April 7, 2013

Five small but priceless moments in Mozart's "Figaro"

In this post I turn my attention not to the metaphorical forest of The Marriage of Figaro (the overall grandeur of the whole work), nor to the trees (the series of immortal arias and ensembles within it). Instead, let's get down on our hands and knees (still metaphorical, mind you - my actual knees are a little stiff these days) and examine some of the, um, er, ...acorns.

Acorns, in this tortured imagery, are little musical details found in those set-pieces; details so delicious and perfect that they make me smile every time; small moments that are easy to miss unless you're looking for them.

Everyone likes Top 10 lists, but that would run a little long so I'll limit myself to just five.

5. The "curtsies" in the orchestra during the Susanna-Marcellina duet in Act 1.
Of course, these two ladies would love nothing more than to slap each other senseless, but initially they make a cursory effort towards civility in the cattiest duet ever composed. (No, you can't count Rossini's "Cat Duet", in which the term "catty" is used zoologically.) The zingers fly thick and fast once they have at it with sharpened claws ("claws".. see what I did there? Witty, eh?), but the "acorn" I want to point out happens before the singing begins. The main theme in the strings in the opening bars features a repeated rhythmic motive consisting of a dotted rhythm, a stressed downbeat, and three ascending slurred notes. This figure is Mozart's way of describing the physical motion of a curtsy! Each lady dips down on the dotted quarter, then rises on the three ascending notes that follow.This is a droll bit of humor: the orchestra depicting the fake solicitude of the rivals.

"After you!" "No, no, after YOU!"

4. The subtle evidence that Almaviva is a grown-up version of Cherubino.
In Act I, the teen-aged hormone-crazed page Cherubino sings his famous air "Non so piĆ¹ cosa son", a gushing, heaving ode to the female of the species. Midway through, after having just said "Every woman makes me palpitate", the orchestra has this little passage illustrating his sighs of desire:

 Now let's jump ahead to the opera's finale, towards the end of Act 4. Count Almaviva has fallen hook, line and sinker for the ruse of Susanna and the Countess and is making passionate love to a woman he believes
is the former but, alas, is actually the latter. In the course of his giddy smooching (which always puts me in mind of amorous cartoon skunk Pepe le Pew), with declarations about her "dainty fingers" and "delicate skin", observe what's going on underneath his vocal line in the orchestra:

 We are being encouraged to realize that Almaviva is expressing himself exactly the way Cherubino did; that that when Cherubino reaches adulthood he will be a clone of the Count as regards relations with women.The accompaniment in the Count's passage is in rapid sixteenth-notes rather than the slower eighth-note broken chords in Cherubino's, but chalk that minor difference up to the Count's excitement at having finally achieved his goal - or so he momentarily believes!

3. The play on words in the Act 3 sextet;
This ensemble was the composer's own favorite passage in the opera, we're told. No wonder; he loved jokes and games, and this sextet is, in the words of Variety magazine, a "laff riot". But in the midst of big belly-laughs comes a small play on words I always savor.
When Susanna makes her entrance, unaware of the dramatic revelations we've just seen played out that Figaro's parents are Bartolo and Marcellina, she sees her fiance embracing Marcellina and leaps to an obvious conclusion: the rat up and married the old crone! While she fumes, Figaro attempts to calm her down so he can explain what's going on. "Senti!", he implores, "senti, senti!"

Now, the Italian verb "sentire" has two meanings: to hear, and to feel. Figaro is using it to say "Hear me! Listen, baby, listen!" But Susanna, in no mood, replies "Senti questo" ("feel this) and delivers a slap to the face. Actually, when you think about it, the current street expression "You feel me?" is a literal English-language version of the Italian: feel = hear. Cool.

2. The style in which Almaviva speaks to Figaro in the Act 2 finale.
This one is way cool; it may be my favorite, and it's only recently occured to me. It continues a theme developed in my post of March 24. Did you miss that one? Too lazy to go back and read it? Here's the gist:

In the opening number of the opera, Susanna and Figaro sing a duet in which Mozart deftly indicates which of them is the smarter, or "quicker"; Figaro plods along in quarter notes,

 while Susanna sings twice as quickly in eighths. We also noted that, when she first addresses Figaro, Susanna deliberately slows down her rhythmic pace to match his; she speaks in his eighth-note style, a "language" she knows he'll readily respond to:

By the end of the number, you'll recall, Figaro has been "quickened"; metaphorically made smarter - he too is singing in eigths.

Here's the deal: in the Act 2 finale, Countess Rosina, weary of improvising lies to her husband, "comes clean" about the various schemes perpetrated on the Count by Figaro, Susanna and herself. This includes an anonymous note Basilio had delivererd to Almaviva which, the Countess confesses, was written by Figaro. When Figaro waltzes in, unaware that those beans have been spilled, the Count begins questioning him suspiciously (he's pretty sure that he's being lied to).

Now, the thing to note is this: observe the rhythm as Detective Almaviva begins the interrogation of his servant:

Except for relative note values, the rhythmic pattern is clearly associated with both Figaro's opening theme and Susanna's imitation above. Factor in the change in tempo (the Count's line is Andante, whereas that Figaro-Susanna duet is a sprightly Allegro, and they sound virtually identical in performance.

My point: the Count is doing the same as Susanna, using "Figaro-speak" to make sure his valet understands him clearly. With both Susanna and the Count, imagine them speaking V-E-R-Y  S-L-O-W-L-Y to someone deemed a little slow-witted. It's like that!

And finally,

1. Lorenzo da Ponte following one of the rules of comedy in the Count-Susanna duet
In the wikiHow article "How to be funny", we are told that Freudian slips are one of the comedy basics:

Freudian slips are linguistic errors that are believed to expose what you were really thinking rather than what you "meant" to say, and are often of a sexual nature.

At the top of Act 3, the Count is overjoyed when Susanna, with a lack of enthusiasm he doesn't seem to notice, agrees to meet him in the garden that evening for a rendezvous. Hardly able to believe his good fortune, he keeps asking her if she really means it in a series of "yes or no" questions. As Jay Leno (or any standup comic) knows, it's the third repetition of something that needs to be the funny one. Susanna answers the first two questions as the Count expects, but then gets, *ahem* "confused" on the last one:

A good test of whether or not the audience is following the super-titles in English is to see if this passage gets a laugh. When the listeners are attuned to her response of "No" to the question "You really mean it"?, it's impossible not to laugh at Susanna's genuine attitude accidentally surfacing, only to be quickly corrected when her would-be seducer reacts in dismay. This is an example of the dangers of listening to an opera on the radio sans libretto - you can miss a lot!

So - what are YOUR favorite Mozartian acorns? Tell us in the comments section!

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com

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