The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's long and complex comic opera, is on display in November at the Ordway Theater under the auspices of the Minnesota Opera Company. The production is exquisite and highly recommended. Oddly enough, the opera is relevant to today's sexual politics. At its heart, the opera concerns an inveterate sexual harasser, a libertine, who demands that his servants make themselves available to him sexually -- one character says that the old Count has revived the "right of the first night", the infamous droit du seigneur; he's Harvey Weinstein of the ancien regime. The opera's complicated plot involves, at least, three sets of lovers, all of them adversely affected by the Count's nefarious meddling. The thrust of the narrative is to force the Count into recognition or acknowledgement of his sexual harassment and shame him into repentance. (In this respect, the film is similar to Donizetti's Don Pasquale, presented about a month ago.) With intermissions, the opera is close to 3 and a half hours long and its scope demonstrates that the problem of sexual exploitation is not only ubiquitous and omnipresent but also a failing that perseveres in spite of everyone's best intentions. Characters try to act responsibly, but fail -- temptation is too great. Indeed, just about everyone in the opera behaves badly -- everyone is tempted toward one of the twin sins that predominate in this royal court: violent jealousy and infidelity. (It's not surprising that these two vices are everywhere manifest -- in a court that is characterized by open and impudent infidelity, the logical outcome is that everyone doubts everyone else's faithfulness: the royal household swarms with latent Othellos.) In the first half of the opera, Figaro, the Count's scheming servant, defends his fiancée, Susanna (the object of the Count's sexual aggression) by contriving an elaborate scheme whereby a young man, Cherubino en travesti will be substituted for Susanna and become the victim of the Count's efforts at what, simply put, must be characterized as rape. The project goes wrong and the Count suspects that the pretty young man (it's a pant's role) is having an affair with his wife, the hapless and melancholy Countess -- she has been publicly humiliated by the Count's philandering one too many times and he assumes she is revenging herself on him. There's a lot of farcical byplay involving people hiding under beds or locked in cupboards or jumping from second story windows. But there's an nasty edge to this farce: at one point, the count menaces the supposed lover (hiding in a cupboard) with a very real and sharp-looking axe and the lighting emphasizes the stark set, a locked door shining with glacial light and the wicked Count casting Nosferatu-like shadows on the palace walls. (For a moment, the opera threatens to become The Shining with the old bewigged County acting the role of Jack Nicholson's psycho-killer.) Everyone escapes by an eyelash (or should we say a "cunt hair"?) in the first act, only to find the plot reprised with higher stakes in the second act. The doubling of the plot has the impact of the multiple parallel story-line in King Lear -- we have the sense that sexual misconduct and its consequences are unavoidable, relentlessly ubiquitous, part of the fundamental texture of this world.
The second act is more profound and, indeed, has a powerful and transcendent climax. The old Count sings a savage aria vowing to be revenged on his enemies -- we see that his sexual frustration and lust is transforming itself into homicidal rage. Then, we see the Countess disconsolate on her bed -- the lighting casts the shadow of her bed with its four-posts and Himmel onto the wall like the skeletal image of a gallows or a scaffold. The Countess is sad, of course, because her husband no longer desires her. Her great aria highlights her melancholy and transforms her into the moral center of the action -- she alone seems to be virtuous, without guile, and willing to forgive others. (Strauss clearly studied this opera before writing Der Rosenkavalier --the character of sad, rejected Countess is the implicit background for Strauss' equally charming and melancholy Marschallin.) Another elaborate scheme is hatched by which the old Count will be tricked into seducing the Countess, that is, his own wife in the guise of Susanna, Figaro's fiancée. This ruse will humiliate the Count and force him to recognize the virtue of his wife. But by this point in the opera everyone is hopelessly compromised. Figaro thinks Susanna is, in fact, having an affair with the lecherous Count and when he sees the Countess dressed like his girlfriend, he becomes violently jealous. Cherubino announces blithely that he has no problem with his girlfriend, Barberini, sleeping with the old libertine so long as she continues to remain in the Count's good graces and is showered with gifts from the aging lecher. (Cherubino seems completely depraved in a good-hearted kind of way.) The lovers all make their way to a park outside the palace where, at last, the Countess reveals herself after a number of misadventures and misunderstandings. The Countess stands at center stage and sings an extraordinary aria, liturgical music of forgiveness that has a sacred air, and, then, the erring couples gradually join in the ensemble, Cherubino singing in duet with Barberini and Susanna singing in duet with Figaro -- throughout this transcendent music the old Count, now chastened, begs forgiveness. This scene takes place against an abstract golden sky representing dawn. A great ivory-colored wall showing a family tree complete with neo-classical cartouches hanging as fruit from the branches has partly collapsed, or, at least, become frayed. The Countess appears like a goddess in the center of stage strewn surrealistically with the detritus of the palace -- love seats and random bits of furniture, slabs of ivory all, a broken cartouche. Mozart's last opera was La Clemenza di Tito and it is well to remember that music of reconciliation and transcendent forgiveness is central to his work -- as the lovers unite in their songs and their duets flare like torches, the Countess, now a Goddess from on high, pronounces her declaration of forgiveness on her husband, and by extension, on all of us erring mortals. (I say that the final reconciliation through love applies to everyone in the theater quite intentionally -- before the final scene, Figaro appears in front of the curtain holding a kind of searchlight; as the house-lights come on, he warns all of the men in the audience that women are fickle and deadly: they are crows, night-flying owls, sirens and harpies who pluck the feathers from men. "Look at your companions," Figaro says, "and beware." It's a wonderful theatrical coup and one that has the effect of bestowing the grace offered in the final scene on everyone in the house. The opera's second act is deeper, more densely designed, and more elaborately strange than the rather conventional first act -- there is a bizarre surprise twist in the plot, a bit similar to the reconsideration of the role of the Queen of the Night in Der Zauberfloete. (Indeed, this plot twist is so unexpected that I will not spoil it in this note.) As the pressure for the couples to wed increases, there are curious masked processions in which the espoused men and women seem to threaten the Count -- the imagery becomes more exorbitant and we have the sense that the ancient order, based on sexual harassment, is crumbling before our eyes; we see a colossal cartouche representing the noble profile of an ancestor smashed to bits as part of the mise-en-scene and the imminence of violent revolution is suggested by the final scene involving bits and pieces of broken furniture and fragments from the set from earlier sequences in the opera.
The production is impressive visually. The set is constructed of a high ivory-colored wall, a bit weathered in places and obviously splintered and damaged -- the wall is of great age and shows the family tree of the Count's family. This wall can be rotated to show an interior façade, also white ivory colored with cornices and high doors and windows opening out into a park represented by several monumental vases. (I thought of Jane Austen remarking that all her novels were written on single fine piece of ancient ivory, a filigree only a couple inches wide.) The lighting for the production is extremely complex and beautiful. Characters often cast double shadows sometimes grotesquely distorted. The remarkable aspect of the production is that the neo-classical characters in their wigs and bustles and frock-coats sometimes seem to cast shadows on the wall that unmask the perfidious desires and heartless instincts of these libertines -- the shadows are sometimes positively Goya-esque. Mozart and Da Ponte are clear-eyed about human vanity and folly and lust. In the final scene involving the three groups of lovers in the garden (Susanna and Figaro, Cherubino and Barberini, and the Count and Countess), there is an element of play-acting -- people seem to amplify their desire by play-acting jealousy or proprietary rage. Lust seems enhanced by jealousy, by the suspicion that the beloved is sharing her charms with others and this is a distinct element of erotic foreplay on display in the last Act. Everyone gets to play the part of seducer and seduced; everyone gets to play the role the victim of seduction and aggrieved, outraged cuckold When the play-acting threatens to become to serious and consequential, then, Susanna literally slaps the characters to their senses. "Blind infatuation always clouds reason and blurs the senses" -- the erotic atmosphere of lust and seduction is so powerful that no one knows, or can know, the proper object of their affections. It's the Countess' intervention that restores everyone to their proper role in this world. Love makes us blind and mad, but love is, after all, the main thing -- and lovers, in the end, must be forgiven their folly. The opera is enormously moving and powerful. This is a superbly mounted production.