Overdressing, cross-dressing, undressing, and a healthy dose of social critique are just a few of the delights offered by the Minnesota Opera’s production of classic opera The Marriage of Figaro.
Figaro, our charismatic hero and the personal valet to Count Almaviva, just wants his wedding day to go smoothly. However, his capable fiancée, Susanna, senses trouble afoot. Their boss wants to claim his droit du seigneur: the master’s right to sleep with a servant on her wedding night. To make things more complicated, the Count himself is married and neglecting his own wife, who is despondent. Together, Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess hatch a plan to foil the lecherous count, with the help of the amorous page boy Cherubino.
The Marriage of Figaro is Mozart’s operatic sequel to Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. In one of the rare instances in history, this is a story in which the sequel threatens to outdo the original. (In my research for this article, I discovered that there actually is a third part to this story called The Guilty Mother, but the operatic version was never as popular as the first two.) Figaro is one of the top 10 most performed operas in history, which is a pretty good run considering it was composed in 1786.
The story was first written as a series of stories by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Many elements in the narrative were autobiographical, and it also contained political critique that angered then-King Louis XV of France because of its depictions of tension between social classes. Though he endures a hilarious rigmarole of problems, the solidly lower-class Figaro always comes out triumphant in the face of pressures from the upper classes.
As far as general entertainment goes, this opera gets more ridiculous by strides. The Marriage of Figaro was the first opera performance I ever had the chance to see as a student in high school, and it makes for an incredibly enchanting show full of playful hijinks that range from misleading letters to mistaken identities. It is a charming, high-spirited tale with an entertaining story, which makes it the perfect introduction to the opera art form. The Minnesota Opera’s production embraces the classical setting of the story, employing towering walls with endless rows of doors and somewhat plain, sensible furniture in contrast to the colorful costumes and powdered wigs of the cast.
What struck me this time around was how strangely progressive this familiar story is. I’ve now seen enough operas to know that heroines usually sing the most piteous “woe is me” arias—although thanks to the extremely high caliber of talent in opera, they’re also unbearably lovely. The Countess is guilty of one or two of these in The Marriage of Figaro. However, Figaro’s fiancée, Susanna, is a self-possessed mastermind who never pities herself but thinks on her feet through every twist and turn in their plot as things begin to go awry. (But don’t worry; the ending is suitably happy for such an outlandish plot.)
One of the most entertaining elements of this story is not uncommon in operas of the era. Cherubino, the randy rapscallion, is a “pants role.” The character is male, but the music is written for a mezzo-soprano, meaning he is almost always played by a woman. This way he can appear sprightly and youthful and in some ways play off the audience’s assumptions about gender roles. This role also includes reverse cross-dressing, as Susanna and the Countess disguise him in ladies’ clothes—the audience’s awareness that Cherubino is, in fact, a female actor playing a male, dressed in women’s clothing, adds a whole new level to the farce. In this production, Adriana Zabala, who played a similar role in last season’s performance Diana’s Garden, adds a roguish sense of mischief to the character.
One thing I’m always conscious of when I attend an opera is that it isn’t accessible for everyone. I realize it is a stratified art form that has long been associated with the social elite. For being one of the pinnacles of vocal achievement, I think it’s such a pity that opera does not have a wider audience. The Minnesota Opera, for its part, has a few programs designed to chip away at this exposure gap. For one thing, some dress rehearsals are open to schools and music students; in fact, that’s how I was first able to see The Marriage of Figaro as a student. Resident artists visit local schools to acquaint children with the art form. Tickets for performances range from $25 (the price of an average concert) to $200, depending on date and seating. However, the Minnesota Opera has also begun offering a discount on build-your-own season ticket packages and runs a young professionals group called Tempo that offers ticket discounts as well.
If you’re curious about opera but not sure you want to invest just yet, the National Council Auditions will be coming up in early 2018. This yearly competition is sort of like the American Idol of opera: young hopefuls from across the country compete for a shot at singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. I usually volunteer each year for the Minnesota District and Regional auditions, which take place in the Twin Cities and are open to the public and free to attend. If you have questions about this event or are interested in helping out, feel free to get in touch with me at [email protected]
The Marriage of Figaro runs November 11, 12, 14, and 16–19 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. Catch it if you can—and if you can’t, other options are the innovative new opera Dead Man Walking and the classics Rigoletto and Thais later this season.