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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Day of Madness, a Night of Glory

Comedy, intrigue and sadness in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

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One way of viewing Mozart’s operatic masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro is as a landmark embodying the final glories of 18th-century classicism—a gleaming summation of “ancient regime” European aristocracy. Set on the eve of the French revolution, Figaro can also be perceived as a harbinger of the emerging spirit of 19th-century democratic idealism. Yet 18th-century audiences—while delighting at Figaro’s schemes to save his fiancée from the clutches of his master, Count Almaviva—probably didn’t think of the opera as a presentiment of fearful things to come, but simply as a naughty satire on upper-class morality. Premiering in 1786, the libretto is based on a comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, a French nobleman censored for his liberal ideals.

Yet the most obvious interpretation of Marriage of Figaro is as a mellow sequel to a story that would be dramatized in 1816 through Rossini’s popular, but far more boisterous, Barber of Seville. What distinguishes the Mozart masterpiece is the greater humanity and soft-hued universal quality he brings to his characters. Rossini offers few moments of reflection in his unbridled funfest, whereas Mozart suffuses the story in a gentle nostalgic haze, highlighted by the countess’ reminiscences of happier times. The luscious score includes some of the most memorable tunes in the history of opera.

Yet Marriage of Figaro is also a funfest in its own right with plots and counter plots as Figaro and Susanna invent subtle ways to keep the count at bay. It’s a crowd-pleasing satirical comedy of manners and morals with less slapstick and more irony than Barber of Seville. Of course, none of this would have made Figaro such a popular masterpiece were it not for the guiding inspiration of the composer’s musical genius.

William Florescu, the Florentine Opera’s general director, has some strong views on Mozart and Rossini. “Both were great composers, but Rossini composed only opera whereas Mozart was a great composer who also composed operas,” he explains. He calls Marriage of Figaro Mozart’s greatest opera and “one of the three greatest operas of all time,” adding, “Susanna is the most important figure” in Figaro. “The momentum of the events surround her and she is one of Mozart’s most perfect creations—the opera might have been named The Marriage of Susanna.”

The universal appeal of Figaro lies in the sheer melodiousness of some of its tunes. Mention such Italian-titled arias as “Voi Che Sapete” and “Non Pui Andrai” to an indifferent non-lover of opera and you will draw a blank—until you play those irresistible melodies, which everyone has heard, even if they have never sat in an opera house.

The countess possesses two of Mozart’s most poignant arias; her controlled sadness counterpoints the merry madcap nature of Figaro’s plot, which unfolds during a single day of madness in which she ably participates. Mozart paints with a gentler brush than the brasher Rossini, concluding The Marriage of Figaro with one of the most moving episodes in all of opera as the count asks for the countess’ forgiveness in a beautiful passage, the basis for the opera’s finale. Florescu feels that the count “will go back to his former ways,” although Mozart’s music tends toward the beauty of the moment.

The Florentine’s production of The Marriage of Figaro will feature the internationally acclaimed Jamie-Rose Guarrine as Susanna, Diana McVey as the countess, Grammy-winner Daniel Belcher as Figaro, Adriana Zabala as Cherubino and Frank Kelley, familiar to Florentine audiences for his roles in Elmer Gantry and Rio de Sangre, as Basilio. Seasoned opera veteran Joseph Rescigno will conduct. Performances are on May 10 and 12, at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For ticket reservations, visit florentineopera.org or call 414-291-5700 ext. 224.

Steve Spice is a retired educator interested in cultural sociology, particularly the historical background of Western music and the early development of motion pictures.

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