Magazine article The Spectator

Does It Add Up?

Magazine article The Spectator

Does It Add Up?

Article excerpt


Le Nozze di Figaro

(Royal Opera, Shaftesbury Theatre)

The marriage of Figao or Figaro's wedding? It's the event, the wedding, that the play and opera are concerned with, yet we are reluctant to give up the familiar 'Marriage' for 'Wedding' when we talk of it in English, and, though the other relevant languages may make more of a distinction, it seems that we are all quite keen on conflating the event with the state that the parties to it are in afterwards, as if the (alleged) happiness of the day itself infused the subsequent relationship.

Mozart's opera, I would contend, if not Beaumarchais's play, is at least as much concerned with the marriage as with the wedding. It is the event itself which is put in doubt by the Count's lusting for Susanna and refusal to bless the union until there is no alternative; but from the moment the curtain rises what we see is a pair of appealing and intelligent young people working out the terms on which they are to live, by finding out, among other things, which of them is more resourceful in foiling the Count's plans, and then in coping with the endless crises of `the mad day'. We get to know Figaro and Susanna, and subsequently the other main characters, with a fullness which makes this adorable work one of the miracles of art, eternally fresh despite our determination to overexpose it - gratifyingly, it turns out that that can't be done.

Figaro is, nonetheless, lower in the contemporary critical pantheon than the other two da Ponte operas. The reason is clear: in both Cosi and Don Giovanni there are crucial ambiguities and ambivalences. The question of how the characters really feel in Cosi, or, if they do, what it is they feel, will keep producers and audiences puzzling as long as it is performed. In Don Giovanni there is the vital blank of vitality at the centre, and the problem of how Anna feels about him - issues that have been in the air for almost two centuries, with gratifyingly little hope of resolving them. Figaro is not like that. One of the reasons for its deep appeal is the solidity and roundness of its characters, together with the straightforward nature of the moral system within which they move. It is, I should think, impossible to produce a revisionist Figaro, not because Mozart's music defies that that isn't something many contemporary producers would worry about - but because every line of text and every movement of the action, for all its notorious convolutedness, prohibit it or would render it unintelligible. …

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