Our Beaumarchais Trilogy

This season dell’Arte Opera Ensemble takes on Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, focusing specifically on the female protagonist, Rosina. Beaumarchais chronicles her life in his three plays; The Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother. Dell’Arte will perform Giovanni Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782) and Wolfgang Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786), forgoing The Guilty Mother in favor of Hiram Titus’ Rosina (1980). Rosina is the character who changes the most throughout the trilogy. For instance, she goes from being a ward of the state in Barbiere to becoming Countess Almaviva in Nozze. Also, more than any other female character in the trilogy, her journey reflects what it means to be a woman in 18th century European society.

Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799) was a son of a watchmaker who was able to work his way up the social ladder of pre-revolutionary France. Eventually, he became a music teacher to Louis XV’s children. He made many diplomatic visits to Spain in the service of the French government. During these trips, he conceived of Count Almaviva and Figaro. Throughout the trilogy, many characters appear but Figaro, Rosina and Count Almaviva are the only three in every play. Their development chronicles the changing attitudes towards French politics before and after the Revolution. The Marriage of Figaro was banned by Louis XVI after its premiere in 1781. However even though his plays contained much political satire, these works have very domestic plots and it was the relationships between husband and wife, master and servant that Beaumarchais believed to be the true focus of his trilogy.

Audiences are familiar with Rosina’s rise to Countess Almaviva; however, few people know what happens next. In The Guilty Mother, Rosina becomes a religious fanatic searching for forgiveness after bearing the illegitimate daughter of her godson Cherubino. The change may be out of character; this is why dell’Arte has chosen to end its trilogy with Hiram Titus’ opera Rosina. Titus’ opera with a libretto by Barbara Field finally gives Rosina a chance to be her own woman. The affair with Cherubino and the resulting daughter still exist but the difference lies in the woman that emerges from those experiences. She runs off to Madrid with Cherubino and the baby to live in impoverished surroundings. At the end although she goes back to Seville with the Count, she makes it clear that she is not renewing her marriage vow. Rather, she is only living with him until the next major phase of her life begins. In both instances, she at last takes charge of her destiny, thus breaking out of the oppressive social norms established in The Barber of Seville and the Marriage of Figaro.

Today when opera fans discuss Il barbiere di Siviglia, they usually refer to Rossini’s 1816 comic masterpiece, however, Rossini was writing in the shadow of Paisiello’s 1782 opera which has since fallen from the core repertoire. Paisiello’s personal story typifies a musician’s life during the 18th century. He wrote in a variety of genres including operas, cantatas, and instrumental pieces for a variety of patrons including the Church, Napoleon and King Ferdinand of Naples. He wrote The Barber of Seville in 1782 for the Italian opera company that Catherine the Great brought to Russia. Mozart was greatly influenced by the work when he wrote Le nozze di Figaro in 1786. The Rosina of Paisiello’s Barbiere is not the Rosina from Rossini’s version which audiences know better. She lacks the wiles of the later opera’s heroine. Instead, Paisiello’s Rosina is much more in line with Mozart’s Countess Almaviva. There are many traits that both versions of Barbiere have in common. Like Rossini’s work, Paisiello’s opera is fast-paced. Also like Rossini’s female lead, Paisiello’s Rosina is vocal about her contempt for Bartolo throughout all the hurdles she faces to marry Count Almaviva.

There is one crucial difference, however. In Rossini’s opera, the audience has very little opportunity to see Rosina as a suffering ward. Of course, we can infer that about her character because she does not permit herself to be toyed with, but she only directly voices her discontent just before being rescued by Figaro and the Count in Act II. By contrast Paisiello gives Rosina three opportunities to express herself. In Act I she sings an aria on her balcony before Doctor Bartolo joins her and their argument begins. In this plaintive aria, she yearns for her freedom. Again at the end of Act II, Rosina sings a similarly frustrated aria when she realizes that had she been able to read the Count’s letter, she could have waited to have her argument with Bartolo until they were in a public place as his letter requested. The aria carries extra weight as it comes on the heels of the fast-paced light-hearted ensemble where the Count enters the house as a drunk soldier hoping for lodgings. Lastly, Paisiello took a more in-depth approach to Rosina’s music lesson in Act III. In Rossini’s version, she sings an aria “Contra un cor” however the aria itself is interrupted by Rosina’s frantic communications to the Count to set her free. These communications are exploited for the comic value as Rosina can only speak freely when Bartolo falls asleep. In Paisiello’s version there is no chance for Rosina to interrupt her own aria, instead the entire piece about a lost shepherdess looking for her lover is in itself a coded message.

Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786) is the first of three masterful comic operas written to text by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Like the other two, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Le nozze di Figaro is a comedy with dark undertones. Here we see Rosina and her maid Susanna dealing with an ancient aristocratic custom that was extremely oppressive to women. Le droit du Seigneur (The Right of the Lord) allowed a male aristocrat to be the first to sleep with a female servant on her wedding day. Although this custom did not technically exist in the sense that it was not codified by law, it became a popular trope for political satirists to mock the monarchy. The Count supposedly relinquished his right to practice this ancestral custom when he married Rosina. But, after just three years of marriage, the Count is bored and tries to reinstate the practice by offering to pay for Susanna’s wedding, in exchange for sexual favors. This places Figaro in the context of the 18th century’s equation of feminine beauty with social mobility for women, something that modern audiences recognize from the novels of Jane Austen.

However, the focus of the opera is not Susanna. While she faces a very real threat, she is clearly the smartest character on the stage –able to outwit anyone, even Figaro. Mozart uses Act I to establish the conflict between the Count and Susanna. But, the true dramatic struggle is centered on Rosina, here forced into the role of spurned wife. Mozart’s decision to have Rosina make her entrance at the beginning of Act II enforces her central role in the opera. This gives “Porgi amor” the first of Rosina’s two great arias more dramatic weight as it depicts her as a suffering, cheated wife.

In the context of 18th century gender politics, the Almaviva’s domestic problems take a somber tone. As the man, it was the Count’s responsibility to ‘woo’ Rosina. After they were officially married, it became Rosina’s duty to keep her husband satisfied. Since she could not it was the Count’s right to look elsewhere. This is why audiences all over the world root for Rosina, Mozart makes her so sympathetic. Her two main arias both portray the pain of a cheated wife, but also Rosina’s determination to win him back. Although, both arias concentrate on the emotional and psychological pain her philandering husband causes, there is still something of the wily ward of The Barber of Seville left. After all, although her Third Act calling card “Dove Sono” illustrates her suffering in the first section, there is a drastic turnaround in the middle of the aria. The second verse of the first section breaks off and then she changes mood and sings of her determination to do everything necessary to get her husband back. After all, the plan to switch gowns with Susanna is her idea. Some conductors like James Levine take a prolonged pause in between sections as if allowing her a moment to really examine her situation and collect her strength. Whether the change is immediate or measured, she is still the determined young girl of the previous play.

However, Rosina’s situation in Le nozze is not so straightforward. While it may be socially acceptable for the Count to take a lover if Rosina could not keep his interests, should the Count decide to have an affair, it was considered socially acceptable for Rosina to do the same. This has a great deal to do with Cherubino’s role in the Almaviva household. Cherubino is one of the most famous “pants roles” in opera. The term describes a character that in the story is biologically male but is young enough that he has not yet hit puberty or is currently going through puberty. For this reason, “pants roles” are sung by women, typically mezzo-sopranos. Beaumarchais’ play also requires that Cherubino be played by a woman. The reason is, being attractive to both men and women; Cherubino becomes the physical embodiment of the sexual politics of the plot. Therefore he becomes equally as dangerous to the Count as he is to the women he lusts after. The dangers posed by Cherubino’s raging hormones and his gender ambiguity are made evident in Mozart’s opera. Twice the women of the estate disguise Cherubino as a girl and his two arias are charged with sexual energy. In the first, “Non so piu” he frankly tells Suzanna that he gets excited by every woman in the castle. The second, “Voi che sapete” is a song he wrote in praise of women but he uses it as a sort of courting song to impress and woo Rosina. Both instances lead to some rather comic results but dark undertones are always present.

The final opera of the season moves away from the sexual politics of Count Almaviva’s mansion in Seville to focus on Rosina as a mature woman. Hiram Titus’ opera Rosina (1980) gives the Countess her freedom. Here she neither faces Doctor Bartolo’s captivity nor Count Almaviva’s philandering, her challenge in this opera is to make peace with her past and move forward. In the process, Titus allows the women to philosophize about their positions in a way that is not like any of the other operas. Even Amparo, the Count’s newest mistress, recognizes she has never had the love of a man close to her own age. Cherubino has now gotten older and has officially graduated to tenorial manhood. Yet, in many ways he is still the excitable and childish young boy of The Marriage of Figaro. He expects Rosina to feel fulfilled living in poverty with him and their baby, casting off her prior life as Countess Almaviva. In order to make rent, Cherubino wants to sell Rosina’s wedding ring, but, Rosina cannot part with it. Her unwillingness to sell her wedding ring serves as a constant reminder of her inability to completely let go of her marriage to Count Almaviva despite its problems. This is what makes her ultimate decision to return with Almaviva to Seville but not to live with him permanently as his wife so gratifying. The music is very profound and contains a mix of lush romantic orchestrations imbued with a classical sensibility that we hear in works by Richard Strauss. Indeed, the parallel to Der Rosenkavalier is an apt one as in her struggle; Rosina behaves similarly to the Marschallin. This opera allows Rosina to finally make her own decisions. In that way it provides a moment of catharsis, both for the character as well as the audience who has watched her grow from a teenager to a mature woman.

– by Greg Moomjy
July 2015