June 2, 2013

Downton Abbey, Mozart style

photo courtesy of National Public Radio
Virginia Opera’s upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro comes at the perfect moment in pop culture: hard on the heels of the most intriguing season yet of everyone’s favorite period drama, Downton Abbey.

Hooked on the doings of the Grantham household, are you? On pins and needles awaiting the next installment of episodes? Me too, I’ll be the first to confess. But what has the PBS mega-hit got to do with Mozart’s comedy?

Pretty much everything, that’s what.

Breaking news for you, dear hearts: Downton Abbey is many things, but “original” and “innovative” are two of the things it is not. These characters are as old as the hills, and their stories date back centuries.The 1970’s version of this drama was another PBS offering called Upstairs, Downstairs. But here’s the thing: Mozart did it before either of them.

What, at bottom, is the story of Figaro? Is it not the interactions of the lower classes with the privileged upper classes in the setting of a magnificent mansion? And isn’t that the basic fodder of both the PBS shows? But I’m not ready to rest my case yet. Actually, most of Mozart’s principal characters have strikingly similar counterparts in Downton Abbey. Consider:

  • Count Almaviva = Lord Grantham. Each the wealthy, aristocratic head of their respective households. Each is fundamentally a “good guy”, though certainly with flaws and issues, including their occasional impulses to canoodle with the female help. That, of course, means that
  • Countess Rosina = Lady Cora Grantham. Both of these woman, no longer giddy young brides, have settled into the routine of being someone’s wife. The honeymoon is definitely over, and each has had to endure a “rough patch” in their marital relations. Adversities of various types have tempered their outlooks on life.
  • Figaro = Mr. Bates. Figaro is an all-around good guy of good, solid character. Like Bates. Figaro is the chosen personal valet to the Count. As Bates is to Lord Grantham. Figaro is marrying Susanna, one of the maids in the palace. Just like Bates! I can sense you’re way ahead of me now, so let’s say it all together:
  • Susanna = Anna. Why, even their names are similar! Like Anna, Susanna is pert and likeable; we sense that she and Figaro will be very happy in their married life and are perfect for each other. Like Anna, Susanna is smart as a whip, loyal, and pertly attractive without any sexy glamour. Here’s one more pairing for good measure:
  • Bartolo and Marcellina = Thomas and O’Brien. Think about it: Bartolo and Marcellina spend half the opera plotting, scheming and otherwise conspiring to ruin the planned wedding of Bates and A--- oopsie, I meant Figaro and Susanna. They can barely disguise their contempt for them. Doesn’t that sound just like our two chief gossip-mongerers, Thomas and O’Brien? The two pairs are alike in how they take pleasure in the misfortune of others.
Just to nail down this little conceit of mine, how about a teleplay (that’s the TV term for “script”, you know) letting the Marriage of Figaro characters behave as if they were the newest rage on PBS? I present Episode 1 of the new sequel to The Marriage of Figaro:

(Note: all characters should speak in a British accent.)

(Scene: a hallway in Almaviva Abbey. Figaro and Susanna are embracing with circumspect propriety. Bartolo and Marcellina are lurking in a corner, eavesdropping on them.)

Oh, Mr. Figaro! Now that all the turmoil of our wedding is over, we can begin our happy married life together.

I should be delighted to do so, Susanna. All the strife of the past here at Almaviva Abbey is behind us now. Lord Almaviva has permitted me to return to my post as his personal valet. (They permit themselves a chaste kiss, then exit as the camera pans over to Marcellina and Bartolo.)

MARCELLINA: (grumbling bitterly)
Turn my stomach, they do; make me fair sick, they do. Somethin’s got to be done, Bartolo. I can’t stand the pair of them.

BARTOLO: (snidely)
I can’t say as I wouldn’t like to see ‘em come to a bit of grief me-self, and that’s the truth. But hold on, Marcellina – didn’t it turn out in the last opera that Figaro is your own long-lost son? Bit harsh, aren’t you, for bein’ his Mum and all?

MARCELLINA: (so bitter)
And what’s that to me, I’d like to know? ‘E never writes, ‘e never calls; I could be the washer-woman for all that lot cares… And besides, who are you to talk? You’re the proud papa, as you very well know! Cor blimey.

Dash it all – I do keep forgetting… (Enter Almaviva)

ALMAVIVA: (full of robust good cheer)
Bartolo! Marcellina! Splendid day, what? Seville weather at it’s finest! Just done a bit of shooting - bagged a partridge, what! You’ll both stay for dinner, surely? Cook is preparing a Yorkshire pudding and a splendid Spotted Dick for dessert.

BARTOLO: (confused)
Yorkshire pudding? Spotted Dick? (two beats) Don’t we live in… Spain, m’lord?

Yes, yes, Spain, quite right, what of it?

But… those dishes are … (decides to let it go) Nothing, m’lord. We shall be only too delighted to join you.

There’s a good chap. With the two of you, we’ll have enough to sing the finale at the end of the scene – it’s a sextet, you know. Marcellina, I think you’ll find the contralto line to be especially plummy. Well, ta – I’m off! (He exits)

MARCELLINA: (still bitter)
As if I give a fig for his contralto line. Never have the melodic line in an ensemble, no, no, not the likes of me. I always get stuck with the low notes in the harmony as God’s my witness.

BARTOLO (suddenly hit by inspiration)
Wait a bit, wait a bit – (snaps his fingers) That’s IT! I know how to get our revenge and teach ‘em all a lesson they’ll not soon forget…

What’re you on about? You’ve got that twisted, frowny facial expression you always get when you’re up to no good. Do tell.

BARTOLO (with a twisted, frowny facial expression)
The sextet, that’s the ticket. I’ll get Don Basilio to purloin the vocal parts. Then this afternoon before dinner I’ll just do a little… re-arranging. How’d you like to sing the lead soprano part, Marcellina?

MARCELLINA (very excited)
Yes! YES!! For ONCE in my life! And we’ll put that goody-two-shoes Susanna down on the bass part where NO ONE CAN HEAR HER!

And I’ll put Figaro and Lord Almaviva up in the tenor parts above the staff where their voices’ll crack like so many hens’ eggs. They never did master the passagio!!!

(Bartolo and Marcellina roar and cackle with laughter, but the camera slowly pans away to reveal Figaro and Susanna doing some eavesdropping of their own as the theme music swells.)


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