Of the Beaumarchais Figaro trilogy of plays, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro live on both in their own right and through the operas that mark cornerstones of the repertory, while the third play, The Guilty Mother, has provided the foundation for a fascinating, challenging 20th-century work. The enduring character of the wily Figaro, and the other personalities drawn into his orbit by Beaumarchais, have appealed to numerous composers beyond the untouchable Rossini and Mozart. Yet in those two supreme musical examples, the works largely retain their original qualities of wit, spirit and humanity, attesting to their dramaturgical strength and continual theatricality.
THE BARBER OF SEVILLE
Neatly anticipating its Rossinian apotheosis 43 years later, the Beaumarchais piece began as a libretto for a comic opera, but was rejected as such by the Comédie-Italienne theater. Beaumarchais revised his idea in 1773, but due to legal and political problems (seemingly endemic in his career), Barber was not performed until 1775 at the Comédie-Française. Poorly received at first, Beaumarchais, a master of theatrical strategy, went back to work and after some fast editing (three days), its return was a roaring success. It is said that Marie Antoinette acted (apparently skillfully) the part of Rosine in a court production.
There were several operatic versions, but Giovanni Paisiello’s popular Barber (1782) was the one to beat. A hit all over Europe, Paisiello’s Barber apparently prompted Mozart and Da Ponte to create their Figaro. But then along came Rossini, and in 1816 (and in only three weeks) he penned his Barber of Seville, an exuberant masterpiece which eclipsed poor Paisiello’s worthy work and remains one of the most often-performed works in the operatic canon today.
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
The Marriage of Figaro’s perceived revolutionary content and the consequent involvement with the censor is immediately apparent in the difficulty of getting it to the stage. After the great success of Barber, a sequel seemed a no-fail idea; Beaumarchais had completed a version by 1778. Initially, the text was approved with minor changes by the official censor, but a private reading before the French court so shocked King Louis XVI that he forbade public presentation. Beaumarchais completed revisions, and the new version was played to the Royal Family in September 1783. The King, seemingly now unthreatened, allowed a license for performance. It opened in April 1784 and was the single greatest success in the history of French 18th-century theater.
Upon his initial viewing of the work, King Louis XVI had remarked, “the Bastille would need to be pulled down before such a play could be staged.” Eight years later, the Bastille indeed fell, followed in short order by his own head. The revolutionary firebrand Georges Danton said the play “killed off the nobility;” Napoleon called it “the Revolution already put into action” (before he himself killed off the Revolution). Its subversive power continued into the 20th century: during the occupation of Paris, the Nazis allowed Barber to be revived but refused to allow Marriage to be staged.
Even though the play had been banned in Vienna, Mozart asked Da Ponte to create a libretto from it, which he did with great skill, at the same time prudently muting its political content, “omitting anything that might offend good taste or public decency.” The opera premiered in May 1786 with considerable success, and the rest is history.
THE GUILTY MOTHER, OR THE OTHER TARTUFFE
In 1791 Beaumarchais completed the next sequel, The Guilty Mother. It was to have been staged at the Comédie-Française, but the author (typically) fell out with management, and it was premiered at another theater a year later, running for 15 performances. By the time it was finally presented at the Comédie-Française in 1797, concessions to the prevailing orthodoxy of the Revolution had to be made; for instance, the aristocratic titles of the Almavivas were repressed. Thereafter the work fell out of the general repertory. Its sentiments seemed to belong to the ancient regime rather than the new political and social realities.
Set 20 years after Marriage, The Guilty Mother is a somewhat odd conclusion to the Figaro trilogy. The Countess, after a one-night stand with Chérubin (which she immediately deeply regrets), had a son, who has been brought up as an heir of the Count. Chérubin, wracked with guilt, allowed himself to be mortally wounded in battle. The Count has also fathered a illegitimate daughter, and the two offspring are in love. Incest, guilt, thwarted love affairs, lost letters, contested wills, a melodramatic villain, and the intrigues of the now-older married couple, Suzanne and Figaro, are all ingredients in this mix.
Composer Darius Milhaud’s operatic version was performed in 1966 (and rarely seen again). John Corigliano, working with playwright William Hoffman, took a broader, meta-opera approach in The Ghosts of Versailles, which had a Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1991. In that work, the ghost of Beaumarchais now enters the story himself and uses the familiar figures in an attempt to change history and to save Marie Antoinette. Corigliano writes his bravura fantasia in a number of styles and quotes Rossini and Mozart.
Beaumarchais lives on in his Figaro plays as well as in the enduring fascination of his extraordinary life. The plays are masterpieces of comic technique, invention and, above all, tolerant, civilizing values. As noted by David Coward, “Beaumarchais does not mock with the corrosive comedy of derision but with a ’gaiety’ rooted in the exhilarating spirit of joyful reconciliation which crowns The Marriage”…and leads to its highest expression in Mozart.
THE GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES: A PERSONAL VIEW FROM JOHN CONKLIN
I was hired by the Metropolitan Opera to work with the director Colin Graham, composer John Corigliano, librettist and Bill Hoffmann, and conductor James Levine to design the sets and costumes for the world premiere production of The Ghosts of Versailles. The creators conceived a work that would utilize the extensive resources of the Met; set mainly in a dreamlike, haunted Palace of Versailles, it featured scenes in the teeming streets of revolutionary Paris, a tribunal, a prison, the gardens of Versailles, and a reception at the Turkish embassy. To give an idea of the scale of the production, at the end of the first act there were 175 people onstage.
The work was exciting to design and entertaining to watch, but for me, it was also unfocused. Subsequent productions, with different directors and designers and with chamber orchestras, have showcased the opera in a more favorable light —all potent examples of how a piece can evolve and, over time, reveal core strengths that were not immediately apparent.
John Conklin is an internationally-recognized set designer and dramaturg. He has designed sets on and off -Broadway, at the Kennedy Center and for opera companies around the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Bastille Opera in Paris, the Royal Opera and the opera houses of Munich, Amsterdam, and Bologna, among many others. Mr. Conklin is on the faculty of New York University’s Tisch School and has served as the Artistic Advisor to BLO since 2009.
April 28 – May 7 at John Hancock Hall at the Back Bay Events Center
Images, top to bottom: Statue of Beaumarchais by Louis Clausade, 1895, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris; the gardens and orangery at the Palace of Versailles; James Levine: Celebrating 40 Years at the Met: The Ghosts of Versailles, conducted by James Levine, featuring Teresa Stratas, Håkan Hagegård, Gino Quilico, Marilyn Horne, Graham Clark, and Renée Fleming; DVD, 1992.
This article originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Coda magazine.