March 24, 2013

Mozart's Figaro: Four hours of insight in a three-minute duet

With a masterpiece like The Marriage of Figaro, it's easy to focus on either the masterful arias like "Non so piu", "Se vuol ballare" and "Dove sono", or the richly comedic ensembles such as the Act 3 sextet. And in due course, I'll be blogging about some of these in the weeks to come.

But there's a danger in being so caught up in the big, famous moments we all admire that a lot of "tiny miracles", apparently of less significance, get under-appreciated if not overlooked.

A couple of great communicators.  Mazeltov, y'all!
And that's a big mistake. In Figaro, it's not that the devil is in the details; it's that the genius is in the details. Case in point: the opening number, a seemingly no-nothing (if charming) little trifle of a duet for Figaro and Susanna: "Cinque, dieci".

As the curtain rises, the happy couple is preparing to move into their new apartment in Almaviva's palace on the morning of their wedding day. Drop-cloths are covering furniture prior to painting and the groom is measuring the space for the marriage bed. I like to think he's going to build it himself and will soon make a run to the Seville Home Depot.

While he counts out feet or meters or whatever they used in the 18th-century, Susanna is admiring a little bonnet she's tried on. She wants him to look up from his work and pay attention to her; to tell her she looks pretty in the bonnet. He's immersed in counting. She keeps trying to get his attention. At last, he looks up and agrees that she's a real doll in that bonnet.

And that's it! It's less than three minutes of music, and dramatically, absolutely nothing happens.

Except really, a whole lot happens.

In less than three minutes we learn one of the opera's main themes: that men are improved and made smarter by women, as in the old adage "Behind every great man stands a great woman". We also observe, in the couple's interactions, the key to their healthy and well-adjusted relationship. We're encouraged to infer that theirs will be a successful and happy life together, able to survive all the normal problems and issues of a long-term marriage.

And it's the music that gives us this information, not the words.

The orchestra first introduces us to Figaro, with a theme marked by march-like repeated quarter notes:
These solid-sounding if somewhat unexciting quarters are giving us important information about Figaro, information which will come into relief when we first hear from Susanna. Suddenly the pace quickens into flowing eighths as she sings of her happiness that her hat looks like it was made for her:

Do you get it? Via note values, Mozart is telling us that Susanna is twice as "quick" (i.e. mentally) as Figaro. It's not that Figaro is unintelligent - far from it; it's just that his future wife (as the rest of the opera demonstrates) is quicker to understand people and situations.

She's talking aloud to herself in the excerpt above. When she turns to speak to Figaro, suddenly the rhythm of her vocal line slows down to quarter-note values:

What just happened? Did Susanna's IQ just drop? Is she a little stupider? Not at all. In fact, she's displaying one of the core skills required to make a successful marriage. She's speaking to Figaro in his own "language", so to speak; communicating with him in a way he'll readily understand; showing flexibility in her interactions with him.

Ask any marriage counselor if this bodes well for their future together. Susanna is already a good commnicator.

Figaro, of course, can't remain deaf to her barrage of "Look at me! Look at me!" cries. He steps up to the plate and delivers the compliments she's been waiting for. And behold the sudden change in HIS note values:

This is doubly cool. First, Figaro is showing that he, too, is a good communicator; he's answering her in her "lingo", communicating on her level. And that's not all: for the rest of the duet, Figaro sings with Susanna, constantly in her eight-note rhythms, in harmony like the love-birds they are.

See what's going on? By remaining at Susanna's pace, Mozart is showing us that Susanna has quickened Figaro. In effect, she has made him smarter. Certainly it's a smart move to stop eye-balling the measurements of the floor and pay your bride a compliment.

And this theory is borne out in the "Se caso a Madama" duet that follows. Of course, that's the number during which Susanna opens Figaro's eyes to the Count's plans to seduce her, a plan to which Figaro has been obtusely blind. He'd been clueless up to this point, but now he gets it and is suddenly enraged at the betrayal by his old friend Almaviva.

Stop to consider: don't Susanna and the Countess Rosina, working as a team, eventually "improve" the Count by forcing him to face his foolishness and humbly ask for forgiveness? That would be a "yes" on that.

That important theme runs throughout this four-act behemoth of an opera, and it's crystallized in a couple of minutes of "inconsequential" music that happens so soon after the overture that a lot of you opera-goers might miss it while you flip through your program book or unwrap that first cough drop.

And know this: I could write this much - or more - about every single musical number in the opera. There is not one moment of music in Figaro that doesn't overflow with the truth of human psychology and the richness of Mozart's ability to imagine three-dimensional characters as real as any ever invented.

Like, WOW, man...


  1. I enjoyed your ruminations on Figaro here. Thanks.

    But can we still agree that Verdi's Falstaff is the finer opera?

  2. I never miss your lecture preceding the opera performance at the Carpenter Center. Yesterday was no exception and I
    believe that it was your best presentation in this season. I have seen The Marriage of Figaro several times before both in Germany as well as in the U.S., but yesterday after your lecture I looked at it with different eyes and listened to the music with a much better understanding and greater appreciation. Thank you.