Steph Power shares her opinions on the Welsh National Opera’s ‘Figaro Forever’ series featuring a production from contemporary composer Elena Langer.
‘The bourgeois barber will survive: the reckless revolutionary will die’
Figaro (Figaro Gets a Divorce: David Pountney, after Beaumarchais and Horváth)
Figaro first appeared on stage in Paris in 1775 at the premiere of Beaumarchais’ Le Barbier de Séville ou la Précaution inutile (‘The Barber of Seville or the Useless Precaution’). The play turned out to be the first in a trilogy charting the exploits of Count Almaviva’s comedy fixer-factotum; a character who, for opera audiences, has since become hugely popular thanks to Mozart and Rossini. At the time, revolutionary zeal was palpable across Europe, and especially so in France, where the playwright – himself a kind of ethically dubious Figaro – lived a colourful life variously doubling as watchmaker, government advisor, music teacher, spy, gun-runner and slaver.
The prevailing atmosphere was one of fervent activity and debate as successive waves of Enlightenment thinkers continued to pile pressure on an increasingly threatened Ancien Regime. Le Mariage de Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’) markedly upped the ante and was banned by Louis XVI despite being passed by the censor, before the King relented to allow its performance in 1784, two years before Mozart and Da Ponte’s politically careful opera buffa adaptation premiered in Vienna. Just three years later the walls of the corrupt, feudal French establishment were torn down by starving mobs as revolution erupted at last; a point of seismic upheaval within a febrile period of European history after which nothing would ever be the same again, despite subsequent appearances.
For Beaumarchais it was the beginning of the end. He had already fallen from the King’s favour pre-revolution; ‘Figaro’, Danton would later declare, ‘had killed off the nobility.’ Now, however, he fell foul of the the revolutionary authorities too, through dodgy dealings and ill-advised shows of wealth. La Mère coupable (‘The Guilty Mother’) premiered in 1792 but was felt to contain little of interest to the new France. After a period of exile Beaumarchais returned to Paris, where he died in 1799.
Today, via Mozart and especially Rossini, whose irrepressible Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L’inutile precauzione premiered in Rome in 1816, Figaro is usually seen – quite rightly, and painted thus in WNO’s new productions of Barber and Marriage – as a wily but fundamentally harmless rogue whose focus is domestic rather than political. A loveable, cheeky-chappy underdog, Figaro wins hearts precisely because, looking out for his own interests, he manages to retain a code of honour whilst punishing those less scrupulous, and who abuse positions of power. But in that, Figaro is anything but a product of theatrical whimsy. He and his fellow characters’ ongoing appeal suggests that Beaumarchais – and others in a long and distinguished creative wake which now includes Elena Langer – continue to tap into the very same impulses towards justice, fairness and equality which propelled the Enlightenment philosophers. As Welsh National Opera reveals in its terrific ‘Figaro Forever’ season, the story of Figaro remains very much alive with issues of shifting cultural identity that continue to resound along with the effects of that fateful uprising over 200 years ago.
With no sign of diminishing popularity on the operatic stage, Figaro’s character does indeed seem set to live forever, in line with WNO’s rallying cry of the season. But the same cannot be assumed of the happiness he enjoys upon marrying his beloved Susanna; at least, not as events subsequently turn according to Langer’s dark, yet ultimately optimistic, envisioning of their future, Figaro Gets a Divorce. At the close of The Marriage of Figaro the idea that our four, celebrating couples might not live happily ever after seems almost deliberately perverse. Yet what exactly has been resolved? Are Cherubino, Almaviva, Bartolo and the rest truly cured of their capriciousness or self-serving scheming? With the help of the equally clever and determined womenfolk, our quick-witted hero has thwarted his employer’s presumption of archaic sexual rights over his bride. Marriage is variously joined and restored and, with it, the social order, assuring reconciliation all round. But what happens when the honeymoon is over and the social order really begins to unravel? In ‘real life’ at the time, revolution was imminent – but the events of 1789 hardly led to the utopia so many hoped for, with Robespierre, then a quickly-despotic Napoleon, so emphatically spoiling the party.
Langer is not the first composer to offer an operatic conclusion to Beaumarchais’ trilogy (Milhaud, Corigliano, Wikström and Pécou have done so in the last fifty years). But she is the first to be called upon to set a libretto, by director, David Pountney, which draws upon Horváth’s brilliantly acerbic 1936 play, Figaro lässt sich scheiden (‘Figaro Gets a Divorce’) as well as Beaumarchais’ own, The Guilty Mother. It is a bold collaboration and a highly successful one; her superb new opera not only stands on its own terms (knowing the Figaro backstory is not strictly essential to the action), but also encourages us to reconsider the entire Figaro narrative in its light.
One of the biggest lessons from history is that we appear doomed to repeat the worst of it. In viewing Figaro’s clan through absurdist-realist – but above all compassionate – eyes, Horváth, and Langer/Pountney after him, look back to the characters’ 18th century origins and suggest some uncomfortable parallels with modern times. Describing his own origins as ‘a typical old Austro-Hungarian mixture: Magyar, Croatian, German, Czech’, Horváth himself knew danger and political exile, falling foul of the Nazis he detested, and whose rise he warned about in his plays and other writings. In Divorce, the action fast-forwards to a bleak, 1930s future as Figaro, Susanna, the Count and Countess are forced to flee revolution across countries unnamed. With them we become embroiled in the revolutionary storms and totalitarian nightmares of the early 20th century; by extension á la Horváth, we would be foolish not to see echoes in the escalating extremism, nationalism and war of our own time – not to mention the desperate refugee crisis.
Figaro, we learn, is having his own, perhaps midlife crisis, and he resists Susanna’s desire to have a child on the not unreasonable grounds that they might end up in a prison camp. More significantly, in terms of the Enlightenment and its betrayal through the failure of the French and subsequent revolutions, he sells out, becoming a money-driven petty bourgeois; a barber, no less, echoing the cutthroat world of Sweeney Todd, and who ironically ends up dependent on the patronage of both the influential wealthy and the poor and down at heel. Like all of them he becomes subject to extortion and blackmail by the State.
Yet Langer manages to suggest all this, not through overtly political, Brechtian-type commentary, but through genuine emotional connection as her opera explores the effects of external dangers on members of a precarious family group. Her beautifully wrought, expressive and largely succinct score covers a vast range of styles and moods which, whether by accident or design, reference without aping that age between the wars when cabaret and pastiche were employed by composers like Kurt Weill in service of withering social critique. From tango and lounge jazz to Berg-like shadowy intensity and delicate brittleness, her achievement is to ensure that we relate to each character personally, feeling with them the black humour of the situation and its rancour; the terror, ennui, heartache – and love.
One of the most moving aspects of the three operas seen as a trpytych lies in the way that Divorce pulls together strands from each of the previous Figaro instalments; not through any attempt to shoehorn these very different works into some kind of overarching or politicised concept, but through the unexpected, thought-provoking development of the characters. (Each opera has a different director and conductor who explore the piece in hand in their own way, alongside a highly adaptable, shared design team and with overlapping – excellent – casts.) In Langer’s opera, in their attempts to escape, Figaro and co inevitably come face to face with their own past, finding themselves at the mercy of an evil spy chief, the Major (a version of Bégearss from The Guilty Mother). This sinister character is a conflation of a crueller, darker Bartolo and Basilio with a faceless and implacable State machine. If not for the courage of the Countess, he would surely succeed in his mission to usurp Figaro’s role and to destroy the family.
Here as in Rossini’s Barber, where it is depicted through ebullient farce, social conflict is enacted more as strife between the generations than as wars between the sexes and social classes, in which, twin guises it comes to the fore in the doubt-ridden comedy-drama of Marriage. But each opera in its own way concerns a world in which young people yearn for pleasure and a carefree future if only they could defeat the obstacles of authority and tradition – and slough off the legacy of an older generation’s mistakes. A key twist of Divorce is the recasting of the testosterone-fuelled whippersnapper, Cherubino, as a gone-to-seed, bar-keeping pimp. In Marriage he’s played by a soprano who, in trouser role, gets dressed up… as a woman. Here, he’s played by a crossing-dressing countertenor, and it’s his illegitimate son by the Countess, Serafin, who echoes in trouser role the young blood he once was. Serafin, however, is no roving Casanova in-the-making. He and Angelika are in love, the clue to their innocent hopes obvious in their names. Yet before they can win through to a potentially more enlightened future – perhaps not so far from Tamina and Pamina in The Magic Flute – their integrity, trust and resolve are tested in various ways, along with that of Figaro and Susanna, the Count and Countess. In the unmasking of guilty secrets, youth and age become compelling issues, as we see the older couples grappling with the reality of mistakes made and potential unfulfilled – but not irredeemably so, if they can embrace an uncertain world with honest fortitude.
A future life together is not to be for the Count and Countess who, as the young people flee the approaching Major at the end of opera, nevertheless stay – albeit together and reconciled – to ‘face the music’. As they cling to each other in the ravaged remains of what was once their castle, now a lunatic asylum, it is the Countess who has emerged as the strongest character of them all, regardless of a shared willingness to forgive. So there is huge poignancy, too, in a theme carried by her from Mozart’s Marriage, and now via Langer’s Divorce, to the Marschalin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. For here too, in another very different way now taking us far from the battleground of the French Revolution, it is an older woman who ultimately creates the opportunity for social change by releasing her young lover and, by extension, the younger generation, to the future. Whether Serafin and Angelika will succeed in creating their own brave new world, together with Cherubino and Susanna’s illegitmate unborn child, remains to be seen. There is no actual divorce in Figaro Gets a Divorce, and the signs are cautiously optimistic for our new heroes alongside a restored Susanna and Figaro. But there is no more guarantee of happiness at the final curtain then there was at the ending of The Barber of Seville or The Marriage of Figaro – nor any tale of human desire and fallibility, comic or otherwise.
Welsh National Opera: Figaro Forever!
Rossini – The Barber of Seville: director, Sam Brown / conductor, James Southall
Mozart – The Marriage of Figaro: director, Tobias Richter / conductor, Lothar Koenigs
Langer – Figaro Gets a Divorce: director, David Pountney / conductor, Justin Brown
Design team headed by Ralph Koltai
For cast and touring information, go to https://www.wno.org.uk/
All images, credit Richard Hubert Smith. Header image: Figaro Gets a Divorce.