Thursday, 11 August 2016

Into Figaro's Maze

(first published on

It’s less than a week now until we perform The Marriage of Figaro in English at the Grimeborn opera festival. Now that we have run the whole show once we know it will work as we have prepared it. It’s going to be funny (and we’ve had a lot of fun making it so) and also, I hope, touching.

In 1786 The Marriage of Figaro was conceived as an entertainment. It’s a function of entertainment that there should be a sense of peril for characters, from awkward moments right up to the edge of all-out catastrophe. Just as the bonbons of stolen kisses evaporate in Mozart’s bewildering exploration of love and forgiveness, so a feudal Lord’s unscrupulous game of hopscotch with his own rules of propriety are reduced to playground antics in the face of wider revolution.

This, however, is to open Figaro out. Giving nothing of this production away, the farce may work as a lever not to lift the facade of social iniquity but rather to open up revealing interior spaces. Any drama has a labyrinthine quality. In a story, characters take decisions (often very marginal) that take the narrative along a certain route; drama reminds us that other options are available. Farce shows you small sections of the maze ahead as this happens so that the errors and assumptions of that decision-making become part of the fun; occasionally, to really stir it up, people metaphorically (and literally) climb through the bushes of the maze too.

Then there are those whose journeying stops — and cul-de-sacs can be very lonely, dark and challenging.

It’s interesting to consider the trajectory and density of the drama from Beaumarchais’ Barber of Seville to The Marriage of Figaro, moving from the candy floss to the creme brulee of love, if you like. Just as film sequels necessarily sell themselves as getting ‘darker’, so last year WNO put together a trilogy-completing production, Figaro Gets a Divorce, in which the dysfunctional ensemble is in flight in revolutionary Europe. That opera ends with the Count and Countess facilitating the escape and onward journey of the rest as they stay behind, incarcerated in a castle.

It’s certainly interesting to me that in Mozart’s three da Ponte masterworks, while the conclusion of the opera provides release from the preceding drama, the transformation of the characters is far more equivocal (the ensemble of Don Giovanni are bereft for the loss of the anarchic, eponymous free spirit and the lovers of Cosi fan tutte must deal with the treachery of post-lapsarian clarity). 

Forgiveness is all in The Marriage of Figaro. Misgivings in the private arias and upstairs-downstairs whisperings of duets and trios are exposed in the denouement at (literally, as Act 4’s in the garden) the centre of the maze. Everyone can now leave — the drama is over — but the revealed truth cannot be covered up with privet hedges and a cypress tree or two. Is forgiveness enough? WNO’s note says that the Count and Countess stay in the castle ‘to face the music’ at the conclusion of Figaro Gets a Divorce. Doesn’t the term ‘face the music’ have judicial finality though? Have they capitulated, unforgiven by each other orthe world? Or is ‘facing the music’ in a prison like the inmates of Shawshank hearing sull’aria and being freed? Our rehearsal process has been as much about continually interrogating this as it has been running about with pins, letters and broken pots of hollyhocks.