Saturday, May 9, 2009

La Commedia

It's harder to be funny than it is to be tragic. Wit requires intelligence, timing and a sense of the absurd which implies, I suppose, a sort of distance from the matter at hand. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect comic opera. There is cross-dressing, mistaken identities, role reversals, servants smarter than their masters, and endless plots and tricks woven by almost all the characters for the purpose of, at the very end, illuminating the truth of things. As in King Lear, a fool or a clown can challenge even a King. And there's no fool like love's fool, yes?

And so, the primary agent of chaos in the opera is Cherubino, a young man, probably 13 or 14, who is in love with love. He is a “pants” role—a male role sung by a woman—and while he is not involved in either of the main plots, he is a catalyst. He is here, he is there, always disrupting things, concealed at first (underneath a cloak, behind a chair, in a closet), then revealed (or barely escaping being revealed). Events change course because of his presence. He is obviously Eros, the young, winged god of love, upsetting everyone’s settled expectations.

We first meet Cherubino after he has been discovered by his patron Count Almaviva, the philanderer, messing around with a gypsy girl, Barbarina. The Count is jealous of all the women under his eye, even though he is not faithful to his wife. He orders Cherubino to leave. Cherubino runs to the Countess Almaviva’s lady-in-waiting (and Figaro’s fiancée), Susannah, in the hopes of getting the Countess to intercede on his behalf. The Countess is his godmother and he has a mad crush on her. He sings his famous aria “Non so più” which begins:

I don’t know any more what I am,
what I’m doing.
Now I’m fire, now I’m ice…

He tells Susannah that all he can do is sing about love—to the air, to the trees—and if no one’s there he sings about love [dramatic pause in the music] to himself! The Count is heard approaching and Susannah hides Cherubino behind a chair. The Count wants Susannah. Susannah is faithful to Figaro and pointedly suggests the Count look elsewhere. While avoiding his roving hands, she is also keeping an eye on the concealed Cherubino, screeching or fainting away dramatically, when the boy attempts an unwise escape.

From that moment, Cherubino seems always to be around. Even the Count notices this and sings, “is that brat everywhere?” He is, of course, because he’s Love, although he himself does not know this. The god has taken him unawares. His second famous aria is “Voi che sapete,” in which he asks Susannah and the Countess if what he is feeling is love. He’s not sure. He sighs, he trembles, more fire, more ice and then the wonderful line, “But still I rather enjoy languishing this way.” He swears to the Countess that a piece of her ribbon that he stole from Susannah has the power to heal wounds. He throws himself at her feet. He sighs some more.

Because this is a comedy, gender bending is encouraged. Susannah and the Countess come up with a plot to catch the Count out in unfaithfulness which, because it is now exposed, will return him to her. They decide to dress Cherubino as Susannah and have him meet the Count as a woman. Both ladies sing about the whiteness of Cherubino’s skin, his smooth hands, his clear voice. Susannah even sings, “You snake! Stop being so beautiful.” That plot doesn’t come off for various reasons, but Cherubino later disguises himself as a woman to be with Barbarina. He is, of course, revealed and the Count chases him away.

The opera closes at night, in the Count’s garden, with a set of tricks and mistaken identities that follow one after the other in dizzying tempo. Cherubino is not involved, but he is around, flitting across the stage with Barbarina or alone, singing a few words to whomever is there and then running off again. The opera ends with everyone unmasked. Three pairs of lovers confront the Count and he sees the error of his ways. Earlier, the Count had sung about how this day—Figaro and Susannah’s wedding day—had been sent to him straight from Hell. The only remedy to the plots and tricks and hellish confusion is, of course, love.

The Marriage of Figaro is not an opera that can be modernized. The class relationships are meaningless now, but because Mozart and da Ponte were pretty much geniuses, it doesn’t matter. Everyone recognizes love and longing. Everyone laughs (and winces) at the confusion brought on by a young boy in the first flush of adolescent love, and an older man who has forgotten what love is. And, I think, everyone recognizes the insistent, androgynous voice of desire that refuses to stop singing, even when we would really rather it shut the hell up and leave us alone.