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The Marriage of Figaro - An Essay from First Year Undergrad

I wrote this in my first year of undergrad studies for a BA in Dramatic Arts. I think it's a really good essay.


Discuss Mozart and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro with reference to:

  • Enlightenment thought
  • Sexual politics
  • Disguise/Masquerade
  • The conventions of comic opera (opera buffa)

Date Due: Friday 22nd of October 2004


In contemporary culture, the mere mention of the word opera engenders two typical associations in most minds: that of the Sydney opera house, and that of  ‘Figaro’. Ask any typical man on the street for an example of opera and you will get a multicolored rendition of what has become the most famous aria of all time; “Largo al factotum” in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.  Ask him to hum a typical opera tune and you will most likely get a barely recognizable version of the overture of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. It is interesting to note that this character, Figaro, has become the most enduring representation of what the opera is. Is it because of the musical masters who transformed him from just another protagonist in a play to a lovable and memorable opera character? Or is it because the values that Figaro represents are those closest to the human heart? The answer is not easily arrived at. What we can be sure of though, is that The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville have become the two most famous operas of all time. Whether it is due to the talented musicians who composed their scores, or the historical period within which they were conceived, or the sheer charisma of the protagonist they share, is the business of this essay to investigate. Concentrating on Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro, we will look at the ingredients that went into the making of this hallmark of the opera, paying special attention to enlightenment thought, sexual politics, disguise and masquerade and the conventions of comic opera.

Comic opera, or opera buffa had reached the peak of its popularity at the time when Mozart composed The Marriage of Figaro. It is therefore not surprising that Mozart felt particularly attracted to use it in The Marriage of Figaro, more so due to the fact that up to that time most of the opera pieces aimed at the aristocracy adopted seria conventions, and buffa was considered to be for the general populace. In keeping with his free spirited nature, Mozart not only used the conventions of buffa for a piece primarily aimed at the aristocracy, but he also developed and redefined the very conventions that he used.

The typical themes of opera buffa were the themes of the everyday life of the lower classes. However, Mozart chose to address highly political themes in The Marriage of Figaro, something that had never before been done in opera buffa. He contrasts the aristocratic ideals with the realities of their immoral and frivolous lives. He creates a hero and heroine out of lower class servants, and colours them as being more intelligent and witty than their masters. It is this intelligence that helps them thwart the injustice that the aristocracy imposes on them in the form of the droit du seigneur, which gave feudal lords sexual access to their maidservants on their (the maidservants’) wedding night (Rorich, 2004).

Mozart and Da Ponte wrap these political themes in a plot that is typical of the opera buffa genre. The Marriage of Figaro takes place in a single day. In fact, the alternate title of the opera is The Crazy Day. In that one crazy day, many extraordinary and humorous events occur that are cleverly woven together by intrigue, mistaken identity and the submission of the not-so-evil villain. This submission creates the happy ending that is typical of opera buffa, which is in stark contrast to the tragic endings of its counterpart, opera seria. In fact, a rule of thumb that is used to distinguish the two is contained in the endings: opera buffa ends with the marriage of the main characters whereas opera seria ends with the death of the main characters. Mozart, however, stretches the convention a little. The Marriage of Figaro, despite the title, does not end with any wedding. It merely hints at the wedding that will take place with the song  “So let us all be happy” at the end of the play when all the controversies have been resolved.

A convention of opera buffa that Mozart makes a decided break with is the length of the operatic piece. The Marriage of Figaro takes a whopping four hours to perform, a feat that Da Ponte apologises for in the preface to one of his published librettos. He however justifies this length on the grounds of the vast thematic content of the piece, a content that is largely incidental in nature but nevertheless apposite to the opera. He then proceeds to tease the audience that in fact the musical pieces are so well constructed and sublime that the length will not be noticed. As time has shown, this claim was absolutely true.

Mozart colours his opera buffa masterpiece with the conventional number construction, although, of course, his numbers are themselves masterpieces that pay fitting tribute to the musical genius who composed them. Opera buffa is constructed of arias, duets, trios, ensembles and choruses that are separated by recitatives. The recitative carry forward the story, and the numbers mark seminal moments in the plot. Mozart composed the numbers in The Marriage of Figaro so masterfully that, if they are performed well, they are usually followed by applause. In fact, two of the numbers from The Marriage of Figaro are so tuneful that they are regularly performed outside the opera to which they belong: “Dove sono” and “Voi che sapete”.

Another convention of opera buffa that Mozart uses in The Marriage of Figaro is that of the character who essence is to provide a catalyst for comedy. This character is none other than Cherubino, the lovable thirteen-year-old boy who has just discovered the opposite sex. Mozart, however, does not let this character exist only for the sake of comedy, and uses him to reinforce the enlightenment ideals of love that are evident in the play. In this way Cherubino does not become just one more buffoon but a memorable and highly relevant character in the opera (Rorich, 2004).

The whole atmosphere of buffa is kept up and enhanced by the clever use of disguise and masquerade. Most of the humorous incidents in the story occur precisely when someone discovers that someone else is not who they thought they were. For instance, when Cherubino escapes from the Countess’ dressing room in the second act and is replaced by Susanna, her nonchalant pretence of having being actually in the dressing room all the time coupled with the Counts confusion causes a lot of laughter. In addition, it is also very funny to see the Count making amorous overtures to his wife in the fourth act thinking that she is actually Susanna.

The use of disguise and masquerade also advances the narrative greatly. In act two, Figaro hatches a plot that is based on the use of disguises to show up the Count for his philandering ways. The machinations of this plot are what enable a rather comic occurrence to take place in the form of the scene around the dressing room. In fact, the whole of act two is based on that primal plot since it basically revolves around the conception of the plot, its machinations and its failure. In act three, Susanna and the Countess hatch yet another plot that will show up the Count for the unfaithful scoundrel that he is. This plot that is based on the earlier one, also revolves around the use of disguise and masquerade and drives most of the fourth act. In fact, it can be said that disguise and masquerade is the means thorough which Susanna and Figaro show their cleverness and also the means through which reconciliation is achieved at the end of the play

These conventions of opera buffa are used to drive home the most powerful themes in the playÂ, which all have to do with the enlightenment ideals that were steadily gaining popularity in eighteenth century Europe and to which Mozart subscribed. In fact, Mozart himself was a freemason, and freemasonry was the very social embodiment of the ideals of the enlightenment. To gain a better understanding of how The Marriage of Figaro is a vehicle for the dissemination of the ideals of the enlightenment, we must first gain a better understanding of what the enlightenment was.

The enlightenment was the name given to a largely philosophical movement that was posited in its recognizable form by French philosophers of the 18th century such as Voltaire and Rousseau. It was named the enlightenment to juxtapose it with the so-called ‘dark’ ages, that is, the preceding four centuries that were marked by the power of the aristocracy and the Church. The two pillars on which this movement based itself were humanism and rationalism. Humanism is the school of thought that centres itself on the power of the human being. The human being becomes the most important creature in the universe (the so called ‘uber’ man) and has all the intellectual and emotional resources to transcend the problems that face him as an individual and the society. Rationalism is the school of thought positing that all behaviour and opinion should be based on reason and not on feelings or religious belief.

It is therefore not surprising that empiricism, deism and anticlericalism became the visible manifestations of the enlightenment, which was mainly championed by the freemasons. It is for this reason that all freemason insignia contain some reference to light, since they are the illuminati, the men who see with the unfailing light of reason.

Thus we see that Mozart believed in human beings being able to overcome all the problems that separated them from each other via the simple use of reason. He believed in reconciliation, and to put it more generally, we can say that Mozart was a firm believer in ‘liberty, equality, and fraternity’, the motto of the French revolution and of its seed, the enlightenment.

The Marriage of Figaro has precisely this motto as its main theme. And this theme takes the form of reconciliation at the end of the opera. This is what makes the piece so moving, especially at its close, because the audience is left with the feeling that the world can and indeed would be a better place if we human beings decided to reason out the solutions to our problems.

We can of course argue that reconciliation is found in almost all dramatic pieces, since they almost always involve the resolution of tensions that have been established in the plot. The answer to this objection is in the consideration of the degree of reconciliation. Though reconciliation is found in almost all dramatic pieces, The Marriage of Figaro takes this perennial theme to a new all-encompassing dimension. It is analyzed with great finesse and shown in so many instances that it lodges itself in the memory of the audience as the central theme of what they have seen (Robinson: 14).  Figaro is reconciled with Marcellina and Don Basilio when he discovers that he is their son. He is also reconciled with Susanna when he realizes that she has indeed not given in to the Count’s advances. The Count is reconciled with the Countess when he gives up his philandering ways at the end of the play. He is also reconciled with Figaro and Susanna. These and many other instances of reconciliation are what make it the overarching theme of the opera.

This reconciliation is achieved via that other great hallmark of the enlightenment – reason. Through the intelligence of Figaro and Susanna chiefly, and to a lesser extent, that of the Countess, all the tensions that are established in the play are resolved peaceably at the end. The musical score is also an ode to reason. It has been said by many critics and musical analysts that in terms of sheer rational structure and harmony, the compositions of Mozart are thus far unparalleled. This rational application of his musical genius is exhibited almost to an extravagant degree in the score of The Marriage of Figaro. The finale of the second act is perhaps the finest example of the marriage of these two conceptions of reason in The Marriage of Figaro (Robinson: 15).

Other ideals of the enlightenment that find their way into The Marriage of Figaro are the revolution of thought against the noble classes and the relocation of power to the masses. The Marriage of Figaro expressed views that dissented from those held by the nobility at the time. The central one was a critique against the droit du seigneur, which Mozart set out to disparage in his opera. This droit du seigneur went all out against the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality, and therefore no enlightenment thinker could remain uncritical towards it.  Also the mere fact that the heroes of the story are lower class and the villain is aristocrat help drive home enlightenment ideals. In fact, it can be said that the hero of the story, Figaro, is the embodiment of the ideals of the enlightenment. He is the one who uses intelligence to solve his problems by realizing that the changing world will support him in his quest to rob the count of his despicable privilege.

Whereas Figaro is the embodiment of the enlightenment rationalism, Susanna is the embodiment of enlightenment humanism. Through her common sense, she always manages to remain firmly in control of the situation and she uses humor as a means to get her point across effectively. For instance, in the opening scene where Figaro is measuring the space for their bed, she wittily informs him of the improper advances the Count has been making towards her. In fact, “it is her humanity, founded on common sense, that guides the thread of the narrative through all its comic machinations” (Rorich, 2004).

The Marriage of Figaro can also be said to be the application of enlightenment ideals to sexual politics. By sexual politics it is meant the relationships of power in sexual matters or between the sexes, and from our brief explanation of the ideals of the enlightenment one can easily see that for the enlightened society, the legitimacy of the marriage contract largely depended upon freedom and love.

Mozart brings this message out in The Marriage of Figaro via a number of means. First and foremost, when the opera begins, Figaro is to be married to two people: to Marcellina out of civic duty and to Susanna out of a duty of love. Enlightenment ideals would never permit the former marriage, and it conveniently fails to take place by means of the discovery that Marcellina is actually Figaro’s own mother. Thus the path is cleared for Figaro to marry the woman whom he loves.

The other marriage that is detailed in The Marriage of Figaro is that of the Count and Countess Almaviva. This marriage is on the rocks because the Count does not love the Countess enough to remain faithful to her. His philandering has reduced the Countess to an emotional wreck, prompting her to sing her emotional aria, “Either give me back my loved one, or in mercy let me die.”  This is a critique of the marriages of the aristocrats, which are not founded on love and end up being a source of pain to both parties.  Although the Count and Countess are reconciled at the end of the play, Mozart leaves us with a feeling that this reconciliation was too perfunctorily achieved and that it is only a matter of time before things go back to the way they used to be. Figaro’s and Susanna’s marriage on the other hand, seems to be well on its way to eternal bliss since it is based on the unshakeable foundations of love and mutual respect.

In a lesser degree, The Marriage of Figaro shows the influence of the enlightenment thought on sexual politics through the character of Cherubino. Since the enlightenment celebrated all things human, including pubescence, marked by its heightened interest in sensual love, Cherubino can be said to be the perfect embodiment of the enlightenment youth. We notice that his sensuality, rather than being disparaged, is actually celebrated, in keeping with the humanistic tone of the enlightenment (Rorich, 2004).

In conclusion, I think that The Marriage of Figaro is a masterpiece of the opera. Da Ponte and Mozart used it as a vehicle for the dissemination of the seminal ideals of the time, which happened to be those of the enlightenment. However, they did not let their play degenerate into a clumsy social commentary, but crafted it with immense care to musical, thematic and dramatic detail. The result was an opera that not only reflected the ideals of the time in which it was set, but reflected a beauty that is truly sublime and eternal. It for this reason that The Marriage of Figaro is a classic, to be enjoyed, appreciated and loved by men and women of every age, despite their different ideologies.


Class Notes on The Marriage of Figaro. Mary Rorich. October 2004.

Rorich, M. 2004. Mozart and his World.

Robinson, P. Opera Ideas.

Tutorial Notes on The Marriage of Figaro. Donato Somma. October 2004.

 Except when referring to the musical score, any reference made to Mozart with respect to the composition of The Marriage of Figaro also includes Da Ponte, the librettist.

 In reference to The Marriage of Figaro, the words play and opera are used interchangeably chiefly because the librettist, Da Ponte, made a point of never referring to his piece as an opera, but would instead use the word ‘play’.