LE NOZZE DI FIGARO
(Second act finale)
Lecture notes by Paul Zweifel
Before going into the analysis of the second act finale, I want to try to explain a little bit about the convoluted plot, without which knowledge the finale would be pretty incomprehensible.
First, we need to remember that Nozze di Figaro is derived from the second play of the Figaro trilogy written by the French renaissance man Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799). All three plays in the trilogy were made into operas. The first, Il barbier de Seville (1775), was originally made into an opera by Beaumarchais himself (it may never have been performed), later by Giovanni Paisiello (1782) and, most famously, by Gioachino Rossini (1816). The second play, Le marriage de Figaro (1778) was turned into the opera we are studying today by the librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1786). The third play, La mère coupable (1792) was the basis of a couple of operas, by Darius Milhaud (1966) and, in a Metropolitan Opera commission, by John Corigliano in 1983 under the title The ghosts of Versailles.
So, to understand Figaro we first have to know something about the opera that preceded it, Barber. (Note that many of the characters appear in all three plays-operas.) In Barber we meet the beautiful young orphan girl Rosina who is being jealously watched over by her guardian Dr. Bartolo, a basso buffo. (The part of Rosina was originally written for a mezzo-soprano, but today is sung frequently by a coloratura soprano, whose part is transposed up a semitone, I believe)
Before coming to Seville, Rosina had been observed in a square of Madrid during the passeggiata by the wealthy young nobleman, the tenor Count Almaviva. The Count followed Rosina to Seville and, with the help of a former servant of his, the baritone Figaro (who had moved to Seville and become a barber), he was able to win Rosina from Dr. Bartolo. Since Bartolo wanted to marry Rosina himself (for her inheritance), he never forgave Figaro for his part in the plot. (The Act I Figaro aria “Si vendetta” of Bartolo’s expresses these sentiments very clearly). Another character from Barber who reappears in Figaro is the evil Don Basilio, a basso in Barber but a tenor in Figaro. Note that he is a voice teacher!
The social satire of the Beaumarchais plays lies in the ability of the presumed lower servant class to outwit the nobility. This satire, which was played down in the operatic version of Le marriage de Figaro (or the Viennese censors would not have allowed it to be performed), was more clearly drawn in Rossini’s opera Barber. (Note the time lapse—Barber came later than Figaro by 30 years during which the French Revolution had come and gone and the nobility had lost much of the power it once possessed.) I don’t have time to compare the satire in the plays and the operas in this short lecture, but I do want to mention that many scholars credit the Beaumarchais plays with fomenting the French revolution. It’s hard for us to understand, in these days of rapid, mass communication, how plays could affect politics so severely, but in the absence of Facebook, Twitter, TV, radio, etc. people relied on the written or spoken word to a much greater extent than they do today. Remember that the pamphleteer Thomas Paine was one of the driving forces behind the American revolution.
In the opera Figaro the Count Almaviva (now a baritone instead of a tenor) and Rosina, now the Countess and a soprano, are married and living in an estate, Aguas Frescas, about 20 miles outside Seville. Three years have passed, but the Count is already tiring of his bride and, is in fact, seeking a little extra-marital action. He bitterly regrets having abolished the so-called Droit de Seigneur, which gave the lord of the manor the right to deflower every peasant bride on her wedding night. But he has another arrow in his quiver. Figaro, who has accompanied the Count to Aguas Frescas (the name, incidentally, is a satirical reference to the Count’s desire to immerse himself in fresh “waters”) is engaged to the Countess’ maid, Susanna, a lyric soprano who, in the opera, is the smart servant, Figaro being a little dull-witted. Susanna warns Figaro that the Count is after her (he actually offers to pay her for sex) and the two plot revenge, aided and abetted by the Countess and the sex-crazed adolescent Cherubino who is madly in love with the Countess. Their idea is to disguise Cherubino as a girl (an easy job, as he is, in fact, a mezzo-soprano in a pants role) and have her/him make an assignation with the Count in the garden for later that night. At the same time they will arrange for an anonymous letter to be delivered to the Count warning him that his wife is due to meet an unknown lover that night in the garden. Why all this? Don’t ask me, I didn’t dream up the stupid story. Ask Beaumarchais. (Just to let you know, Cherubino and the Countess eventually have a one-night stand, the day before Cherubino is killed in battle, hence her designation “guilty mother.” But to learn about this you have to read La mere coupable or see The Ghosts of Versailles. Their love scene in Ghosts is by far the most beautiful part, both dramatically and musically, of that opera—in my opinion.)
Cherubino is not supposed to be in the palace at all, since at the end of Act I the Count has banished him for sexual misconduct and commissioned him an officer in his personal regiment. Cherubino is sneaking around the manor, carrying his commission papers with him, trying to avoid going to the army. An important dramatic point which arises in the Act II finale is that the Count has forgotten to affix his official seal to the commission. (Listen for the word “sugello” repeated several times during the finale.)
Another important subplot involves Bartolo’s mistress Marcellina, a mezzo-soprano, who has, sometime in the past, lent money to Figaro with his promise to marry her if the money is not repaid be a certain date. (It hasn’t been.) Why she wants to marry him is never made clear, since she is old enough to be his mother. In fact, as it turns out in Act III, she is his mother, so marriage now becomes out of the question (since the opera was not written by either Richard Wagner or Alben Berg). In both the Barber opera and the play a daughter of Figaro’s named Marcellina is mentioned—once. How she became his mother in Nozze is never explained. Her quest to marry Figaro is abetted by both Dr. Bartolo and evil Don Basilio.
Then, to round out the plot, there is Susanna’s uncle, the gardener Antonio (a character tenor) and his daughter, Susanna’s cousin, the soprano Barberina (who has a nice little aria di sorbetto in Act IV).
Act II begins with the Countess lamenting the lost love of the Count in the short but beautiful aria Porgi Amor. She is asking the god of love, Amor (aka Eros or Cupid) either to bring her lover back to her or to let her die. Part of the coolness of the love life of Count and Countess which the Countess is lamenting can be discerned by a careful reading of the text. In Barber, the two lovers, at least sometimes, gave each other the “tu” as they say in Italian, i.e. use the familiar form of the second person. (“Caro a te mi raccomando, tu mi salva per pieta” Rosina sings during the lesson scene. But in Figaro they always address each other formally, as “voi.”) Only twice in the opera does the Count call his wife by her first name, “Rosina,” in the finale we will watch in a few moments. As far as her addressing him similarly, we never even learn his first name! (If you will listen carefully for the interplay between “tu” and “voi” among all the characters, you will gain knowledge of plot’s undercurrents not only in Figaro but in most other Italian operas as well.) For example, the Count addresses Figaro formally as an ironic gesture at the beginning of the fourth segment of the finale: “Conoscete Signor Figaro, questo foglio chi vergò?” However, it is normal for employers to address servants as “tu” as the Count does does on the next page of the score: “Tu c’intende.”
After the Countess’ aria, Susanna (who is more of a sister to her than a servant) appears, and Cherubino sings his/her great aria, Voi che sapete. (His/her first-act aria , Non so piu’ cosa son, cosa faccio, with its quite explicit reference to masturbation, is preferred by many Mozart scholars as a keener portrayal of Cherubino’s anima.)
The ladies now start disguising Cherubino as a girl, noting that the Count is off hunting and will not be there to interfere with their plot. They partially undress her/him and begin to clothe him as a girl. However the anonymous letter referred to earlier has somehow been delivered to the Count before it was supposed to be, and he comes storming to the Countess’ chambers determined to find out what is going on. He pounds on the door while Susanna hides behind a curtain and the half-naked Cherubino hides, in the Countess’ bedroom or a closet, depending on the staging. Whichever it is, the door to it is locked, and the Count drags his wife away with him while he procures tools to break down the door despite the Countess’ protestations that it is only Susanna in déshabillé within (allegedly trying on her wedding dress). After the Count and Countess leave, Cherubino jumps out of the window (right into a bed of carnations, and dropping his commission therein) and Susanna takes his place in the locked chamber. Needless to say, the Count’s unexpected appearance has put the quietus to the plot Figaro, Susanna and the Countess have been hatching (although Figaro is not aware of what has happened, an ignorance which plays an important part in the upcoming finale).
Before discussing the second-act finale, I want to say a little bit about Acts III and IV. In Act III Figaro discovers that Marcellina is his mother and Bartolo is his father. Further, the Count is more-or-less blackmailed into allowing Figaro and Susanna to marry; they are joined in a double wedding by Bartolo and Marcellina who have been enjoying a relationship not sanctioned by God. But perhaps most important, Susanna and the Countess hatch up their own little plot, in which they conspire to exchange identities and allow themselves to be wooed by their own husbands (who of course are unaware of the switch). This leads to a comedy-of errors Act IV which takes some study to understand, dramatically. The duet in which Susanna and the Countess plan their switcheroo, “Sull aria” is, I think, the musical high point of the opera.
Going back to Act II, The Count and Countess return to her chambers, and before the Count can break the door down, the Countess, not knowing what has transpired in their absence, confesses that it is indeed Cherubino hiding within. The Count is furious, and in a loud voice gets the finale off to a rousing start “Esci omai garzon malnato”, ordering Cherubino to come out.
Now, in the canonical construction of Opere buffe, every act was required to have a finale in which, if the entire cast didn’t appear onstage, at least most of it did. But there are no canonical rules for the construction of these finales. Mozart chose to construct this finale as a huge sonata form. You all know what the sonata form is. The music is divided into three parts: an exposition, a development section and a recapitulation in which we return to the exposition. The important ingredient here is the tonic key, in which the exposition begins (almost always marked allegro) and to which we return in the recapitulation. In the exposition, more themes enter, modulated to different keys, first to the dominant and then perhaps to other closely related keys, as, for example, the relative minor.
In the second section, the development, more themes are introduced in more, related, keys as the music returns, by a circuitous route, to the tonic, and with it the third and final section, the recapitulation (again marked allegro). This is the classic sonata form, as introduced, I believe, by Haydn, or one of that gang. Mozart was very fond of this form, and although the arias in his opere serie were invariably written in one of the various baroque forms, by the time he reached the Da Ponte stage of his career he began to write his arias in sonata form. I hope to give you all a lecture about the evolution of the aria next semester, but in the meantime you might spend some profitable time studying the sonata-like structure of the arias in Mozart’s late operas.
Now, how does all this apply to the second-act finale of Figaro? It begins in the tonic key of Eb Major, marked allegro. (Eb was Mozart’s favorite key, perhaps because three was his favorite number.) The finale then proceeds first to Bb, the dominant, then to G and down along the circle of fifths to C, F, Bb, and finally, back to the tonic Eb. Linking these sections with the sonata form, the last section (allegro assai) is the recapitulation although the thematic material does not closely match anything found in the exposition, which comprises the first two sections (in Eb and Bb). The development continues in the middle sections, in G, C, F and Bb which is, you must agree, a circuitous route (right down the circle of fifths) from the dominant back to the tonic. The listener, perhaps unconsciously, is waiting for the resolution to the tonic, and doesn’t feel fulfilled until it is attained. Most of the key changes are by a process called “tonicization” rather than modulation. That is, they are sudden shifts to a new key, mirroring a dramatic crisis. These sudden key changes call the audience’s attention to the dramatic crisis being portrayed at that instance, and are immensely effective. As you listen to the finale, take note especially of the key changes.
Let’s just briefly review what’s happening. As I remarked before, the finale begins in Eb (marked allegro as the exposition of a sonata invariably is; in fact sometimes the term sonata-allegro from is used). The Count is excoriating the Countess for presumably having hidden Cherubino in her chambers. As the Count demands that Cherubino appear, Susanna emerges, to a new key, the dominant, Bb. (First dramatic crisis). This section is marked andante. For a number of pages the Count tries to apologize to his wife, but she and Susanna continue to apply the (moral) pressure on him. Suddenly, to a new key (G), allegro, Figaro appears asking that the wedding preparations proceed. (We are now entering the development section of the sonata.) Then things suddenly turn sinister in the key of C as the Count confronts Figaro with the anonymous letter. (This section is marked andante.) Figaro denies knowing anything about it, an out-and-out lie since he in fact wrote it. The problem here is that he is not aware that the Count already knows he wrote the letter--Susanna and the Countess have already confessed complicity in writing it “as a joke” during the earlier Bb section of the finale. The two ladies now prompt Figaro to tell the truth, pretending to jog his memory. This little quartet section is a model of musical, dramatic, and literary excellence.
Suddenly the key changes to F and the tempo to allegro molto as the gardener, Antonio, rushes in complaining that someone has thrown a person out of the window, and that person, whoever he is or was, has landed in his flower beds and damaged his carnations! Of course, he is referring to Cherubino who, we learned earlier, had escaped by jumping out the window, but in an attempt at concealment Figaro announces that he himself, Figaro, had jumped from the window (and injured his foot in so doing). Antonio and the Count are both dubious, and to cement their doubts Antonio produces the document that Cherubino has dropped in the flower bed. The key changes suddenly to Bb (and the tempo to andante) as the Count, seizing the document, asks Figaro to identify it. With some sotto voce coaching from the two ladies, Figaro succeeds in identifying it as Cherubino’s commission and is even able to explain why it was in his, Figaro’s possession: he was arranging for the missing sugello to be attached. Antonio now leaves.
And, finally, we return to the tonic recapitulation, Eb (allegro assai moving eventually to prestissimo) as the three conspirators, Marcellina, Don Bartolo and Don Basilio enter to press Marcellina’s claim on Figaro. The sonata, and the act, end on a raucous note (or actually, a whole host of raucous notes) as everyone argues with everyone else and the Count tries to exert his influence as official ajudicator. He is hardly a disinterested party; he has been aiding and abetting Marcellina all along in her pursuit of Figaro, reasoning that Susanna would thereby be left for him to sexually abuse.
Note the alteration of fast and slow tempi which contrast the various sections. Also, the musical tension builds to a climax in the G Major andante section (Figaro’s entrance to a 3:8 peasant-like dance rhythm) and then gradually relaxes as the music proceeds down the circle of fifths in the subdominant direction creating a super-sized authentic cadence to the tonic of Eb, finally bringing the listener “home.”
I originally learned about the structure of the second-act finale of Figaro from an intermission lecture by Boris Goldovsky during a Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast. Alas, these very worthwhile lectures are a thing of the past, as the Met management somehow prefers to bug the singers with asinine interviews while they are supposed to be preparing for the next act. I strongly recommend the book by Andrew Steptoe “The Mozart-da Ponte Operas.” An analysis of the second-act finale of Figaro can be found in Chapter 8.