San Francisco Opera | 'The Marriage of Figaro': Fomenting the French Revolution?

'The Marriage of Figaro': Fomenting the French Revolution?

This essay was published in the June 2015 issue of San Francisco Opera Magazine.

Before The Marriage of Figaro became one of the world’s most beloved operas—with 420 global performances during the 2013-14 season alone—it was, like many operas, a play.

But what a play! La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro was written as a five-act comedy in 1778 by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, and was no simple dramatic exercise. Loaded with subtext, this original Figaro was considered nothing less than an incendiary call to both political and social uprising. When it was finally staged six years later in 1784, an exiled Napoleon Bonaparte called it “the Revolution already put into action.”

Could this really be the origin of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s light-as-air romantic comedy we all know and love? To understand this is to dig a little deeper into the prevailing political climate of the day.

During the politically volatile years just before the French Revolution, Beaumarchais— originally a Parisian watchmaker, journalist and publisher—echoed the frustration of the masses by suggesting in his work that there ought to be social equality, and also by heaping contempt on persons of noble birth. Servants were more clever and humane than their aristocratic masters. And Figaro himself could be downright insubordinate, occasionally even venting his anger directly to the Count’s face.

In a famed speech by Beaumarchais’ Figaro (during which sections of the audience were known to rise to their feet, shouting approval) he lashed out at his lord, Count Bartholo: “Because you are a great nobleman, you think you are a great genius. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”

Yes, Spain—not France. For in order to have the play produced at all, Beaumarchais was forced to change its dramatic location.

After being accepted for production by the Comédie Française in 1781, at a private reading before the French court, the play so shocked King Louis XVI that he refused to grant permission for the play’s production. The king was quoted as saying, prophetically, “For this play not to be a danger, the Bastille would have to be torn down first.” Beaumarchais revised the text, moving the action from France to Spain, and the piece was again played to a private audience that included members of the Royal Family in September 1783. The censors still refused to license the play for public performance, but the king personally gave his approval.

Le Mariage de Figaro finally opened at the Théâtre Français on April 27, 1784 and ran for 68 consecutive performances, earning higher box-office receipts than any other French play of the 18th century. The author, again proving his “man of the people” image a true one, gave his share of the profits to charity.

(Not content with fomenting revolution at home, Beaumarchais also actively encouraged France’s support of the American Revolution, even organizing the shipment of military equipment, which led to the colonies’ victory at Saratoga.)

Mozart was also faced with questions regarding Figaro’s revolutionary zeal when he and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte proposed turning the popular play into an opera; they allayed the concerns of their patron, the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II, by transforming the story into a light comedy. Indeed, in a comic scene in the film Amadeus, the Emperor initially reacts negatively, saying, “Figaro is a bad play. It stirs up hatred between the classes… My own dear sister Antoinette writes me that she is beginning to be frightened of her own people.”

And yet, permission was granted, and in 1786 Mozart and Da Ponte converted Figaro into an Italian operatic libretto, Le Nozze di Figaro. But as happened in Paris, the Viennese censors would have their way with it. Some of the play’s controversial aspects were removed, thus ensuring that future generations would view Figaro merely as a charming comedy of manners, not the caustic revolutionary vehicle Beaumarchais intended.

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