‘Give me back my beloved or at least let me die.’
A turbulent comedy laced with erotic intrigues: what was by no means a harmless comedy even in Mozart’s time evokes today experiences of patriarchal dependence and sexual exploitation. The world represented on stage promotes deceit and criminal behaviour, leaving people with feelings of emptiness, a longing for death and hopelessness.
Two employees wish to marry, but their boss tries to prevent them doing so, using more or less subtle methods. All in his own interest: the Count himself has designs on Susanna, something he as a married man can of course only show covertly. His love for his wife seems to have cooled, even though it is not long since he freed her from the clutches of her guardian. The cunning Figaro, whom he has now taken on as an employee in gratitude for his services, helped him. But no sooner has the daring conquest been achieved than the Count’s wife finds herself abandoned to her loneliness again, yearning for her husband’s love to return or for her own death. Once more, a good deal of cunning and intrigue is required, this time with the aim of exposing the Count in his sexualized claim to power and enabling the wedding of Figaro and Susanna to take place. But this goal recedes ever further from view, and instead the individuals involved are confronted with their unfulfilled longings, moral depravity and inner loneliness.
With Le nozze di Figaro of 1786 Lorenzo Da Ponte and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the first of their three operas about attempts at human relationships. It is based on a play that was banned at the time when the opera was conceived: with its direct criticism of aristocratic privileges, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro was a thorn in the side of the French king and the Austrian emperor. However, Mozart got hold of an anonymous German translation and suggested it to Da Ponte as material for a collaboration, despite there being no commission for the opera initially.
In order to get round the censor, Mozart concealed the explosive political message in his music: the manservant Figaro appropriates the courtly minuet for his struggle against the Count, to whose dance he will now call the tune. The agitation he sets in motion gives all the more impetus to the imaginations of the Countess and Susanna, stimulating them to join in Figaro’s scheming with their own intrigues. It is the women who bring about the night-time confusions in the garden; the men walk unswervingly into the traps they have laid for them. The Count’s final supplication for forgiveness may restore the order that previously held sway, but the other characters are damaged and will remain so. Operating between all the figures is Cherubino, a role Mozart entrusts to a female singer in order to give musical emphasis to the sexual nuances of the various disguises perpetrated in the opera.
Ensemble scenes that spiral into absurdity contrast with profound avowals of human emotions. Death pervades both of the Countess’s arias — in her second aria Mozart adopted the tone of the Agnus Dei from his Coronation Mass. Whether it is the pompous Bartolo or the furious Count — aggrieved male vanity endangers all those present. Mozart reserves the only aria in a minor key for the young Barbarina, soon after she has casually revealed that the Count has often taken sexual advantage of her.
Following Don Giovanni in 2002 and La clemenza di Tito in 2003, the director Martin Kušej now continues his radical exploration of Mozart’s operas at the Salzburg Festival with Le nozze di Figaro. Having made his Festival debut in 2018, the French conductor and expert in historically informed performance Raphaël Pichon is leading his first opera production at Salzburg.
Olaf A. Schmitt
Translation: Sophie Kidd