* This is the first in a series on the 2006 Salzburg Festival, in which the 22 filmed operas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were diversely and, sometimes, radically staged by the most innovative directors working in opera today. The results provoked wildly mixed reactions and controversy, proving that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart remains a vital voice in the world of 21st century music.
In 1786, Le nozze di Figaro, the first of Mozart’s operas with librettist Fr. Lorenzo Da Ponte, premiered in Vienna. Contrary to legend, the opera was a considerable success, with a libretto pre-approved by emperor Joseph II. Arguably, it is the greatest of Mozart’s operas, although some musicologists give that honorary title to Don Giovanni (also written with Da Ponte). Still, the overall consensus is that Figaro is not only Mozart’s greatest opera, but it may very well be the greatest opera to date by any composer of any time, period.
The opera was based off of Pierre Beaumarchais’ play (one of three Figaro plays), which had a well-earned reputation as subversive and revolutionary (Beaumarchais was also Voltaire’s publisher). That Joseph II approved Da Ponte’s libretto was a little short of miraculous. While the heavier political implications were removed from the text, the defiant, satirical tone ridiculing the aristocracy was, of course, the meat of the plot (the servants eventually best their autocratic master). The opera, like the play, resonated with the masses. With that in mind, a non-revolutionary Figaro seems an oxymoron.
Over two hundred years later, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released on DVD, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars’ mid-nineties version (which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower), but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness,” that possibly even surpasses the eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt leads several of the M22 projects (more on those in later entries), but Le nozze di Figaro is the conductor at his most idiosyncratic and insightful. Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Within a matter of seconds into the overture, Harnoncourt’s reveals an out-of-the-ordinary Figaro. Gone is the typical quicksilver effervescence. Instead, Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.
Oddly, the Romantics, more often than not, dismissed Mozart as one of those “powdered wig composers” and seemed oblivious to his remarkably progressive (and darker) works. While Figaro has comic elements, like Cosi Fan Tutti (the final and most complex of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas), it embraces every facet of human complexity. If we dispense of preconceived notions and honestly approach Da Ponte’s libretto then the context, rather than the period content, of the opera prevails. Guth, Harnoncourt, Christian Schmidt (whose stage design is exemplary), a uniformly excellent cast, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the production team do just that.
Figaro is the personal attendant to Count Almaviva. Susanna is Fiagro’s fiancee and maid to the Countess Almaviva. Figaro and Susanna are about to be married, but she is consumed with dread of the Count, who wants to revive his droit du seigneur privilege (a feudal lord’s right to sexually claim a vassal bride). The Count’s young page, Cherubino, simultaneously lusts after the Countess, Susanna, and the gardener’s daughter Barbarina. Together, Susanna, the Countess, Cherubino, Figaro, and a revolving host of characters conspire to thwart and outwit the Count’s amorous intentions.
It is Susanna and Cherubino who are the eyes of Figaro’s storm. Anna Netrebko (a bonafide opera sex symbol, but hardly an artistic lightweight) is an objectified, but conflicted, Susanna. She is pragmatic, determined, and, through sheer cunning, she attains her goal. The always interesting Christine Schafer is assurance personified as the shell-shocked spitfire, Cherubino (this male role is traditionally played by a female mezzo-soprano). He serves as an erotic sex toy for the women and a put-upon victim for his male rivals (they cut off chunks of the young lad’s hair, slice his arm, and smear blood on his face). Both Netrebko and Schaffer resonate vividly in both their acting and singing. The men are nearly their equals. Bo Skovhus paradoxically evokes both repulsion and sympathy as the clammy Count Almaviva, who repeatedly finds dead ravens in the window sill. The Count is consumed with a Poe-like obsession for the servant he truly seems to love, yet cannot fully attain. Ildebrando D’ Arcangelo’s gallant, mercurial Figaro scorches; he suggests neurotic impotence, yet never loses his admirable splendor. Figaro is the bastard son to Franz-Joseph Selig’s Dr. Bartolo and Marie McLaughlin’s Marcellina (who, initially, lusts after Figaro, unaware that he is her long-lost son: an Oedipal situation). Here, Bartolo is wheel-chair bound and pathetic.
Guth and company do not flinch from the libretto’s ruthless displays of erotic intrigue. The director also takes poetic liberties with the story: at the start Susanna and the Count are already engaged in an affair, and within minutes of the opening act, the Count drags Susanna into a closet for a wham, bam, thank you mam. Although the Count is secretly enforcing his privilege with Susanna, she is attracted to him while continuing to love and protect her sensitive Figaro. She wants to put an end to the Count’s sexual liberties with her, and her recourse lies with the Countess. This Figaro is comic in a Bergmanesque manner: the humor is birthed from contemplation. The strangest license taken with the libretto is an out-of-nowhere additional character, Cherubino’s angelic double, who sets the plot in motion, irritating, manipulating and advancing the dizzying range of agendas that unfold like chaotic lines in a diagram (which is literally displayed on a wall at the end of the third act). The libretto reveals the hunger of the characters. This is no vegetarian Figaro; its melancholic black and white sets, hauntingly deprived of furniture, echo the ominous decay of the cannibalistic aristocrat mindset.
Needless to say, when this Figaro was released, the opera fundamentalists were up in arms. “Psycho meets Mozart,” said one wit. Another critic described the experience as “penance” and, naturally, numerous critics easily dismissed it as “pretentious.” This Figaro is unsettling in an interior way, which is why some find it the most difficult, or dismissive of the M22 projects. Other operas from the 2006 Festival, while weirder on the sleeve, do not dismantle the museum-like appendage which has attached itself to Mozart’s operas, in the way this version of Figaro does. Overseas, however, numerous raves were also forthcoming: “an excitingly original production… a must for anyone who cares about Mozart,” said Time Out. If you think comic book fans are a tad overzealous about filmed approaches to their tights-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans to contemporary opera stagings reveals that those Marvel fanboys are a subdued lot. American fans tend to approach opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the Good Book, insisting on a face value, inerrant interpretation—the King James Version. So insistent on orthodox and/or period staging are such fans that their first line of attack against an imaginative staging is to spew tiresome venom and tag it with the oh-so-predictable label of “EURO-TRASH.” The idea, for those so inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time, shut him off to new generations, fresh interpretations, and put an institutional sheen over the work, turning it into a museum piece, rather than breathing theater. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger and better attended and supported than it is here, where its worshippers make a false, bourgeois religion out of the art form (in kind of the way smooth jazz has killed jazz).
This obviously should not be an introductory Figaro for traditionalists. Nor should the 2009 Dutch Figaro, which features the resplendent Danielle de Niese as Susanna and is imaginatively set, by directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, inside a car showroom (it is actually not as ill-fitting or wacky as it sounds and really is charming). For those who simply cannot rise to the challenge, then two equally strong recommendations should suffice for a comfortable safety net: Oliver Mille’s 1994 version with Alison Hagley as Susanna (Hagley may be the quintessential Susanna on film) highlighted by Constanze Backes’ memorable rendition of “Barbarina’s cavatina” (an example of Mozart’s ability to take a simple song, about a lost pin, and turn into sublime poetry). However Bryan Terfel’s Figaro seems puppy dog cute when compared to D’ Arcangelo’s. The more recent 2008 Figaro by David McVicar featuring Miah Persson as Susanna has already become almost a universal favorite. Guth’s Figaro, however, restores the provocative sense of danger to Mozart’s greatest opera. It is a memorable, welcome, profoundly liberating, shattering and potent alternative in an over-crowded field of staid productions.