First-Time Perfection: Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'

Mozart's Figaro is one of the rare examples of a successful literary sequel. The original play by Beaumarchais was a follow-up to his previous hit, The Barber of Seville. The first audiences for Mozart's opera knew that play -- and we still know it through the operatic version by Rossini. So for many people, this opera's characters are already quite familiar. But their circumstances have changed.

In The Barber of Seville, a young nobleman named Almaviva wins his lover Rosina away from her lecherous guardian Dr. Bartolo, with considerable help from the Count's friend, Figaro. As The Marriage of Figaro begins, it's three years later. The young lovers are now the Count and Countess Almaviva. Figaro is the Count's personal valet, and he's engaged to marry the Countess' maid, Susanna.

As ACT ONE opens, Figaro and Susanna are preparing for their wedding. They're slated to occupy a room between the private chambers of the Count and the Countess. Figaro thinks that will work out just fine. Susanna's not so sure. She tells Figaro that the Count has had his eye on her. In their new room, all he'll have to do is send Figaro off on an errand, and the Count will be right next door to press his advances. Figaro can't believe that his old friend the Count could be that underhanded. But Susanna convinces him, and Figaro begins to display the trademark cunning and confidence that were also evident in The Barber of Seville.

We then meet Figaro's old nemesis Dr. Bartolo and his housekeeper, the aging Marcellina. Figaro has borrowed money from Bartolo. To secure the loan he agreed to marry Marcellina if he couldn't pay it back. Now the debt is due, and Bartolo demands that Figaro live up to their bargain.

Next, Susanna is alone in her room when the young page Cherubino rushes in. He's in the throes of adolescence, and says he's desperately in love with the Countess. But he's also been caught with one of the servant girls and the Count is hot on his heels. When the Count shows up, Cherubino hides and eavesdrops on the Count's latest proposition for Susanna. When the Count finds him, he banishes Cherubino to the army.

Figaro then turns up with a group of peasants, who want to thank the duplicitous Count. He has recently declared that he's renouncing his "feudal right" to be with any woman in his charge on her wedding night. Figaro promptly suggests that he and Susanna should be married immediately.

The Count puts him off. He still has designs on Susanna and since he's given up the feudal right, he's better off while Susanna is still single. The act ends as Figaro teases the lovesick Cherubino about his impending military service.

In ACT TWO we meet the Countess, Rosina, for the first time. She has plainly concluded that her marriage is on the rocks. She knows all about her husband's various, adulterous schemes, and expresses her unhappiness as the act begins.

She's then joined in her rooms by Susanna and the young page Cherubino, whom the Count has banned from the premises. Together, the three hatch a plan. Cherubino will dress up as Susanna. Then the Count will be lured to a meeting with this phony Susanna by a letter actually written by Figaro, and the Count's duplicity will be exposed.

As the two women are dressing Cherubino for his role, Susanna leaves to find a ribbon. Then the Count knocks on the door. Cherubino can't afford to be discovered alone with the Countess -- especially now that he's dressed in drag -- so he ducks into a closet. But when the Count enters, Cherubino makes a racket by knocking something over.

The Count hears this, and demands to know who is hiding in that closet. The Countess tells him it's Susanna -- but refuses to let him see for himself. He angrily leaves to fetch a crowbar, to pry open the locked closet door. The Countess follows to calm him down. Susanna then slips back into the room -- and into the closet -- as Cherubino leaps out a window into the garden.

When the Count and Countess return, both are amazed to see that it actually is Susanna in the closet. The Countess is relieved. The Count is embarrassed, and begs forgiveness for his suspicions.

A gardener then appears exclaiming that someone has just jumped out the window — and that seems like trouble. But Figaro comes to the rescue. He says he's the one who took the flying leap into the geraniums. He also takes advantage of the Count's confusion to renew his demand to marry Susanna. But Bartolo and Marcellina join in. When they produce evidence that Figaro has actually agreed to marry Marcellina, the Count gleefully cancels the wedding.

As ACT THREE begins, Susanna hatches her latest scheme. She pretends that she's finally willing to accept the Count's lascivious advances, and suggests a meeting in the palace garden later that night -- supposedly her wedding night. The Count eagerly agrees. But when she leaves, he overhears her talking to Figaro. The Count realizes the two are planning some sort trap -- but doesn't know how they're going to spring it.

Next, a lawyer shows up to rule on exactly who's wedding is about to take place. Just when it looks like Figaro is going to be stuck with Marcellina, he claims that he can't marry her because he may be nobleman, stolen from his parents at birth. And he reveals a distinctive birthmark on his arm. Seeing that, Marcellina nearly faints. It turns out that she is actually Figaro's mother, and that Dr. Bartolo is his father. Figaro can hardly marry his mother, so Susanna and Figaro can be married at last, much to the Count's chagrin.

Everyone leaves to prepare the ceremony and the Countess is left alone wondering what happened to her formerly happy marriage. Susanna joins her, and the two write a letter to the Count, inviting him to meet Susanna later in the garden. They send it off, sealed with a hairpin, which the Count is to return to confirm the meeting.

So, Figaro's wedding finally gets underway -- and during the confusion of the act's final ensemble, the Count is handed the fateful letter from Susanna.

ACT FOUR begins at night in the garden, where the servant girl Barbarina is plaintively searching for something in the dark -- a hairpin used to seal a letter she's delivering. Though she's barely a teenager, she's already been the object of the Count's attentions. Now she's acting as a surreptitious messenger between the Count and her older cousin Susanna, who's just been married. It seems Barbarina is coming of age, and her music suggests that it's not a happy experience.

As she searches for the pin, Figaro confronts her. When he discovers she's carrying a message from Susanna to the Count, he's devastated -- convinced that Susanna is plotting to betray him. He's even more upset when he hears her nearby, singing about her "lover" -- though she's really singing about Figaro himself.

Meanwhile, the Count is due any time for his assignation with Susanna. To fool him, the Countess and Susanna have agreed to exchange clothes for the evening. That way, when the Count goes into his seduction routine, he'll be romancing his own wife without knowing it.

Before long, Figaro figures the whole thing out and decides to play a joke of his own. He goes to Susanna, pretending he really does think she's the Countess, and turns on the romantic charm. This enrages Susanna, but not for long. She soon realizes what's happening, and they both have a good laugh about it.

Things come to a head when the Count steps in. First he tries to seduce his wife, thinking she's Susanna. Then, when he sees Figaro with a woman the Count thinks is the Countess, he self-righteously accuses her of infidelity. Susanna, still imitating the Countess, begs the Count for forgiveness, and he refuses.

At that, the Countess reveals herself, and the Count is finally humbled. This time, it's his turn to ask for pardon. Generously, in a musical moment of tremendous depth and beauty, the Countess embraces him, and the opera ends with both couples reconciled.