A Forgotten Operatic Tale of Figaro Returns After 176 Years

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There are many ways to define opera lovers. One I often use is that there are those who want to see a handful of standard repertory works over and over again (“I just love La Traviata”) and others who always want something new and exotic. I fit into both categories. There are always new things we can get from masterpieces but opera becomes more meaningful when we investigate new works and lost treasures. By seeing these, we expand our notions of what opera can be and also realize that works we take for granted, such as Le Nozze di Figaro (1786) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816), are fired with genius.

I particularly mention these works by Mozart and Rossini because, as you know, they are linked in having shared characters all created by the French playwright Beaumarchais. Il Barbiere is Figaro, a pragmatic jack-of-all-trades baritone who cleverly helps the Count Almaviva (a tenor) woo and win Rosina (usually a mezzo-soprano), a bright and self-reliant ward of Dr. Bartolo.

Although the Mozart was composed earlier, it is based on a later play. The Count has become a baritone and is no longer faithful to his wife, the Countess Almaviva (aka Rosina), who is now a soprano. In her sadness, she has become an immensely appealing character, loved by us as well as the 17-year-old Cherubino (played by a mezzo-soprano in permanent hormonal overdrive). Figaro is now a bass in service to the count and in love with Susanna, the soprano who is the Countess’s maid and confidante.

Susanna is one of the longest and most challenging roles in opera, a fact seldom acknowledged because she seems winsome and charming. But the soubrette soprano who sings Susanna must be made of stern stuff. Figaro is engaged to marry Susanna and the Count feels it is his right to bed her. With a superb chiaroscuro libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte and Mozart music to match, the opera is as nearly perfect as can be imagined.

And yet Beaumarchais created more stories about these characters and other composers have used them with greater or lesser success. I am an admirer of John Corigliano’s 1991 work, The Ghosts of Versailles, one of the great contemporary operas. It was supposed to have come back to the Met in the 2009-2010 season with Angela Gheorghiu and Thomas Hampson, but it was canceled due to costs, and both stars appeared in a Traviata that marked the debut of James Valenti and the bizarre incident of conductor Leonard Slatkin being woefully unprepared and blogging about it too.

Another opera, Saverio Mercadante’s I Due Figaro (The Two Figaros) from 1826, used its libretto by Felice Romani to tease out more situations with the characters we already know. Due to censorship laws, the opera did not have its premiere, in Madrid, until 1835. Mercadante was born in Altamura (in Puglia) in 1795 and died in Naples in 1870. He was one the most popular composers of his time, not only in Italy but also in Spain, where he was a court composer. The Figaro stories are set in or near Seville and Mercadante wrote his opera to amuse Spanish tastes and challenge the nation’s mores.

Here we have Susanna still overworked and pursued by the Count and other men. Figaro is still befuddled (a long way from Rossini’s self-assured Barber), the Countess more morose than ever and the Count still the lord of the roost. But there are differences. The Count is a tenor (as in the Rossini), he and his wife have an almost-adult daughter, Inez, who wants to marry the young man she loves. And Cherubino, still a mezzo, has grown up and clearly has more sexual experience than in the Mozart.

It would take great effort on my part, and considerable patience on yours, to get through all the plot twists, but suffice it to say that Cherubino inveigles his way into the Almaviva household with comic effect. In disguise becomes a rival to Figaro in service to the Count (and is therefore the “second” Figaro of the title). He still makes the Countess’s pulse race, if only because he pays attention to her. He uses his wiles to woo Inez and marries her in the end, while delighting the audience and exasperating the Count and Figaro.

I Due Figaro Comes to Salzburg

The modern revival of I Due Figaro was instigated by Riccardo Muti, who completes his tenure as artistic director of the Pfingstfestspiele in Salzburg. This less-known but important festival with the unpronounceable name refers to the long weekend in June around the celebration of Whitsuntide (Pentecost).

The opera certainly has its merits musically. Like many early 19th century Neapolitan comedies, the first act is too long (95 minutes) and there is some repetitive sing-songy music. Figaro in particular is asked to sing a lot of fast music but, as performed by Mario Cassi, it was more about patter than verve. The first act of I Due Figaro has flashes of Spanishness and Rossinian energy, but never quite takes off, although the Count has good solo music. But the second act, at about 75 minutes, offers a great deal of gorgeous music, especially for Susanna, and a rich assortment of solos, duets and an elegant sextet.

Muti used the highly responsive Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, a group of very young musicians who played the music as he bid them to do so. Muti is a believer in come scritto (playing as written), which might be fine for Verdi or Richard Strauss, but can make the likes of Mercadante sound, at times, dry and academic. A conductor needs to find places for the music to breathe and be expressive.

The singers in the cast were also youthful and ranged in quality from acceptable to excitingly good. The three standouts were Eleonora Buratto as Susanna, who had the best music; Annalisa Stroppa as a clever and vibrant Cherubino and, especially, Antonio Poli as the count. Poli is tall and attractive, commands the stage effortlessly, has a fine voice and sings knowledgeably, elegantly and with total freedom. One felt we were in the presence of a star-in-the-making.

Overcoming a Controversial Premiere?

Why is it that some operas of great value disappear or get few hearings? As often as not they have a mediocre or disastrous opening night and never recover. Two that did were Il Barbiere di Siviglia and La Traviata. But many more fade into obsolescence, often because they had a bad production. Audiences did not respond to the staging and design so they did not notice the worth of an opera. We don’t know much of the production of I Due Figaro from 1835, but it was controversial in the way the Mozart was: the lower classes being smarter than, and thumbing their noses at, the aristocracy.

If Muti and his musical forces made an effective enough case for I Due Figari to return to the fringes of the repertory in the 21st Century, the production it received would be enough to condemn it to anonymity for another 176 years. The direction was by Emilio Sagi, with scenic design by Daniel Bianco, and they deserve considerable blame. This was a production without imagination. The set design included four pillars in front of the playing area, so that there was a barrier that separated the performers and the audience. Maybe the characters were supposed to appear to us framed by the columns, but it seemed like a neoclassical jail.

Further complicating the situation was that, in the first act, an immense table with many chairs was placed diagonally in the prison of columns so that chorus members sat much of the time and soloists had to walk around them. In fact, for much of the first act most singers sat or stood still, leaning against pillars. The less-than-vibrant music, combined with a foolish staging and an airless auditorium in Salzburg’s Haus für Mozart, made for some long stretches. Do stage directors and set designers not understand that if we are to watch a three-hour, 20-minute unknown comic opera, audiences want the performers to act and move? Reading projected titles is not enough. The second act improved somewhat, but an opera in concert form would have almost made a better case for I Due Figaro than this production.

The opera merits a recording with a more professional cast and I certainly would be happy to see it again, in an intelligent production, as part of a Figaro/Beaumarchais festival of Rossini, Mozart, Mercadante and Corigliano.