false. Her voice, however, soon undeceives him. Cherubino's intervention, too, has threatened to cause further confusion. But in the end the count, his own deceit exposed, is made to realize how faithful his wife is. He begs her forgiveness, and when it is granted, the entire company goes off to celebrate a "day of torments," that only love is able to turn into "joy and contentment."

Opera preview

"The Marriage of Figaro"

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Produced by Seattle Opera with Peter Kazaras directing and Dean Williamson conducting. Next Saturday-May 16, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle Center; $15-$177 (206-389-7676 or Sunday, May 10, is Family Day: Up to four $15 tickets may be purchased for students 18 or younger with each full-priced adult ticket.

Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro" is two quite distinct kinds of miracle at once.

Here, on a superficial view, is the epitome of the artificial 18th-century opera buffa (comic opera) plot, replete with intrigues suspected and real, complete with young-man role for female singer, and culminating in a nighttime garden scene that outdoes all rivals with its melee of mistaken meanings and identities and selectively overheard asides. Yet it was this same quick-fire imbroglio of misunderstandings that led Bernard Shaw, invoking the spirit of Shakespeare himself, to celebrate Mozart as "the most subtle and profound of all musical dramatists."

The caldron of forces that justifies such an evaluation seethes on two levels — political and personal. Mozart's opera was composed to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte based in turn on Beaumarchais's play "La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro," first publicly produced in Paris only two years earlier. A thoroughly topical piece, it was also, for the 1780s, a politically revolutionary one: The aristocrat is the villain, and he is bested by a pair of servants who surpass him as much in real nobility as in intelligence and self-control.

Peter Kazaras, who directs the Seattle Opera production that opens Saturday, says there are three kinds of "Figaro" production: intimate ones, grander ones with a great deal of information to be seen in the staging, and large-scale ones in a barer, colder vein.

"I wanted this one to be really intimate," he told me between rehearsals the other day, "and that will work well in McCaw Hall, because the acoustics are excellent, and we can come right down to the footlights, as close as possible to the audience.

"By the way, you need not worry about a change of period or anything like that in what you'll see on the stage. In this production, everything looks like what it is."

Naively, perhaps, I asked Kazaras (who also staged the work with the company's Young Artists program in 2005) what the public should expect to take from experiencing his version of "Figaro." His answer was undogmatic to the point of dogmatism: "It's not my job to tell people what to get from the piece. Every individual takes what he or she finds personally illuminating. My job is to find a way to tell the story, and to give the audience a good time (which was Mozart's aim, too); the magic happens when you switch on to the story.

"That story is an incredible piece of theatrical clockwork — nothing happens until something else has happened, and it's like that all the way through." (It may not be entirely coincidental that Beaumarchais began his working life as a clockmaker.) "But I will say this," Kazaras added: "The opportunity to experience this work, with nearly 3,000 people all together in the theater, really amounts to a kind of communion."

That may sound like a portentous word for the effect of a work that Seattle Opera's publicity describes as "charming, lighthearted and endlessly enjoyable." It is indeed all of those things. Yet such a summary leaves out of account not only the opera's politically seditious aspect, but its profound seriousness as a human document.

All scenic shenanigans aside, Figaro and his bride, Susanna, are unmistakably real people, deeply in love with each other. You can hear that in Figaro's lament, "O Susanna! Susanna," in Act IV. It is a harrowing cry put forth all alone in the night, when the true lover thinks he has been played false. Such a moment is the surest proof that the apparent artificiality of this supreme human comedy is merely apparent. (In the production's first cast the Figaro is Oren Gradus and the Susanna Christine Brandes; their replacements in the second cast are Nicolas Cavallier and Elizabeth Caballero — who are presumably unrelated.)

Only the profound musical dramatist of Shaw's encomium could in the space of a few minutes have moved without anticlimax from this to the brilliant festivities of the opera's conclusion. And the musical setting of the scene just before that sparkling ending, when the chastened Count Almaviva begs his wife's forgiveness and she grants it, has justly been described as the greatest sacred music Mozart ever wrote.

Any sensitive listener, after hearing that, is bound to leave the theater entertained, indeed, but also intensely moved.

Bernard Jacobson:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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