OGSA previews Arizona Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro April 1 in Oro Valley and April 5 in Tucson. Past president Carol Garrard considers the socio-political background of the opera and the play it is based on.
When Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he said, “So you are the little lady who made this great war.” And indeed, her book did play a role in marshaling Northern opinion against slavery. But how many Americans know about the role the French author Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais played in the role of helping the infant United States in their revolution against the British King George III? And even more astonishing, how many know the role his play, The Marriage of Figaro had in setting off the French Revolution which would not only topple the French monarchy but send King Louis XVI and his queen Marie Antoinette to the guillotine?
Napoleon came to describe The Marriage of Figaro as “the Revolution already in action.” But was he referring to Beaumarchais’ play or Mozart’s opera? Exploring the answer takes us on a fascinating journey: where art ends, and history begins.
Beaumarchais was hired by the new king, Louis XVI’s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, to investigate the growing clash between England and its American colonies. Beaumarchais saw, quite rightly, that extending aid to the colonies would be a clever “proxy war” which would help weaken France’s perennial enemy, Great Britain. Beaumarchais wrote:
The Americans, resolved to suffer anything rather than yield, and filled with that enthusiasm for liberty… have 38,000 effective men under the walls of Boston… I say, Sire, that such a nation must be invincible.
Beaumarchais convinced the foreign minister, and eventually the king himself. By May of 1776, Beaumarchais had a shell company, Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, shipping secret war supplies to America. In addition to his own money, the French treasury supplied millions of livres. Beaumarchais even got the Spanish monarchy to set up fake shell companies to ship supplies too. By the time of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776, America’s secret agent in Paris, Silas Deane, wrote that without the “generous, indefatigable and spirited exertions of Monsieur Beaumarchais, to whom the United States are, on every account, greatly indebted,” he could not have carried out his mission. Eventually, Washington would enjoy for six weeks the French fleet, and French cannon, which would successfully bottle up Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, and lead to the British surrender there. Beaumarchais would not live to see it, but in 1835 the U.S. government gave his heirs 800,000 livres in recognition of his indispensable help.
Beaumarchais was so elated at the American triumph that he wrote a successor to his first play, The Barber of Seville, staged by the Comedie Francaise in 1775. Beaumarchais had moved the action and the setting to the Spain of Carlos III, and not the France of Louis XV and XVI, but it was daring enough. But The Marriage of Figaro was radical. The theme of the play is a struggle of wits, but for big stakes, between Figaro and his master, Count Almaviva. The France of the 1780s rightly saw this as the struggle between commoners and aristocrats. Listen to the revolutionary rhetoric in Beaumarchais’ lines for Figaro in Act IV:
Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have YOU done to deserve such advantages?
Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more! For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among
The obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has
Sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century!
The nobility, and the Queen, loved it. They were, as the Baronne d’Oberkirch observed of the aristocrats applauding these witty diatribes against their own order and power, the triumph of the valet and maid over the noble lord, “slapping their own cheeks.” But the plot itself contains the seeds of danger: the sexual harassment of servants by their masters, mistaken identities with disguised ladies making rendezvouses in dark gardens–the aristos were laughing at farce that would end in their own tragedy. (For those who wish to pursue the relationship between the Beaumarchais play and the French Revolution further, read The Queen’s Necklace by Frances Mossiker, (1961) which tries to make sense of the 1785 tangled affair of Marie Antoinette’s supposed diamond necklace (which she never bought) but which involved an elaborate disguise of a peasant girl dressed like the Queen and successfully impersonating her in a dark garden. The resemblance between this actual scene of an elaborate conspiracy which besmirched the name of the Queen and the last scene of Beaumarchais’ play, where the Countess Almaviva appears, veiled, in a dark shrubbery, to her own husband in the guise of her mad Suzanne, is too great to be coincidental. Truly life can imitate art.)
So how does this bear on Mozart’s opera? Well, the play is inextricably linked with the runup to the French Revolution. But what Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, created, and put before the Vienna Burgtheater on May 1, 1786, almost exactly two years after the premier of the Beaumarchais play, is a timeless human comedy. The struggle of wits between Figaro and his master is still the wellspring of the plot, but Figaro’s fourth act aria, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,” based on the soliloquy from the play already quoted, concentrates on his jealousy and anger. There is no covert call for revolution.
And since this is a comedy, all ends happily. The aristocratic custom of droit du seigneur, the“right of the lord” during medieval times to deflower one’s peasant girls upon their wedding night is abandoned by the chastened Count Almaviva. Another one of the aristocracy’s favorite ways to deal with unruly servants was to send them into the army. And Almaviva has decided to get rid of his troublesome page Cherubino by commissioning him an ensign and ordering him to join up. But the real consequences of such an act are carefully buried by Mozart. In his opera, Figaro, the barber, also things this is good riddance, and he closes Act I by singing the poor page a mock military tune while marching him up and down. And Cherubino doesn’t obey the master—he stays around, and makes mischief the entire delightful opera.
Above all, it is Mozart’s sublime music which transports us away from the possibility of human evil and human heartbreak implicit in the plot. Let us defer to Johannes Brahms: “Every number in Figaro is for me a marvel; I simply cannot understand how anyone could make anything so perfect.”
In the immediate present, we live in the “Me Too” age, and we commoners are quite unhappy at our own aristocrats—millionaires and billionaires—who in this time of supposed “meritocracy” buy entrance to elite schools through bribery and chicanery. Will our response be that of the Figaro of Beaumarchais? Or the Figaro of Mozart?