Dec. 22, 2022

Same Story; Different Century


When one thinks of Mozart, powdered wigs and formal minuets might first come to mind—probably not bright red convertibles or disco balls. Yet the latter appear in Michael Grandage’s production of The Marriage of Figaro. While the opera was originally set in 18th-century Seville, in this version, we’re still in southern Spain, but it’s the late 1960s. The stately set by Christopher Oram references the country’s Moroccan-Muslim influence and its grand Alhambra-inspired architecture, and within this beautiful and intricate setting, Oram’s vivid costumes, full of bright swirls and velvet suits, keep us firmly anchored in the free-love counterculture.

The eye-popping visuals in this production are wonderful to look at, but it is still fair to ask: what does that have to do with Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera, or Pierre Beaumarchais’s play—the story’s basis, and a political and social satire of the 1700s aristocracy? The answer is, quite a bit. The political and social dynamics of the mid-1700s and 1960s Spain were remarkably similar.

Beaumarchais’s Le mariage de Figaro, the source material for Da Ponte’s libretto, was first performed in 1784, two years before the opera made its premiere. The play took Europe by storm from the moment it opened at the Théâtre Français, earning the highest ticket sales of any 18th-century French play—after two rounds of censors moved the story from France to Spain, various diatribes against the aristocracy were cut or altered, and King Louis XVI himself signed off on its production.

Beaumarchais started writing the play at about the same time that the French government officially entered the American Revolution; not coincidentally, he played an integral role in persuading the French government to help the American revolutionaries, personally overseeing delivery of French arms and assistance, and lobbying officials to aid the Americans. Adding to that, five years after the play’s premiere, the French Revolution caught fire, and later critics wrote that Le mariage de Figaro had inspired the country’s revolutionary spirit. Napoleon Bonaparte said that the play was “the Revolution put into action.” In short, Beaumarchais was an Enlightenment-era revolutionary.

When Mozart and Da Ponte were adapting the play, it had already been banned from public performance in Austria. Once written, Emperor Joseph II had to personally approve Da Ponte’s libretto. The most famous and controversial monologue in the work, in which Figaro denounces the aristocracy—“What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more.”—had to be removed from the opera, though Da Ponte still found a way to criticize class dynamics. These were the sentiments, of course, that spurred the revolutionary spirit in the late 18th century. This revolutionary spirit was also strong in 1960s Spain.

HGO also presented Michael Grandage’s eye-popping production of The Marriage of Figaro in 2016. All photos: Lynn Lane.

After the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, General Francisco Franco centralized power in an authoritarian regime known as Francoist Spain. Throughout his dictatorship, which lasted until his death in 1975, Franco propped up nationalism and traditionalism, repressing and censoring political or social movements that sought democracy. In the first 20 years of his regime, political 

prisoners accounted for the majority of the country’s imprisoned population. There were an estimated 200,000 politically motivated killings over the same period. During the late 1960s, student revolts emerged at universities all over Spain, which were then violently repressed by the government police.

The revolutionary spirit is not the only parallel between the late 1700s and the 1960s. In both time periods, the social dynamics of sexual politics were in crucial transition: think Woodstock or the Summer of Love. The plot of The Marriage of Figaro hinges on a medieval feudal right, the droit du seigneur, or the “right of the lord.” This refers to the supposed right that feudal lords had to bed their servants on their wedding nights, before their husbands. Modern scholars debate whether this was ever a true legal right or if it was only accepted common practice, and just how common it was. In any case, it was the understood practice that upper-class men openly wielded their tyrannical power to exert sexual influence over lower-class women.

By the time the French feudal system was ending with the onset of the Revolution, the droit du seigneur was an oft-discussed but out-of-date characteristic of a social hierarchy that represented the fading power of the revolutionary-era aristocracy. In play and opera, the Count wishes to exercise this antiquated right and wield his power for sexual gain, bedding Susanna himself before her new husband Figaro. The fact that the couple outwit him is, in itself, an illustration of the plot’s revolutionary commentary on both social hierarchy and sexual politics, made even more powerful by the participation of the Countess as their accomplice. Similarly, the free-love counterculture of the 1960s served as a revolutionary challenge to long-held attitudes.

A comparison of Beaumarchais’s and Da Ponte’s texts yields another layer to the discussion: female culpability for male infidelity, and social dynamics between women of different classes. In the Beaumarchais, the Count bloviates about his theories of marriage, in which the husband is responsible for “obtaining” the wife, and the wife is responsible for “keeping” the man—in practice, a woman has the duty to bring “variety” to the marriage and, if unsuccessful, is to blame for her husband’s infidelity. This is seemingly also the viewpoint of Beaumarchais, as Richard Andrews argues in his 2001 article for the journal Music & Letters: it is structurally presented as the “lesson which all those characters accept they have to learn.”

Da Ponte, on the other hand, does not lay the blame at the Countess’s feet: he removes the Count’s diatribe from the text and structures the Countess’s arias to illustrate a wife abandoned. Add to this the dynamic between the Countess and Susanna: in the Beaumarchais, the Countess sometimes distrusts her lower-class counterpart; Da Ponte and Mozart give the two women a sublime moment of equality in the letter duet, “Sull’aria.”

Even within the late 18th-century, from Beaumarchais to Da Ponte, we see the influence sexual politics had on social thought regarding class structure, and revolutionary thought toward that class structure. It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that Andrews’s article, subtitled “A New View of the Sexual Politics of Figaro”—about the Beaumarchais and Da Ponte, and not at all about the 1960s—mentions “the changes in sexual ideology and behavior which have taken place in Western industrial society during the last 30 years or so.” Since he was writing in 2001, he was referencing the very era when this production of Figaro is set.

The political and social parallels between the late 1700s and the 1960s offer fertile ground to cultivate when examining power structures and sexual dynamics—two of the primary character motivations in The Marriage of Figaro. Resetting the opera in the 1960s allows us to examine its politics through a modern lens. Not only that, we get to enjoy the red convertible and disco ball. 

Resetting the opera in the 1960s allows us to examine its politics through a modern lens.

about the author
Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg & Associate Director of New Works for Houston Grand Opera.