A State of Emergency.
“Locking oneself in a gated community in order to chase fears away is akin to draining the water out of a pool to make sure that children can learn to swim in complete safety.”
The opera begins at the start of a workday in the castle of Aguas Frescas and ends toward the next morning. One day in the life of a community is condensed into three tumultuous hours. Over the course of this wild day, the inhabitants of the castle are sent reeling from one raw nerved entanglement to the next and are utterly transformed. The people we meet passing through the unfurnished room of Act I are not the same as those who stand facing the dawn in the castle gardens at the end of Act IV. They have become strangers to themselves and must regard each other afresh.
In preparing this new production, Simon Hewett and I have refused to portray the characters of the opera as either costumed ghosts or buffoons, preferring to encounter them as contemporary people in states of emotional emergency.
In his book Enchantment – The Seductress in Opera, Jean Starobinksi writes about the special volatility of The Marriage of Figaro:
Madness is in everyone and everything. It is the agitation that gives free reign to the unpredictableand to emotions that are constantly interrupted and transformed into their opposites… People run from surprise to surprise, from desires to disappointments to new desires.
The castle is a microcosm of a society on the brink of radical change. It is a closed enclave of wealth where privilege is guarded and differences in social status are strictly delineated. The entire plot of Figaro circles around the infringement of the explicit dividing line between an affluent ruling class and a disenfranchised servant class.
My design team Ralph Myers (set) and Alice Babidge (costumes) and I wanted to find a contemporary milieu where the class tensions of Figaro could be clear, exact and palpable. We have imagined Aguas Frescas as a gated estate – a heavily guarded, electronically surveyed closed community. Here, the lives of a wealthy elite overlap with those of the room-maids, waiters, guards and workers who service the estate. This special proximity lends the class tensions and exchanges of roles (for example when the Countess and Susanna, mistress and servant swap clothes) a raw intimacy. It is a hermetic society where the lives of people at opposite ends of the social spectrum become profoundly intermingled.
During the rehearsals for Figaro, while working with Simon and the singers in the blank, white boxes that Ralph designed, we’ve found that the various rooms also serve as a kind of laboratory of desire. The opera proposes and investigates various erotic possibilities and forms of love. Mozart’s music gives shape to the effects of a wild, free-floating eros – chemical, bodily, unstable. You hear and feel the seizures, the palpitations, the flushes, the churning anguish of longing, the ecstacies. It tears the characters apart. Starobinksi again, “Everyone’s love is burning in it’s own way and every type of love has its own music assigned to it.”
Over the course of the opera’s ‘crazy day’, this unanchored desire will transform the community of the gated estate, destabilise its norms, and threaten to tear it apart. Finally in the strange dream of the fourth act, after all the disguises are removed and the masks torn away, the community stands – for a fleeting moment – as equals. The count falls to his knees and in front of everyone begs forgiveness. The man who has the power of granting mercy must now plead for the mercy he has refused others. The power to pardon now lies with the countess and the community who take up her motif. It is a moment of sudden standstill that psychoanalyst Mladen Dolar calls “a sublime instant evoking eternity.”
In Opera’s Second Death, he writes,
‘Tutti contenti saremo cosi’ (Everyone will be happy now) – that is the emphatically condensed utopian moment of the bourgeois community, the moment of reconciliation and equality, the moment of liberté, egalité, fraternité. The revolution has already taken place, the master has already fallen to his knees to eventually become part of the community when the countess disguised as the servant grants him pardon. Three years later, the French Revolution merely has to dispose of the master’s empty shells. The master had already died onstage for everyone to see, and died all the more for not being killed but pardoned. And the Bastille had already fallen. No wonder Napoleon said, ‘Le marriage de Figaro, c’est déjà la révolution en action’.
The finale of Act IV contains a briefly glimpsed moment of another possibility of community – a fissure in the order of things, an instant that promises a future that is still yet to arrive. I like to think of this moment in the opera as a seed pod exploding and sending its spores into the breezes – into the wide unknown that Cherubino sings of. After the seizures of eros, agape arrives in the form of radical forgiveness.
Discussing how in the darkness and confusion of the final act, Figaro recognises Susanna by her voice – “Io conobbi la voce che adoro” – I recognised the voice I love – Starobinski writes,
The last lesson shared among several voices is surely this one where all the action is in service of the ear: Listen! Listen to the one you doubted and whom you have found again. Listen to the one who loves you and has never stopped loving you. Listen to the one who forgot you and who is asking for your forgiveness now that he recognises you.