Commedia per musica in four acts.
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, based on the play La folle journée ou Le marriage de Figaro by Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais (1784).
First performed in the Burgtheater, Vienna, on 1 May 1786.
The action of the opera takes place on the estate of the Almaviva family at Aguas Frescas (‘Fresh Waters’) just outside Seville.
An unfurnished room inside the castle
The curtain rises to reveal Figaro and Susanna measuring a room: it is to be their bedroom after their impending marriage, and is part of the marriage gift from their employer, Count Almaviva. Figaro is measuring the space where the bed will go, while Susanna is trying on the hat which she has made for the wedding. When Susanna realises that the room is intended for their bedroom, she is horrified. Figaro innocently suggests that it is an ideal room, since it adjoins the rooms of both the Count and the Countess – if they need help during the night, they just have to ring the appropriate bell and summon either Figaro or Susanna. Susanna tries to explain her misgivings – what if the Count were to summon Figaro in order to send him off on some errand, and then decide to make the most of Susanna’s proximity …? She tells Figaro that her singing-teacher, Don Basilio, has been making lewd suggestions in regard to the Count’s intentions towards Susanna for some time. The Countess’s bell rings, and Susanna runs off to attend to her mistress. Figaro begins to work it all out: the Count has just been appointed Spanish Ambassador to London – maybe he intends to take Figaro as his valet and Susanna as, er, something else? He launches into an aria planning to outwit his master – you may dance, but I’ll call the tune! (Se vuol ballare).
He leaves, and Marcellina enters. She is the housekeeper at Aguas Frescas, and has called in her former employer, Dr Bartolo, from Seville for some legal advice: Figaro has borrowed some money from her, promising to marry her if he cannot repay it. The time of reckoning has arrived, and he cannot pay – she asks Bartolo if this is sufficient grounds for her to demand the cancellation of Figaro’s marriage to Susanna so that she can claim him as a husband. She knows that the Count is lusting after Susanna and so is counting on the fact that he will be glad of an opportunity to prevent the marriage. Bartolo, peeved that Figaro had outwitted him once before (by arranging the marriage between the Count and his ward Rosina in The Barber of Seville), agrees with her that she has a very good, sound case, and in an aria (La vendetta) he reassures her that vengeance is sweet, and then leaves.
Susanna returns, and it is clear that Marcellina dislikes her. With exaggerated politeness, they sing a duet (Via resti servita) in which Susanna comes out best, calling Marcellina a decrepit old bag, an antique pedant and a bad-tempered school mistress. Marcellina stalks off.
In comes Cherubino – a young (teenage) nobleman and the Countess’s godson. He has been discovered by the Count making advances to a young servant, Barbarina (Susanna’s cousin and the daughter of Antonio the gardener), and has been threatened with being sent away if he does not control himself. Susanna observes that she thought that it was the Countess whom he drooled over, and Cherubino confesses that he is deeply jealous of Susanna, since she can dress the Countess every morning – and undress her at night: he grabs one of the Countess’s ribbons from Susanna. He produces a love song he has written, and asks Susanna to read it to the Countess (and to herself, and to Barbarina, and to Marcellina, and to every other woman in the castle … he is not too fussy where his testosterone leads him). He launches into an aria (Non so piu) explaining just what love is doing to him.
Susanna is sympathetic to Cherubino’s plight, but the Count is heard approaching and Cherubino, terrified at being found alone with yet another of the castle’s female servants, hides behind a chair. The Count has come to make certain of Susanna’s agreement to a secret rendez-vous with him that evening, but before she can respond, Basilio’s voice is heard. Not wanting to be found alone with Susanna, the Count also hides behind the chair, while Cherubino slips unseen into it, and Susanna covers him with a dress. Basilio, full of innuendo and gossip, reveals that everyone knows what the Count is up to, and surely Susanna would prefer a real man than a boy like Cherubino, who, by the way, was spotted coming in this direction … . The Count, furious, comes out from behind the chair – much to Basilio’s delight. Susanna, shocked, pretends to faint, but has to revive rapidly when she is about to collapse into the only chair and suddenly realises that Cherubino is hiding in it. The Count launches into a furious retelling of how he found Cherubino, inside a locked room with Barbarina, hiding under a table and concealed by the table-cloth. To demonstrate how this happened, he lifts the dress covering the chair, and, of course, again discovers Cherubino cowering there. The Count is beside himself with rage, Basilio is full of glee at the gossip value of all this, and Susanna is stunned by the implications for her reputation, and for her planned marriage.
At this moment, Figaro returns with a chorus of estate workers, all singing the praises of their magnanimous and generous master. The Count demands to know what is going on and Figaro explains that the staff have come to praise the Count for abandoning the hated droit du seigneur, and that the Count must therefore agree to give the bride away, unsullied, and dressed in virginal white. Spitting blood, the Count agrees, muttering under his breath that he needs Marcellina to drop her bombshell as soon as possible. Amid general rejoicing, Figaro asks Cherubino why he is so glum, and Cherubino explains that he is to be sent away. To ensure his silence about the Susanna incident, the Count gives Cherubino a commission in his regiment, which is stationed a long way away. The Count and Basilio leave, and Figaro launches into an enthusiastic aria about life in the army (Non piu andrai). Cherubino is unconvinced.
The Countess’s rooms
So far, the story could be a typical operatic farce – young lovers in danger of being thwarted, several figures of authority made to look foolish, a star-struck teenager in love with anything in a skirt … the general tone, despite the undercurrent of danger for Cherubino and the risk of seduction for Susanna, is comedy. That all changes now. The Countess is a sad, and real, woman – not a caricature, and not a figure of fun. She had a good marriage, but it has gone. She still loves her husband, but he has developed a wandering eye and is ignoring her. Clearly she has heard from Susanna about the incident with Cherubino and the chair and this had confirmed her suspicions and deepened her sadness. In her ravishing first aria (Porgi amor) she begs to have her good man restored to her, or else she will die. Susanna returns and the Countess asks for more details of the Count’s infidelity, but Susanna passes them off as meaningless, after all, no one really cares about a woman of her status. Figaro arrives full of glee. He has devised a plan to expose the Count’s philandering by letting him think first that Susanna will attend the assignation he has planned, but that it will be Cherubino disguised as a woman instead, and then that the Countess too has an assignation with a lover. He leaves, convinced that his plan will work and the Countess tells Susanna how sad she is that Cherubino had to hear the Count exposing his unfaithful intentions. Cherubino now arrives, desperate to sing for the Countess his passionate love-song. Egged on by Susanna, he launches into it in the aria Voi che sapete. The Countess is moved by the song, but Susanna, more pragmatic, is keen to get on with dressing Cherubino up as a woman in readiness for Figaro’s plan to embarrass the Count. The two women begin to undress the youth, who shows them his commission in the regiment – which the Countess observes has not been completed with the proper seal. As they dress him in the Countess’s clothes, they comment on what a pretty girl Cherubino makes (the character is, of course, sung by a woman, which adds a peculiar piquancy to the scene of undressing him and commenting on his handsomeness!) – Susanna goes into her own room and the Countess discovers her own ribbon which Cherubino has now tied around his arm. Cherubino is working himself up to a declaration of love for his godmother when the Count’s voice is heard outside. The Count has now heard from Basilio (by means of Figaro’s fake letter) that the Countess has a lover, so Cherubino must definitely not be found again: he hides in the dressing room. The Countess unlocks the door to her apartment and her husband enters and accuses her of hiding a lover. He is convinced that the ‘lover’ is in the dressing room and the Countess, visibly agitated, says that it is only Susanna. Susanna meantime has slipped back into the room and hidden in an alcove. The Count calls on her to show herself, the Countess calls out that she must not. Furious, the Count locks all the doors and takes the Countess off with him to fetch a crowbar to break open the dressing room door.
As soon as they have left, Susanna emerges, releases Cherubino (who has changed back into his own clothes), and, in the absence of any other escape route, lets him jump from the balcony down into the garden so that he can escape. She then locks herself into the dressing room. The Count and Countess return, with a skeleton key. The Countess, terrified, confesses that it is Cherubino who is in the dressing room, wearing some of her clothes. The Count is incandescent with rage – he demands that Cherubino come out, threatens to kill him, and denounces the Countess as a faithless disgrace. But it is Susanna who emerges from the dressing room. The Count’s rage is dissipated, he checks for himself that no-one else is in the dressing room and apologises reluctantly to the Countess, calling her (for the only time in the opera) by her own name, Rosina. But she and Susanna explain that the whole thing was a practical joke devised by Figaro, and that the Count must forgive everyone else if he expects to be forgiven himself. All is going well until Figaro arrives, and the Count produces the (fake) letter of assignation, Figaro pretends not to know anything about it, despite Susanna and the Countess prompting him to say that he does. Instead he asks the Count to get on with the proposed marriage – but the Count needs to buy time in order for Marcellina to stake her own claim on Figaro. The gardener, Antonio (who is Susanna’s uncle), now enters, not entirely sober, complaining that someone has jumped from the balcony and broken a pot of flowers. Figaro says that it was him, and immediately starts to limp ostentatiously. Antonio says that if it was Figaro who jumped, then it must have been Figaro who littered the garden with papers. The papers turn out to be Cherubino’s commission, but Figaro, again prompted by Susanna and the Countess explains this away by claiming that he had brought them back to have them properly sealed. Again, the Count is thwarted, and he seethes with fury.
To the Count’s great relief, Marcellina now arrives, with her lawyer (Bartolo) and her witness (Basilio) and she claims Figaro as her husband as he cannot repay his debt to her. The Count agrees that she has a case. The act ends with a superb ensemble as all present consider the circumstances. It looks as if the marriage of Figaro and Susanna is off.
A grand salon in the castle, decorated for a wedding feast
The Count is going over in his mind what has just happened. (This recitative is a very unconventional opening for an act and may represent an aria opportunity which da Ponte and Mozart decided to forego for dramatic reasons.) Susanna and the Countess enter, out of his sight, and discuss how to proceed with the plot to embarrass the Count: they will exchange clothes so that the Count’s planned assignation with Susanna will actually be with the disguised Countess. Susanna worries that Figaro will be cross if he thinks that it really is her who is meeting the Count, but the Countess, now fully engaged in the subterfuge, reassures her that the plot will benefit them all. Susanna now approaches the Count and pretends that she will give in to his pestering if he will give her the dowry he had previously promised. In a duet, she agrees to meet him and he chides her gently for taking so long to make up her mind. Figaro arrives, but she tells him under her breath that he has no need to worry (meaning that the dowry that she has been promised will pay off the debt to Marcellina). But the Count overhears her comment and, alone again, launches into his only aria in the opera, Vedrò mentr’io sospiro: he is determined that his servant shall not have sole access to what he wants for himself (this is a vicious condensation by da Ponte of the Count’s autocratic philosophy – servants were not born in order to torment their masters. The Count’s unpleasant character builds up across Beaumarchais’s play – da Ponte and Mozart pour it all into this outpouring of hatred, revenge and the misuse of power).
Conventionally, the Count should leave after his aria, but the dramatic flow (and his music) require him to remain on stage. There are various schools of thought about the order of the next few scenes, revolving mainly around the practicality of Bussani, the first singer of the roles of both Doctor Bartolo and Antonio, having the time to change his costume. William Mann’s suggested order of scenes is certainly the one which makes most sense of the plot, so I shall follow it here (although the order of scenes in some performances and recordings may be different).
Cherubino and Barbarina run in and explain their plan to disguise Cherubino as a girl (again) so that he can evade the Count’s fury and join Barbarina and her friends when they present flowers to Susanna at her wedding. As they leave, the Countess enters: she wants to know how Susanna got on with her arrangement to meet the Count, and this leads her to reflect on the social debasement to which her husband’s philandering has brought her – she actually needs the help of her servant to prove her fidelity and love! She sings a tender, wistful aria (Dove sono) asking where all the happiness has gone and wondering if her love is strong enough to win back her erring husband.
Meanwhile, Figaro’s trial for non-payment of debt is under way. The Count is presiding (and gloating); a judge has been brought in (the stuttering Don Curzio); and Marcellina and Bartolo are certain of victory. Don Curzio announces his judgement – there is no payment forthcoming, so Figaro must marry Marcellina. Figaro fumbles for an escape route – he claims that he cannot marry without his parents’ consent, but he does not know who they are. Don Curzio asks for evidence of his ignorance of his birth and he tells of gold, jewels and embroidered clothes that were found with him when he was a baby – and his birthmark. Marcellina, rather cautiously, says, ‘A birthmark the shape of a spatula on your right arm?’ – and the awful truth emerges: Figaro is little Raphael, Marcellina’s own son, and to add to the reunion of mother and child, Bartolo reluctantly confesses that he is the father. In a sextet combining maudlin sentimentality, farce, incredulity and rage, Figaro is reunited with his parents, Don Curzio confirms that the Figaro/Marcellina wedding is now very definitely a non-starter, and the Count is dumbfounded at this new turn of events. Susanna rushes in with money from the Countess to pay off Figaro’s debt and she too learns that Figaro has not only avoided marriage to Marcellina but found his parents as well. She has to be told the news several times, but she eventually believes it. The Count leaves in a huff, taking Don Curzio with him.
Bartolo now agrees to a double wedding, (although da Ponte omitted the lengthy scene in Beaumarchais’s play in which Antonio refuses to let his niece marry a bastard, and Bartolo only reluctantly agrees to marry Marcellina in order to appease Antonio and enable his newly-found son’s marriage to go ahead). They all leave, each with a good reason to be happy.
The Count now re-enters, this time with Antonio: marginally soberer than before, he tells the Count that Cherubino is not only still around, but dressed as a woman. They leave, and Susanna and the Countess arrive – Susanna tells the Countess how furious the Count was at the trial, and the Countess dictates a letter for Susanna to write to the Count, arranging their forthcoming assignation (Che soave zeffiretto): they seal the letter with a pin and write on the outside that the Count should send back the pin as a token of receipt.
Barbarina and the estate girls, including the disguised Cherubino, now come in and present their flowers to the Countess in a charming rustic chorus. The Countess asks who the very shy girl is, and Cherubino is pushed forwards – at this point, the Count and Antonio arrive and Antonio reveals Cherubino. The Count’s fury, directed first at his wife and then at the hapless Cherubino, is deflected by Barbarina, who innocently reminds the Count that every time he kisses and cuddles her, he promises her anything she wants – well, now she wants something, and if the Count promises to let her marry Cherubino, she will love him (the Count) as much as she loves her kitten. The Count, quietly cursing everyone, agrees.
Figaro announces that a dance must start – the Count reminds him that he had previously claimed to have sprained his ankle. Now that Cherubino and his commission are both still at the castle, Figaro’s lie about jumping down from the balcony has been revealed, but Figaro brazens it out, stating that he never argues about what he does not know. They both know that he has lied, the servant has defied the master and is uncontrite – and he is getting away with it. This is the core of the story.
The marriage ceremonies now take place, and during the festivities, Susanna hands the note to the Count – he pricks his finger on the pin and promptly loses it.
The castle gardens
The Count has found the pin and given it to Barbarina to return it to Susanna. But Barbarina has lost it, and in a pretty cavatina (L’ho perduta) sings of her unhappiness at letting her master and her cousin down. Figaro arrives with Marcellina and, discovering what is upsetting Barbarina, immediately assumes that Susanna has made a secret assignation with the Count. He gives the girl a pin from Marcellina’s dress and sends her off. He turns to his mother who advises him not to be hasty – she sings an aria (often omitted from performances and recordings because it does not affect the plot) in which she muses on why it is that women, of all female creatures, have to suffer most cruelly at the hands of their men. Figaro is determined to have his revenge: Barbarina flits past on her way to meet Cherubino, Bartolo and Basilio arrive, having been invited by Figaro, as he thought, to witness the Count’s exposure: he tells them to hide, but not before Basilio sings an aria (also often omitted), (In quegli anni), to explain to Bartolo how he learned to be so pragmatic in his dealings with other people. Then Figaro, in a male counterpoint to Marcellina’s aria (a good reason not to omit Marcellina’s aria) sings bitterly about the deceitfulness of women (Aprite un po’quegli occhi). (This aria, with its full orchestral introduction and lavish recitative, is unusual in that it is an emotional reflective aria sung by a member of a lower social order: even in characterisation, operas had hitherto obeyed an unwritten social rule about distinguishing between the upper and lower classes in what they could sing and how they could sing it. Figaro, as a breaker of conventions and an over-turner of social order, is allocated an ‘upper-class’ aria.) After singing it, he then hides as well.
Susanna and the Countess arrive, each wearing the other’s clothes, with Marcellina. Marcellina tells Susanna of Figaro’s suspicions and Susanna realises that the plot she is involved in will teach her new husband, as well as her master, a lesson about trust. Knowing that Figaro is listening, she sings an aria anticipating the arrival of her true love (Deh vieni) designed to tease Figaro. (This too is an ‘upper-class’ aria, and may well have been conceived for the Countess, or at least for Susanna pretending to be the Countess. But for it to work, Susanna must sing it in her own right, and in her own voice. Mozart wrote this for Nancy Storace to sing, and William Mann finds the music full of gentle sexual innuendo, a delightful in-joke between Mozart and Nancy, two young people who might well have been lovers.) Then she too hides. Cherubino comes in, looking for Barbarina, but finds instead the Countess, disguised as Susanna. Believing her to be Susanna, he starts to make up to her, playing on the fact that he was behind the chair in Act 1 and heard the Count trying to seduce her, and he leads up to a demand for a kiss. The Count arrives in the garden and Figaro and Susanna, both still hiding, are afraid that Cherubino will ruin the plan. As Cherubino leans forward to kiss the woman he believes to be Susanna, the Count steps between them and he actually kisses the Count’s cheek. The Count swears at him and hits him, but Cherubino has wisely ducked out of the way and the Count hits Figaro instead, since Figaro too has stepped forward to intervene. He too withdraws, and the Count, now alone with a woman whom he believes to be Susanna, starts his seduction routine, and the Countess, mimicking Susanna’s voice, leads him on. He gives her a ring for services soon to be rendered, then, as voices are heard, he calls her his Venus and takes her into a pavilion. Figaro, (in the opera but not the play), muses on the reference to Venus, and looks like blowing the whole gaff, but Susanna, imitating the Countess, tells him to be quiet. At first he is fooled by the voice, but he soon realises that it is Susanna, and so works out that it must be the Countess who is with the Count. Now that he has sussed out what is going on, he strings Susanna on and even pretends to woo her, as the Countess, which infuriates her. Then at last, reconciled, they fall into one another’s arms with huge relief.
The Count has lost his woman in the darkness and calls for her, still thinking her to be Susanna. The real Susanna is still disguised as the Countess and Figaro falls ostentatiously at her feet begging her to cure his poor heart. The Count, believing that Figaro has designs on the Countess, grabs him and calls for weapons – Bartolo, Basilio, Antonio (who, in Beaumarchais’ play, has now sobered up) and even Don Curzio all reveal themselves (although Don Curzio and Bartolo cannot sing simultaneously, since they were played by the same singer). The Count demands that the ‘Countess’ reveal herself. Susanna, still playing the Countess, falls on her knees and begs his forgiveness, which he refuses several times. Then the real Countess emerges from the shadows – to the confusion of everyone except Figaro and Susanna. The Count, dumbfounded as well as outwitted and humiliated, now has to kneel and beg forgiveness from his own wife, which the Countess immediately gives. Everyone praises the triumph of love and the whole household of Aguas Frescas joins in a rapturous celebration of joy and happiness – before rushing off for fireworks and a party.
Other related OperaStory articles can be found on
- Mozart’s life and operas
- Lorenzo’s da Ponte’s life and librettos
- Beaumarchais’ life and his contribution to opera
- Why Napoleon called the opera “Revolution in action”
- The writing of Le Nozze di Figaro
- The characters who appear in the opera and what they represent
- The first cast of le Nozze di Figaro
- Other operas based on the characters of Figaro, the Count and Countess and others from the opera
- The pot of carnations which Cherubino breaks when he jumps down from the balcony
and many other aspects of the opera
© Roger Witts 2008