Can a controversial work of art also be pretty? Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, staged at the Royal Opera House Muscat from November 28 to 30, is so delightful and elegant that it’s hard to believe its subject matter could ever have been sensitive. Nonetheless, this opera, composed just before the French Revolution, was once considered a potentially risky business. Here’s a quick look at why and what to look out for in the Vienna State Opera’s production in Muscat.
A story with bite
The Marriage of Figaro is often remembered as a frothy comedy involving mistaken identity, people hiding in cupboards and girls dressed as boys. Scratch the surface, however, and the plot is fairly harsh. A decadent aristocrat, Count Almaviva, is trying to use his power to force his wife’s servant, Susanna, to sleep with him on the night of her wedding to the count’s valet, Figaro.
Based on a work written by the Frenchman Pierre de Beaumarchais in 1778, the original play so shocked France’s Louis XVI with its attack on the aristocratic elite’s shaky morals that he banned it from being performed. When it was licensed for the stage in 1784 – following cuts – it became the most successful French play of the 18th century.
To make it past Austrian censors, Mozart had to tone things down. The most critical speeches were removed, while the relationship between the Count and his wife was pumped with extra warmth. Yet in its portrayal of the uncomfortable mix of intimacy and dominance in relationships between bosses and their staff, the opera still packs a punch.
It’s not the message of The Marriage of Figaro that has kept it so fresh, it’s the opera’s music. Mozart’s songs are a textbook example of the best of western music’s classical period – elegant and sophisticated but also tuneful and catchy.
Highlights include Voi che Sapete (You Who Know), in which the Countess’ servant boy Cherubino asks if his boyish crush on his mistress is really grown-up love. Charming and pretty, the song is also tongue in cheek – we all know that the singer playing Cherubino is really a fully grown woman who probably knows more about love than she’s letting on.
On catching Cherubino hiding in his wife’s bedroom (the opera has its fair share of stock comic shenanigans), Count Almaviva then sings the aria Non più Andrai (You Shall Go No More), threatening to pack his wife’s servant off for military service. It’s typical of the opera’s character that this isn’t a booming, dramatic number, but an utterly catchy tune of the sort you could remember and hum to yourself.
Characters to look out for
Anyone who has ever been forced to pamper or flatter a difficult boss can identify with the character of Figaro. Clever, but forced to dance attendance on his aristocratic master, Figaro is one of those rare heroes who lives in a world where he really doesn’t call the shots.
More touching, perhaps, is the figure of the Count’s wife, Rosina, a beauty approaching middle age who is dismayed because her husband’s roving eye suggests he no longer loves her. Given what an old goat her husband is, the audience might be tempted to feel the count’s growing indifference to her isn’t such a bad thing, but I suppose she gets points for constancy.
Throwing a cat among the pigeons, and getting some great music, is another female character – the fiery Marcellina. A woman turns up insisting that Figaro is legally contracted to marry her, but who in the end turns out to be … well, you’ll have to watch the opera to find out.
• The Marriage of Figaro is at the Royal Opera House Muscat from November 28 to 30. For more information, visit www.rohmuscat.org.om
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