In 1784, La Folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s sequel to his hugely success The Barber of Seville had its delayed premiere at the Comédie-Francąise – delayed as the author had written the play from 1775-78, but the Parisian censors wouldn’t allow the play to be produced until then.
Remember that these were the years leading up to the French Revolution, and a play in which the main themes are social inequality and outright contempt for the nobility and, not least, portraying the servant class as more humane than and able to outwit the aristocracy, made for a very dangerous evening at the theatre.
Print from early production of the Beaumarchais play
A scant two years later, Lorenzo Da Ponte reworked the play into arguably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro. As is always the case when translating a play into an opera, Da Ponte brilliantly condensed Beaumarchais’s provocative play into tight narrative and, in doing so, deleted most of the politics and revolutionary ideas. What remained was a work of art from which future generations of operagoers could enjoy a “light” entertainment about how the servant outwits his master and all is forgiven at the end of the evening.
From the Met’s current production of the opera, as seen in the 2014-15 season
(It should be pointed out that Da Ponte’s libretto was totally at the liberty of the Viennese censors, who demanded that he delete or play down the more controversial aspects of the play so that Mozart’s sponsor and patron, the Emperor Joseph II, could not possibly be offended.)
What’s interesting is that, when it came time to present the opera in Paris (in 1792), the French Revolution was at its height. As a result, it was decided to reinstate the more controversial aspects of the original source material. As Mozart was now dead, revising the opera was out of the question. Instead, Beaumarchais was brought in to decide which parts of his play were to be included. In order for the opera to have a manageable length, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s recitatives were excised and, in their place, Beaumarchais inserted dialogue from the play.
Mozart’s charming opera would now become a highly-charged political amalgam of the play and the opera. Let them eat cake, indeed.
It cannot be denied that Beaumarchais’s play was a pungent satire with a striking political edge, and that Mozart’s opera downplayed the more controversial elements while retaining its punch for those who were able to see past the charm elements. However and, perhaps, most significantly, both the play and the opera conclude with the Countess generously forgiving the Count his transgressions and the evening ends on a hopeful note of reconciliation.
It’s probably difficult – if not downright impossible – for 21st century audiences to appreciate what it might have been like to attend the earliest productions of the play and opera. The aristocracy was probably outraged and not a little bit nervous over what they were seeing, while the general population may have felt validated to see people like them standing up for themselves and daring to talk back to their masters.
Interestingly, modern audiences now have the opportunity to encounter an updated version of the story: ¡Figaro! (90210), Vin Guerrerio’s uproarious “revisal” of the Beaumarchais/Mozart/Da Ponte source material. Originally presented under the auspices of LA Opera Off Grand, you have until Saturday, April 3rd to see this witty and extremely relevant iteration at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City.
Set in modern day Beverly Hills, Figaro and his intended, Susannah, are now undocumented illegals; the Count and his Countess are now Paul Conti, a somewhat shady real estate developer and his Botox-ed actress wife, Roxanne. The Count’s page, Cherubino, is now the aspiring hip-hop artist, Li’l B-Man. You get the idea.
Mr. Guerrerio’s brilliant and cleverly reimagined libretto is performed in English and “Spanglish”. Most importantly, it once again makes the story relevant, but in a highly entertaining way. Indeed, this is not your parent’s Figaro.
So, within the space of 3 days, we saw a hugely entertaining production of Puccini’s Tosca at a former bus terminal in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and, now, a “ripped from the headlines” and highly relevant production of ¡Figaro! (90210).
Opera is very much alive and thriving in New York.
CULTURE TIP: ¡Figaro! (90210)