Opera, like Shakespeare, often suffers from its own importance. Romeo and Juliet consists mostly of sex jokes, but you’d rarely notice from watching most live productions, which are too often the wrong kind of stiff. Classical opera contains as much comedy as Shakespeare, but the humor is often lost among the ornate costumes and stoic singers standing still at center stage.
I saw The Marriage of Figaro at Seattle Opera in 2009, and didn’t remember it as being particularly funny. I had a vague sense that Marriage of Figaro was somehow connected to Bugs Bunny washing Elmer Fudd’s head and was disappointed it wasn’t.
(In my defense, I had a four-month-old baby at home; I was really sleep deprived.) Of course that was the wrong cartoon AND the wrong opera. The Figaro Aria that children remember is in the Episode “Long Haired Hare” and comes from The Barber of Seville by Rossini.
The Marriage of Figaro is a sequel in that the events of the story take place after the events in Barber of Seville and involve the same characters. Only the opera is not by the same person. So in a sense, you could say that The Marriage of Figaro is some of the world’s first fanfiction. (Except, not really, because both operas are adaptations of plays in a series by Beaumarchais.)
I don’t think I need to say anything about the music. Because Mozart.
But I do need to talk about the story and the humor. People don’t expect lough out loud Looney Tunes humor in an opera that debuted in 1786, but Marriage of Figaro provides exactly that. The plot is a convoluted mess of wife-swapping and husband-stealing schemes that cross boundaries of class, family, and all semblance of propriety regardless of century. It’s constant scheming; off-the-cuff prevarication; lots of hiding in closets and under beds; eavesdropping; and snark. Everyone manages to make an ass of themselves at least once over the course of one madcap day. Base as their motivations may be (mostly, everyone’s trying to get laid), they are also completely relatable. Few of us (I hope) will ever behave as stupidly as the characters in Figaro, but most of us will come close, and more often than we like to admit.
No matter how slapstick the action, the best humor always comes from a subtle understanding of human foibles, and The Marriage of Figaro illustrates this beautifully, hilariously. The Count, in his cartoonish villainy, is incredibly stupid. He thinks with his dick and is too egotistical to notice when it doesn’t work out, but in the final scene there is real chemistry and affection between Count Almaviva (John Moore on the day I attended) and his codependent Countess (the lovely Caitlyn Lynch). Figaro is sometimes too clever for his own good, but at least he can recognize the voice of his true love in the dark.
The joy of this production is that director Aidan Lang (also the General Director of Seattle Opera) still allows the performers to ham it up when the story calls for it. Not only did I laugh out loud with the rest of the audience, I must confess, at least once, I snorted. The meow-worthy snarkfest between Figaro’s fiancé Susanna and her older rival, Marcellina tops anything on The Real Housewives. This production has no self-important, operatic stuffiness. Count Almaviva stalks around the garden cartoonishly brandishing his cape. Cherubino lounges suggestively, embarrassingly, in his attempted seduction of the Countess.
I just have to add here, how much I love a good pants role. I’ve already gushed about how fabulous Kate Lindsey was as a man in Tales of Hoffmann and in Ariadne auf Naxos, and now Elizabeth Pojanowski has stolen the show in the “pants role” of randy teen Cherubino. These mezzo-sopranos sing as beautifully as any others; their acting is some of the best on the opera stage. They bring to their roles so much humor and physicality that are so often missing in opera. I’m seriously turning into a mezzo-pants fangirl.
Okay, so obviously my main point here is to communicate that Marriage of Figaro is comedy on par with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (highest praise in my book) but a review must include some commentary on the performances and production.
As I mentioned, the music is Mozart, so of course it’s fabulous, but I have to admit that for the most part it takes a back seat to story, which is complicated enough to demand strict attention. Others may disagree, and I’m the first to admit that I am biased to focus on story whenever the music doesn’t bludgeon me. To my amateur ear, the Countess sang especially sweetly. And of course, I was pleased to hear an opera where the male lead was not a tenor, but barihunk Aubrey Allicock. (The other Figaro is the bass Shenyang, also in his Seattle Opera debut, and I’m bummed that I couldn’t see them both in the role.)
The production is also, as always at Seattle Opera, very interesting. With such a complex story and extensive cast, the sets are wisely composed of clean lines and simple colors – mostly white and natural wood. But they still help tell the story through the meaningful compartmentalization of space on the stage. The costumes are odd; for the most part, they resemble period costumes. But they’ve chosen to use anachronisms when those communicate more effectively with the audience. For example, the audience could never glean as much about Cherubino’s character from period footwear as they grasp in an instant from his blue Converse high tops.
So if you’re on the fence about trying opera, if you’re afraid it’s too stuffy and highbrow for you, hie thee hence – Marriage of Figaro is a perfect entry point into the bawdy world classical opera. If you can handle Bugs Bunny, you can handle this. Beautiful music, deep understanding of human nature, and laugh out loud slapstick comedy. Just like Looney Tunes.