Lorenzo Da Ponte’s genius was that while he removed the social taboos and political messages of the Beaumarchais play that offended the royalty, he still pushed right to the edge of morality in nearly every scene of the opera. We sense a tension that the familiarity of the bedroom farce can go off the cliff at any moment into tragedy or irreparable offense. The Countess, Susanna, and Cherubino continually careen near the point of no return in sexual impropriety. But unlike Beaumarchais’ play, Da Ponte never lets them go over. Instead they flirt, they ignite jealousy, they come under suspicion only to be forgiven, only to do something that brings them under suspicion yet again. The battle of the sexes and the battle of the classes play out in the alliances, schemes, and continual regrouping of all the characters. This is comedy that illuminates the essence of human relationships.
Mozart’s genius was to create a musical translation of this tension, and to prevent tiring clichés of bedroom farce. He is an absolute magician in Figaro, pulling rabbit after rabbit out of his compositional hat. Each successive scene is a surprise and tour de force of the preposterous and the unexpected. The comedy of errors in the first act, that culminates with the sublime musical chairs between the Count and Cherubino, is incredibly topped by the finale in the second act with its extended confusion in the Countess’s bedroom as the Cherubino and Susanna again outwit the Count, all through an extended vocal septet probably unprecedented in opera. Every time the Count is heated to violence, Figaro comes up with a way to defuse him, bringing in peasants to sing or musicians to play. Mozart goes far beyond the convention of alternating recitative and aria to the point that we are bewildered. Solos, duets, terzettos, quartets, quintets, septets, cavatinas, marches, choruses, ballets—there seems no limit to what Mozart can provide to keep us focused. He “throws in” a wedding march almost as an incidental and it’s probably the best wedding march every written! An outstanding element of Figaro is the never-ending wealth of tunes. The first act alone has 9 hit tunes, practically one after the other. What other opera has us whistling so many different melodies?
The power of Mozart’s “magician-ship” is that by the time we have been overwhelmed by the momentum of the first act—itself going through the stages of a complete opera—we are highly vulnerable when he abruptly switches gears in the second act. How amazing it is to realize the Countess’s opening aria of this second act is the first slow music we have heard in the opera. It is an exquisite slow movement, so tenderly written that it seems not to belong to what we have previously seen and heard. And that’s how Mozart gets us. We were assured this was a comedy. But now disarmed, we hear a genuine lament, genuine pain from this woman who is bearing the reality that her husband has lost his affection for her. We thought Figaro and Susanna were the main characters and thrust of this opera. But with such a setup unfolding almost an hour of fast music, then suddenly going adagio on us, Mozart lets us know that the Countess is the true main character of this opera. Beneath this surface of brilliant farce is a tragedy of the human condition, the irresistible but ultimately transitory and fickle power of love, a force that bonds and continually breaks relationships, and makes our actions absurd. This is how Figaro captures immortality. It paints us all as we are, deeply flawed, but continually fascinating and amusing.
Wagner works hard in his operas to convince us of great philosophical depth and meaning. His music absolutely transports us into those meditations. But there’s a soft voice in our heads that wonders if we are being conned. We have to make such allowances for the clumsy moments in plot and the archetype of character. Mozart doesn’t use the vast Wagnerian sets or grandiose pontifications and mythologies, yet Figaro rings authentic on every level. It propels us to the depth Wagner sought, but without imperative. Instead he sails us off the cliff of lunacy, without sentiment or melodrama, and we land laughing and crying deep down in the human condition.
The end of Da Ponte’s libretto does not read convincing. After having been duped for the umpteenth time, the Count subdues his anger and shame in a single sentence asking for pardon from his wife, and she acquiesces. All this happens in two sentences that seem abrupt and insufficient. But Mozart lifts this to another dimension, slowing the tempo and setting these lines as a prayer, with a compelling harmonic progression that lends unexpected weight and power to those simple lines. We are convinced. It also weds deep emotion to the gaiety and frivolity that is the world ofFigaro. The two together make that a rich world. This greatest sit-com, this greatest of soap operas avoids the trap of all the others—avoiding an open-ended narrative that whittles away any ultimate meaning. Figaro concludes with the wisdom of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—acceptance of our absurdity. Human folly will be eternal, but moments of insight, compassion, and forgiveness keep tragedy at bay.