Everything you need to know about Mozart’s comedy The Marriage of Figaro in one place – right here!
What is the story?
The Marriage of Figaro is set over just one day (as indicated by its subtitle ‘A Day of Follies’) – Figaro’s wedding day. The curtain rises on Figaro and bride-to-be Susanna, fitting out the new room that their master the Count has given them. Susanna reveals that the only reason the Count has made such a generous gift is to keep her nearby – he plans to seduce her, re-instating the lately abolished ‘feudal right’ which allowed a lord to have his way with a servant girl on her wedding night.
Figaro is furious, and vows to outsmart the Count. Together with Susanna, the abandoned Countess and the page boy Cherubino (who adores all women, especially the Countess), they put in place a cunning plan to ensnare him. Expect disguises, mistaken identities, and a lot of hiding in (and under) things…
Who are the characters?
Figaro — the Count’s valet (baritone)
Susanna — his fiancée and maid to the Countess (soprano)
Count Almaviva — the master of the house (baritone)
Countess Almaviva — his neglected wife (soprano)
Cherubino — teenage page boy (mezzo-soprano)
Doctor Bartolo — the Countess’ former guardian (bass)
Marcellina — his housekeeper (mezzo-soprano)
Don Basilio — the music teacher (tenor)
Antonio — the gardener (baritone)
Barbarina — his daughter (soprano)
What is the music like?
The Marriage of Figaro is packed full of back-to-back hit tunes, including some of the most famous in all of opera, from Figaro’s ‘Here’s an end to your life as a rover’ (‘Non più andrai’), to Cherubino’s serenade ‘Tell me what love is’ (‘Voi che sapete’). Not only will you be humming the music for days afterwards, but the ensemble writing, where two or more voices sing together, is sublime.
As an opera of the classical period, the arias are connected by ‘recitative’ (sung speech performed with ‘continuo’ such as harpsichord accompanying the singers), where the plot development happens. There’s also wonderful scene painting in the orchestra – for example, during the fast-paced overture, the strings and bassoons scurry all over the scale to represent the hectic atmosphere of wedding day preparations.
What is this production like?
Jo Davies’ acclaimed production updates the action (loosely) to pre-revolutionary Russia. On the cusp of social change, the lavish opulence of the Count and Countess’ residence is falling into decay – note the peeling wallpaper! Water constantly trickles down the window panes in a clever rain effect. To add to the other wedding day disasters, it’s obviously chucking it down, and many people enter with umbrellas.
This staging also exposes the piece as a theatrical illusion – we see ‘backstage’ as well as what we meant to see. The characters themselves move scenery around and their entrances and exits are all on view to the audience. During the overture in particular, we get a glimpse ‘behind-the-scenes’ as everyone hurries to get everything ready, and prominent footlights (which are part of the set) add to the theatrical feel. Below, Set Designer Leslie Travers explains his approach…
Who was the composer?
The Marriage of Figaro was written by one of the most famous composers of all time – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1787). The libretto was by Lorenzo Da Ponte, with whom Mozart also worked on his successes Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.
A little history
The Marriage of Figaro is based on Beaumarchais’ play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, which opened in 1784. The play had caused a sensation. Written at a time of revolution, its subject matter – of servants rising up and outwitting their masters – outraged the aristocracy. This caused the play to be banned in many cities, including Vienna, where Mozart was based at the court of Emperor Joseph II.
In order to get permission from the Emperor to use such a controversial subject for a new opera, Mozart’s librettist Da Ponte had to strip the play of its most provocative messaging, most notably replacing Figaro’s Act IV rant about the nobility with a tirade against the inconstancy of women!
The plans were deemed acceptable and Mozart set to work, completing the music in just six weeks. The Vienna premiere, which took place in 1786 with Mozart himself conducting, was a success, but the opera’s popularity sky-rocketed after the Prague premiere a few months later. To this day, Figaro is among the top 10 most frequently performed operas worldwide.
Did you know?
— The Marriage of Figaro had some big fans among other composers! Haydn wrote that he heard the opera in his dreams, Brahms thought that “each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect” and Dvořák simply declared that “Mozart is sweet sunshine”.
— You’re sure to recognise some of The Marriage of Figaro’s music even if you’re not familiar with the opera, as it is woven into our culture through film, TV and adverts. Remember these scenes? Susanna and the Countess’ lilting duet ‘Sull’aria’ appears in The Shawshank Redemption, and the high-energy overture is used in The King’s Speech.
— Beaumarchais’ infamous play earned higher box office revenue than any other French play of the eighteenth century – on its opening night, the theatre was so packed that three people were allegedly crushed to death in the crowd.
— The teenage boy Cherubino is a trouser role, meaning that it was written for a woman who would be dressed as a man. This was common practice in opera at the time. To add to the gender-bending, Cherubino has disguise himself as a girl to escape the Count’s wrath!