Sunday, October 19, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Terrifying Twists" (on Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro)

terrifying twists

by Douglas Messerli

Lorenzo da Ponte (libretto, after the comedy by Pierre-Auigustin Caron de Beaumarchais), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer), Richard Eyre (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Le nozze di Figaro / 2014

Like many an opera buffa, Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is filled with would-be lovers jumping in and out of beds; late night romantic assignations; flirtations and sexual encounters between maid(s) and master, mistress and godson (or male servant(s), or any visiting admirer); intriguing switches of amative attentions; startling revelations of heritage and birthright; as well as, quite often, temporary alterations of sex—all undertaken beneath the nose of a highly suspicious husband or another such authoritative figure who is usually the greatest transgressor of the lot.

    Anyone who has seen this “precursor” to Rossini’s just as character-leaden and plot-stuffed Il barbiere di Siviglia knows, Mozart’s work offers all of the above in great proliferation. Between Count Almaviva’s (Peter Mattei) attempts to bed nearly all of his housekeepers, and his maid Susanna’s (wonderfully elucidated by Marlis Petersen) and her soon-to-be husband Figaro’s (Ildar Abdrazakov) attempts to get even (or in Figaro’s case, to revenge) for the master’s unwelcome attentions of the lively “flower of the household,” there is hardly a moment in this heady elixir of amour and feudal abuse that isn’t jam-packed with new plot twists. 
     “Twist,” indeed, is the perfect word for the constant story fluctuations, which the Saturday HD broadcast host, Renée Fleming (who has performed in her share of Figaro productions) characterized as “a perpetual turning of the tables.” So many epistles have been written and posted through the pockets of Figaro that, at one point, when cornered by the Count, he admits that he even he cannot keep track of the would-be comings and goings of figures, as three notes of assignation simultaneously fall from his pockets. Fortuitously, Rob Howell’s well-oiled swing of the settings and Sir Richard Eyre’s precisely-timed fluidity of direction keep the production moving, even if, at moments, the audience and characters lag behind in comprehension.

     But the “twists” of this busy-bee work lay not only in the turning down of bedsheets by the Count, but in the twisted relationships of various characters, most notably Marcellina (the housekeeper to the pompous Dr. Bartolo) who long-hankering after Figaro, has long-ago loaned him money attached to a contract stating that if he does not pay her back, he must marry her. Bartolo, who like the much younger Count, at one time clearly employed house staff in roles beyond their job descriptions, is more than delighted to now have the opportunity to get rid of “old cow,” while also revenging himself for Figaro’s involvement in preventing him (incidents represented in Rossini’s operatic version) from obtaining Rosina, now the Count’s lovely wife. Suddenly in act III we discover that the man Marcellina would marry is her long-lost son, Rafello, fathered by her employer, Bartolo. In short, she, who the Count was determined just minutes before to declare Figaro’s wife would have lured him in a horrific coupling, like Oedipus and Jocasta, of mother and son. In the context of Mozart’s pre-Freudian world, such a marriage does not represent a psychological condition but rather serves as a hovering omen over the machinations of the Count, threatening to transform the comic “pranks” of Lorenzo da Ponte’s and Mozart’s work into a tragedy of epic proportions like Oedipus Rex. The potential parallel between the Count’s and Bartolo’s actions cannot be missed by the man who has just sung a song (Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro) expressing his jealousy of his own servant.
   Similarly, throughout their opera da Ponte and Mozart feature a newly created figure, not in the original Beaumarchais play, Cherubino—who the great Kierkegaard described as a figure “drunk with love”—who twists and turns his way throughout this play in stupor that would dizzy even the most sure-footed angel. Yes, Cherubino, obviously, is a kind of angel, a man so beautiful that—as the writers insist in their script—he must be played always by a beautiful young woman (in this case, the lovely and musically gifted Isabel Leonard). Cherubino is a sort of shadow to the Count, a being who aspires to the same status as his master, which also explains why, discovering the young sex-fiend wherever he goes, the Count can only seek his destruction. But Cherubino also has significant qualities that the Count is missing: beauty and youth. Accordingly, like a twisted, fun-house looking-glass, the stare of Cherubino, which the Count seems to encounter everywhere, can only remind him that he will soon be an old and ugly fornicator, like Bartolo, who also once challenged him for his wife!

      Unlike the often clumsy and blundering Almaviva (a long-living soul, or one who learns through the long-time experiences of life), always behind his nemesis, the cherub can literally “fly,” as he proves through his escape from the balcony window of his godmother’s bedroom. Using the former castrati role as a tranvesti character to perfect effect, Mozart and his librettist require that not only every woman in the play be sexually charmed by the young man but must attempt to make every man equally so; except for perhaps Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, opera has never before used transvestitism to such wonderful effects. Not only do the Countess and Susanna spend long moments in joyfully dressing up their youthful lothario as a lovely woman whom they hope will satisfy the sexual longings of the Count, but another of the Count’s conquests, Barbarina hides him, when Cherubino has deserted from his military service, by dressing him up as a provincial beauty. Time and again, the woman turn-the-tables, so to speak, on this would-be molester by rendering him neuter, by turning him into one of their own kind.
     Still, the rapscallion Cherubino nearly destroys the day for the penultimate “twist” of the story, wherein the Countess, having transformed herself into Susanna through her dress (while Susanna hiding her eager desire for Figaro’s embracement within the Countesses’ gown), prepares to receive her unrepentant husband. Cherubino’s unwanted attentions reiterate not only the pains the Countess has had so suffer for his husband’s philandering, but suggests what Barbarina may have to suffer later in her life.

     For the moment, however, the day is saved, and, the final “twist” is played out in all its grand ironic display, the Count unconsciously playing lover to his own wife.
     Suddenly realizing that he has become the fool in front of everyone, the Count, at least momentarily, is forced to realize the errors of his way, asking for forgiveness not just from his wife (“Contessa perdono!), but to everyone in hearing range, including the audience whom he has so entertained. The Countess’ proclamation that she is kinder than her husband in forgiving him, results in a beautiful choral work that expresses joy while reminding everyone of the “terrible twists” of reality that they have almost accidentally escaped. As I whispered to Howard a few moments later: “That is the saddest aria to a happily-ending opera that I have ever witnessed.”

Los Angeles, October 19, 2014
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (October 2014).

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