Piu Docile Sono: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Glyndebourne Touring Company Programme 2006

For Glyndebourne Opera Touring Company Programme, Autumn 2001

Mozart wrote Figaro in 1786 when he was thirty and had been freelance for five years. In 1780 Joseph II became regent in Vienna, the cultural barriers dividing Austria from its neighbours disappeared, and the arts flourished under his enlightened despotism. In 1781 Mozart lost his Salzburg job with the Archbishop,and patronage was transformed overnight. No more single employers. Now he could work to commission from opera houses, opera companies. Freelance meant writing freedom, and the first operatic fruit of this was a piece named for escape, Die Entfurhrung aud dem Serail. After that success, his popularity and subscription concerts allowed little sustained writing time for opera. He started and abandoned several; finally Figaro appeared, the first of his really really great operas.

Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s choice of text, the 1778 second play of a trilogy by the Enlightment French dramatist Beamarchais, signalled new political freedom. In it, Beaumarchais had attacked the ancien régime through droit de seigneur, noblemen’s right to deflower servants on their wedding night. Beaumarchais set his play in far-off in Spain and called it “the lightest of intrigues”, but the chateau was all too clearly an image of society, the Count’s sexual tyranny parodied the social tyranny of the ruling class, and the play was banned. So Mozart and Da Ponte were making opera out of seditious stuff. Though they blanked out overt politics, and concentrated on sparkle, social if not political critique was still alive in it. This is a plot about power; about coping with its abuse.

The opera starts with a servant measuring space for his marriage bed while his fiancée examines herself in the mirror. Where should “bed” be, what role should Susanna’s image play, in this society? The plot turns on the Count’s selfishness. While pursuing Susanna, he suspects his wife with Cherubino. In Beaumarchais, his suspicions are justified; in the next play, the Countess has Cherubino’s baby. In Mozart, he groundlessly condemns his wife for doing what he wants to do: have sex with the servants. The opera’s heart is the effect of this injustice on the person most trapped by his selfishness and by the social set-up, expressed in the Countess’s aria “Dove Sono”.

As it begins, the dancing mess of other people’s lives is sorted out. Figaro’s marriage is secure, Barbarina is looking after Cherubino. When Susanna cries “Who’s as happy as me”? Figaro, Bartolo and Marcellina reply “Io! ” But the Countess is trapped in the double bind of the Count’s jealousy and infidelity. She has to wear her servant’s clothes to meet her husband as a lover. How low, umil, her consort crudel has brought her!

The aria begins on C: Doh, in Sol-fa. Do-ve, “Where” can she turn in her degraded situation and her feeling?

The aria’s melodic shapes, and harmonic modulations, offer possible answers. Go up, say the woodwind, enticing her up to E. Refusing their further invitation to upper G she sinks to lower G – and so it goes. Through all the harmonic, melodic, and verbal new ideas, she cannot escape her key-note and key question, Doh.

Mozart is not a musical revolutionary. By rules of contemporary composition, she has to end in the key where she began. His surprises come in the way he uses convention, the way his modulations into the minor, into new keys and out of them, express the no-hope of her situation. Change, hope (cangiar, speranza) are her big words; but they are up against her husband’s “lying lips” and (last words) ingrato cor.

Male opera standardly used a woman as image of human loneliness. As The Composer says in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, his abandoned heroine is the image of human solitude. Mozart uses his soprano to express the caged loneliness of loving someone who humilates you; but her entrapment is economic and social too. All your voice and mind can do is enjoy images of freedom, change and hope: soar up a moment, savour movement, modulation, new keys, new ways of seeing. But we all come down at the end, to the tonality where we began.

In the final Act the Count thinks the Countess has a lover and is asked to pardon her. Perdono? He replies in the word’s last syllable: No! No! No! When he understands the true situation he asks perdono himself. The Countess, rhyming “I am” (sono) to his no and his perdono, and echoing the self-questioning of her own “Dovo Sono”, saves him with “Yes”. Piu docile sono, e dico di si. The only “change” in him is verbal. No! to perdono. She has to indulge him, has to say Si, whatever. She must say it to the gilded cage of her situation; to society. His ingrato cor will not change, only syllables on his “lying lips”. And he, as a pillar of society, can get away with it.