Dear friends of opera everywhere.
Very soon we will be rehearsing and performing what is arguably one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. The marriage of Figaro or as it is known in its original language Le Nozze di Figaro, is without a doubt one of Mozart’s masterpieces. But where did it come from? At a time where Europe was in turmoil with the French Revolution literally breathing on the necks of the aristocracy, artists and thinkers of all kinds were taking sides. The origin of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Libretto that Mozart so brilliantly put into music, resides in a play by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. That play is part of a trilogy of plays that were so relevant and thought provoking, so well written and entertaining at the same time, that they inspired or were the source of several musical masterpieces.
More about the plays in a second, first a little bit about Monsieur de Beaumarchais. The French polymath, son of a watchmaker, was born on January 24, 1732. His birth name was Pierre-Augustin Caron, he was born into a very comfortable middle-class family and by all accounts had a wonderfully spoiled happy childhood as the only son out of six children. He played several instruments and was what would be called nowadays a “renaissance man”. It is said that his teenage years served as an inspiration for the character of Cherubino when he wrote “The Marriage of Figaro”. He took the name Caron de Beaumarchais after marrying Madeleine-Catherine Aubertin, a wealthy and affluent widow. She passed away less than a year after they were married, helping fan rumors that Mr de Beaumarchais married her solely for her influence and means, and that he had poisoned her. A few years later the rumors of him being a wife killer made an unfortunate return with the death of his second wife less than 2 years after tying the knot! His enemies had a field day and definitely used his reputation as a ladies man and an opportunist to make his life all that more difficult! He tended to pair his revolutionary and progressive beliefs with schemes for position or financial gain. Obviously feeling why not kill two birds with one stone, he could support civil rights and make a living! He managed to that end, as an entrepreneur, to arrange providing weapons, munitions, financing and supplies to the American Army during the American Revolution. All that before France entered the war officially. As the crowns of France and Spain did not want to break with Britain openly, to get aid to the rebels, he cleverly set up a fictitious business called Roderigue Hortalez and Co. using money from both the French and Spanish crowns to get supplies at no cost to the American rebels directly setting up the victory of Saratoga in 1777, a personal victory for Beaumarchais as well, as you can imagine!
He was also a spy and assisted communication that led directly France, Spain and the Dutch Republic to officially enter the war on the side of the American rebels.
He had so many detractors ( Jealousy? Most likely!) he spent a great deal of his adult life embroiled in one court battle after another.
After supporting the enlightened aspect of the French Revolution, and pledging his services to the new republic, he became critical of the means by which the new republic acquired and retained power, leading to his exile for about two and a half years. In 1796 he returned from exile and established himself in relative peace and comfort until his passing in May of 1799. One can visit his grave at the famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. The Boulevard Beaumarchais in Paris is named in his honor for his immense contribution to history.
Fun fact: as he apprenticed with his father, he felt like the pocket watches of the time, which were used and worn more as fashion accessories than for their time keeping reliability, should be improved upon and serve their actual purpose. To that end for the better part of a year he researched improvements and eventually invented an escapement for watches making them substantially more accurate and compact. In fact his watch making adventures got him the attention of the king Louis XV who tasked him with creating a functioning watch that was small enough to be a ring for his beloved mistress Mme de Pompadour, and he did! The king and Mr de Beaumarchais became as close as a courtier can be with a king in terms of friendship, not only was he the Royal Watchmaker, but he also became harp teacher to the King’s daughters: Princesses Adelaide and Victoire. As a consummate musician and inventor, he made several improvements to his favorite instrument the harp.
Mr de Beaumarchais’ achievements are so wide, that there is not enough space on our little blog today to adequately represent his breadth of abilities, interests, and influence. I will leave it at the fact that he was known as an inventor, a musician, a diplomat, a spy, a publisher, a horticulturalist, an arms dealer, a financier, a revolutionary, a satirist, amongst many things, and for our purpose today, famously a playwright. In fact in October 1852 the French academician Louis de Loménie published the first tome of his monumental biography of Beaumarchais which became no less than14 volumes! Let’s just say that his influence is felt to this day in many aspects of our lives yet most people do not know his name and he is definitely deserving of more recognition for his incredibly varied accomplishments.
“The Marriage of Figaro” came about first as a play that was part of a trilogy. First in the trilogy is “The Barber of Seville” (or “The Useless Precaution”) the second one is “The Marriage of Figaro” (or “The Mad Day”) and finally the third one is “The Guilty Mother” (or “The Other Tartuffe”) all three plays were written between 1775 and 1791 with “The Marriage of Figaro” written around 1778. In this famous trilogy, Beaumarchais inserts his criticism of French society, and more to the point the inequality of classes. Paradoxically, while criticizing class, he still enjoyed the support of the monarchy as an enlightened dramaturg.
The trilogy follows the adventures of three main characters that are found in all three plays, Figaro, and the Count and Countess Almaviva (known as Rosina in the first play). The plays essentially tell the story of more or less 30 years of the Almaviva household. Despite being favored by the monarchy for many years, the not so veiled criticism of the government did not go without opposition. All three plays eventually saw the stage, more or less heavily censored, to great success.
Beaumarchais conceived his three main characters most likely during his travels in Spain. These characters, of different classes, intertwined, are indicative of the change in social attitudes before, during and after the French revolution. Also worth mentioning he gleefully targeted his enemies, sometimes not so subtly, by assigning them caricatured parts in his plays.
The first play, The Barber of Seville, describes the meeting, courtship and adventures of the Count and Countess, enabled by no other than Figaro. The story follows a “Commedia dell’Arte” structure in the Italian style. It was not well received at first but after Beaumarchais worked out a
quick editing of the play over three days, it became a roaring success opening the door to the rest of the trilogy. Barber ( as it is affectionately called backstage) was adapted into several operas, most largely forgotten today ( such as the ones by Nicolas Isouard in 1796 or Francesco Morlacchi in 1816). The earliest one, still heard occasionally, was by composer Giovanni Paisiello and first performed in 1782.
And of course, premiering in 1816, one of the most famous and most performed operas in the whole repertoire, The Barber of Seville composed by Gioachino Rossini. So popular is this adaptation that it overshadowed Beaumarchais’ original play to an even greater extent than Mozart’s version of The Marriage of Figaro.
The second play, The Marriage of Figaro, takes place about 3 years later, Figaro is now the valet of Count Almaviva. The play describes the wedding day of Figaro to the shrewd Susanna (the Countess’s Maid) with all the shenanigans it entails. I promise a detailed synopsis at a later date! The Marriage of Figaro was written as a sequel to The Barber, supposedly requested by Louis François Prince of Conti. Even though the play seemed to have been completed by Beaumarchais in 1778, it was only considered by the management of the Comédie Française (the ultimate authority of French Theater) in 1781, it then took a further 3 years for it to hit the planks. The reason for this delay was that after the play had been vetted by the official censor, it somehow landed at court as a private reading, Louis XVI upon this reading of the manuscript of The Marriage of Figaro was so shocked as to say “This men mocks everything that must be respected in a government” and at the time forbade any public performance. At that point, Beaumarchais edited once more his play, moving the action from France to Spain for example, then submitting it to further scrutiny from the censor. The next step was to have it performed for the Royal Family in 1783, and get the King’s authorization to produce it, which he finally did. The Marriage of Figaro opened to an outrageous success, apparently it grossed in the neighborhood of 100,000 Francs in its first 20 performances ( trust me that’s a LOT of money now, consider that the equivalent of $100,000 in 1783 would be $2,799,971.70 in 2023!) Another unpleasant anecdote connected to the opening night: it seems the theater was so packed on said night, that three people were crushed to death in the crowd! The Marriage of Figaro was potentially one of the most controversial plays in history. The denunciation, or at least unpleasant spotlight aimed at aristocratic privilege was heralded as the foreshadowing of the French Revolution. It rippled across the courts of Europe. The revolutionary leader Georges Danton was quoted as having said that the play “ killed off the nobility” and from his exile, Napoleon Bonaparte called it “the revolution put into action”. In the end the play, that opened on April 27 1784 under the name “La Folle Journée, ou Le Marriage de Figaro” at the Théâtre Français, ran for 68 consecutive performances and earned the highest box office returns of any other French play of the eighteenth century. Even Benjamin Franklin was inspired as he attended an early showing while in Paris as an American emissary. To be noted, Beaumarchais apparently gave his share of the profits to charity. Owing to this success, The Marriage of Figaro went on to be translated and produced, to this day, all over the world. Attracting the favor of some of the greatest names in theater such as Jean Mayer, Constantin Stanislavsky, John Wells, Jonathan Miller and many more.
As far as opera is concerned it was adapted a couple of times. There was a mostly forgotten version by Marcos Portugal, with a libretto by Gaetano Rossi, produced in Venice in 1799 under
the title: La Pazza Giornata, ovvero il Matrimonio di Figaro. Still, nothing seems able to compare to the 1786 adaptation that became a Masterpiece from all possible angles, known as Le Nozze di Figaro, with the extraordinary libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte and the unparalleled music by Mozart. The play having been banned by Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, it took some doing for Da Ponte and Mozart to manage to get official approval from the emperor for an operatic version. Mozart originally chose the play and conferred with Da Ponte, within 6 weeks it was transformed. From 5 acts to 4, and rewritten in poetic Italian. Most of the original’s political references were smoothed and removed, one of the most famous changes to that end, was Figaro’s climactic soliloquy against the inherited nobility replaced/turned by Da Ponte and Mozart into an equally assertive Aria about unfaithful wives….. fooling no one….. but it did get the Emperor’s approval and music was put to words.
The rest is history! And fear not, we will circle back to the history and details of The Marriage of Figaro again at a later date.
The final (and least well known) play, The Guilty Mother, takes place 20 years later in the storyline of the trilogy where an awful “Tartuffe” called Bégearss insinuates himself in the Almaviva household threatening to exposes their secrets in order to blackmail them. Figaro will be the one to do all in his power to expose and foil the miscreant, but the many discoveries along the way will change the household forever. The play in 5 acts was first published in 1793, however it was completed by Beaumarchais in 1791 and was to be produced by the Comédie Française, but Beaumarchais had a falling out with the management of the company over author’s rights. He took his work instead to the new Théâtre du Marais where it was premiered in 1792 and enjoyed a fifteen performance run over a period of six weeks. Around that time Beaumarchais had to go into exile for political reasons, his friends arranged for the play to be published in order to avoid unauthorized versions or editions of the play by opportunistic individuals. They had to make some changes to comply with the new, born out of the French Revolution, regime’s aggressive orthodoxy. Most glaring was the suppression of the Almaviva’s aristocratic titles of Count and Countess. Beaumarchais returned from exile to Paris in 1796 to finally see the play produced and presented at the Comédie Française in 1797 and once more in 1799-1800. Of the trilogy, it’s the one work that fell out of the general repertoire even though it saw a successful revival in 1990 at the illustrious Comédie Française.
When it comes to Opera, La Mère Coupable, as with the play itself, mostly dwells in obscurity. There were several l adaptations rarely performed. André Gretry first proposed an adaptation that came to nothing. Fast forward to 1966, Darius Milhaud was the first to complete an operatic adaptation. In John Corigliano’s composition “The Ghost of Versailles” the play comes to life when the ghost of Beaumarchais, secretly in love with the ghost of Marie Antoinette, manifests a performance of the play as an opera dubbed “A Figaro for Antonia” in the delusion that by doing so he will change history and save Marie Antoinette from execution. The last adaptation of the play to opera, in 2010, was by Thierry Pécou, with a libretto by Eugène Green that premiered at L’Opera de Rouan. Nonetheless it seems this last play, even in operatic form, never managed to enter the general repertoire.
One last fun fact: Le Figaro, one of the most established and famous French newspapers in France and the world, was founded in 1826 and named after, you guessed it! The character of Figaro in the Beaumarchais plays! One of Figaro’s famous lines is the newspaper’s motto: “Sans la liberté de blâmer, Il n’est point d’éloge flatteur” which means: “without the freedom to criticize, there is no flattering praise”
Mr Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais for the win!